Do you want to raise emotionally and socially healthy kids? Make sure you take the time to teach kids about boundaries.
In order to have a real, loving relationship with another person you need to have healthy personal boundaries. Boundaries are learned and, as a parent, you are the one to teach your kids how to have healthy boundaries.
So, how do you do this?
What are boundaries?
First, what exactly are boundaries?
We all have (or lack) boundaries in these areas: physical, mental, material, emotional, sexual, spiritual.
An easy way to think of a personal boundary is as a healthy, imaginary line (or fence) separating you from others (and what you allow others to do with and to you).
Personal boundaries include our own personal space and level of comfort level. We need to make sure that our kids learn how to make healthy boundaries for themselves that are not too rigid or too weak.
We want them to be confident in setting their own limits and having their own opinions and be able to stand up for themselves, yet be appropriately open and welcome to other people. When you become a parent, setting boundaries is normal – especially during the toddler years!
- We don’t hit.
- Don’t take toys from others.
- Please wait for your turn.
Children must learn to set boundaries to protect themselves and also to respect the personal space of others. They need to be comfortable expressing their own feelings while acknowledging the feelings of others.
This takes practice!
Empathy plays a key role.
(This post contains some affiliate links for your convenience which means if you make a purchase after clicking a link I will earn a small commission at NO extra cost to you! Click here to read my full disclosure policy.)
How to teach kids about boundaries
Empathy and boundaries
You can’t really explain empathy to toddlers, but you can begin to help them become aware of how others feel and use this information as a guide to proper behavior.
As your kids grow older, talk about empathy and observe others and note their feelings.
Three easy ways to help teach empathy are by:
- Talking through real-life examples
- Using your kids’ own feelings
First, as with all things in parenting, you need to model how you want your kids to behave. Use everyday examples and talk with your kids about your own feelings and why you are acting in a certain way:
- I’m feeling frustrated today and I am taking some deep breaths to calm down.
- I’m sorry I was grumpy and yelled at you. I think that made you feel sad.
- Let’s bring a meal to help Mrs. Jones out because she just had a baby and it’s hard taking care of a newborn.
- I’m sending Mrs. Smith flowers today because she is feeling sad.
Talk through real-life examples
- When you took that toy, Sarah cried. How do you think she felt?
- You tried to hug Sam, but he pushed you away. Do you think he wanted a hug? We should ask first next time.
Use your kids’ own feelings
- You pushed Jimmy and he fell and cried. How would you feel if he pushed you?
- Your sister knocked down your tower and it made you mad.
Related: How to teach kids empathy
Children need to know that rules are there to keep them safe. Personal boundaries are rules that help keep themselves and others safe.
When I ask you not to jump on me, it’s because it hurts my body. You can also tell me not to do something that hurts you.
I’ve often told my four-year-old, “When you do ____, I feel sad.” And she will now tell me things like, “Mom, when you yelled at me, it made me feel sad.”
Explain to kids that they are in charge of their own bodies – and other people are in charge of theirs. We need to ask for permission and respect their boundaries.
It is not ok for someone to touch you and not ok for you to touch someone without their permission.
A great book for personal boundaries and teaching body safety is:
No Trespassing – This is MY Body! by Pattie Fitzgerald.
I have read it with my 4-year-old and it’s great for discussion and not explicit in any way.
Practice boundary setting
Understanding empathy and rules are helpful, but kids also need practical help to learn how to set boundaries.
Help your child learn to stand up for himself by practicing:
- How to set boundaries
- What to do when someone isn’t respecting his boundaries
You can help your child practice in social situations. If you can tell he is uncomfortable, you can tell have him practice verbalizing:
- I don’t want to play with you right now.
- I would like a turn.
- Don’t push me.
I practice often with my 4-year-old – at the park and playdates. I can tell when she’s uncomfortable or doesn’t know what to do and then I will gently step in and help her.
At the park, when someone tries to take over the toy or item she is working with I speak up and say to her: “You can say, ‘I’m using this now, you can have it when I’m done'”.
or “I’d like to have a turn when you’re done.”
Once, an aggressive little girl ran up and hugged my daughter at the park and we were both so shocked and I managed to blurt out “Just say, ‘I don’t want a hug right now!'”
There are lots of opportunities to practice verbalizing boundaries (with yourself, in social situations or with siblings).
Help your child get used to standing up for himself and setting boundaries so that he will be well equipped when he’s older and has to deal with tougher situations.
Books, TV, and other social situations can also be used to discuss boundaries and how other people (or characters) might feel in each situation.
Model setting and respecting boundaries
Be sure to model setting and respecting boundaries for yourself and other adults and children.
Set clear, gentle boundaries yourself. Be firm, but not harsh. Model setting firm, gentle boundaries and your kids will learn how to set them for themselves.
Again, as with everything in parenting, it’s important to be a good model. Kids are silent observers and will do what you do (even if you tell them not to! – Believe me, I know!).
Make sure you model healthy boundary setting for yourself and that you are modeling how to respect other people’s boundaries as well.
Your children will pick up on how you respond to other people and how you handle difficult situations involving boundaries as well.
Do you set and keep healthy, consistent boundaries with others?
When you set boundaries with your kids, do you talk about it and explain why – in a gentle, loving way?
Accept your kids’ own personal boundaries
Just as you wouldn’t force someone else to give you a hug (or doing something against their will), you should also respect your kids’ personal boundaries.
Don’t force them to hug or kiss anyone and respect any boundaries they place.
If your child says, “I don’t want a hug.” – don’t force it.
I tell my 4-year-old that we don’t have to hug people goodbye (or hello) but we do need to practice being polite (looking them in the eye and giving an appropriate greeting).
If something happens, role-play with your child how to set boundaries. If needed, help them come up with words or phrases they can use.
I practice with my 4-year-old often, especially with situations involving her 2-year-old sister. There are lots of repetitions! I feel like I’m always saying things like:
- Please ask to use the toy. Don’t grab it out of her hand.
- If she is bothering you, please ask her to stop.
- Please tell her you would like to take a turn with that toy.
- If you need help, please come and get me.
Related: How to help siblings get along
Related: How to raise confident kids
You can teach kids about boundaries.
First, be a good role model yourself and show them how to set appropriate, healthy boundaries and respect the boundaries of others. Make sure you talk about empathy and feelings, help them understand rules and actually practice teaching them how to set boundaries.
If you need help with how to set your own boundaries as a parent, check out this book:
Boundaries with Kids by Dr Henry Cloud and Dr John Townsend
These things will prepare your children to be strong and stand up for themselves as they grow older and are faced with more difficult situations. Keep conversations going as your kids grow up and be open and honest about the importance of consent and boundaries. What are some things you do to teach your kids about boundaries?