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Steps to Setting Personal Boundaries for Children

by Amy Phoenix

One of the most important and potentially befuddling responsibilities of being a steward to children is helping kids learn the value of and how to set personal boundaries. Not only do they need to know how to set them, they also need to know how to make sure they are respected and what to do when they're not. Darkness to Light, a campaign to end child sexual abuse, suggests having clear conversations about boundaries so children can learn how to be safe and nurture healthy relationships.

Respect Their Space

Children need to have some sense of their own personal boundaries respected to feel like setting them with others can be beneficial. Author and parent educator Dr. Amy Tiemann shares that we can encourage children to communicate boundaries by asking them before we give a hug or kiss and honoring when they don't want to connect in a certain way. Tiemann suggests that we have conversations about this with other family members and back up children when they would prefer to give Aunt Betsy a high-five instead of a smothering hug and kiss.

Discuss Boundaries

Define boundaries. Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director, shares that the first step in setting boundaries is owning our bodies, thoughts, feelings and personal space. We can't control others, but we can choose to speak up for ourselves. Linda Whitlow, elementary school counselor in Midland, Texas, suggests asking children how they define boundaries and then offering your own definition. Draw body boundaries on paper or have the child spread out his arms and define a space bubble around him. Ask him how he decides boundaries for himself, such as who he decides to hug or play with.

Discuss How to Communicate Boundaries

Some kids may be assertive, while others are sheepish and feel afraid to speak up for themselves. Share how to communicate assertively. He can tell the person how he feels when they do the thing he wants to stop and then ask the person to do something else instead. For example, coach your child in saying something like, "I feel mad when you throw sand at me. Can you please throw it away from people or leave it on the ground?" Ask questions about problem situations in which he might need to set boundaries to help him come up with solutions.

Role Play

Role play with your child and pretend to be a bully, mean friend or someone who wants to lure a child for sexual purposes. Van der Zande suggests coaching your child to be assertive with body language that communicates he is calm, aware and confident. For example, make eye contact, use a voice loud and sure enough to be heard, move away from someone if you want that person to stop and move closer to someone you want something from. Allow plenty of time and practice so your child becomes comfortable with asserting himself.

Teach How to Get Help

Children need to know how to get help and from whom to get it when someone violates their boundaries. Tell your child that problems are not secrets and that if anyone does anything that makes him feel uncomfortable, he should tell you or another adult he trusts. Van der Zande also suggests dealing with defensive reactions by acknowledging the person giving a put down while restating feelings and boundaries. For example, "Can't you take a joke?" can be answered by "Maybe it's funny to you. I feel uncomfortable with that kind of joke. Please stop."

About the Author

Amy Phoenix began writing professionally in 2005. Her work has appeared in various online publications, including Mothering. Phoenix is a certified parent educator, trained meditation facilitator, and enjoys writing about natural health, parenting, spirituality, and organization.

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