Three steps to implementing effective, calm and loving boundaries - by Genevieve Muir
Why the confusion about boundaries?
Last month I wrote about three reasons many parents struggle to set effective boundaries. When we prioritise our kids’ freedom or happiness – but overlook our kids’ crucial need to feel like their parents are in charge and “at the wheel” – we are letting them down. Too much freedom, and a lack of limits actually makes children feel the opposite of free. When this occurs enough they often express their discomfort through limit-pushing behaviour.
Boundaries are essential for children, and also for parents, who are overwhelmed and exhausted and wondering if it’s meant to be THIS hard. As an educator working with parents around creating a secure attachment with babies and kids, and as a mum of four beautiful boys, I believe that boundaries are one of the highest forms of love there is.
The creators of Circle of Security, Parenting International, agree: “Our children need us to be bigger and stronger so they can feel safe knowing that someone is willing and able to protect them”.
Janet Lansbury is a fabulous voice on the issue of parenting and boundaries. Having come to find boundaries for her own kids later in her parenting she now helps parents to set loving boundaries in groups she runs, and reports difference in their kids is stark: “Formerly clingy and demanding children are suddenly able to stop trying to control every situation with parents or peers. They are able to focus on play, socialize with their peers, participate in snack time, loosen up enough to laugh and express joy. This is freedom.”
Dr Vanessa Lapointe models how to set boundaries brilliantly demonstrating for parents that we need to “get our swagger on” and be the confident leaders they need. “I like to encourage parents to use the “No…I know…” sentence builder. So maybe it is “No, you can’t have a cookie before dinner… I know you are disappointed – I think I would be too if I were you.”
So how do you set a boundary?
Let’s say your child is at a boundary moment. They are swinging from the rafters, throwing a toy, hitting or hurting. This isn’t working for you, it is hurting someone or is unsafe. What to do in three steps?
1. Regulate you
Take a second to regulate. We can’t set an effective limit when we are unregulated and boundary pushing behaviour (e.g.: toddler hitting the baby) is really triggering for us, so before we over-react we need to stop and breathe. Be aware, be conscious and then step in with confidence.
2. Step in, set the limit and hold it
“I can’t let you hit me” (holding your child arms if you need to) or looking them square in the eye with confidence “I need you to get down from the rafters now” and again, if your child isn’t responding you are calmly helping them down.
It’s important to view this step as kind, and recognise we are actually helping our kids at a moment they are demonstrating they need us. Often at this point we may feel really uncomfortable and try to distract our child or make them laugh. It’s important to stay with the boundary setting and out of distractions.
This step is 99% in the body language – you need to believe they are going to listen, get in low and close and even whisper it like you mean it.
Be the calm and confident leader your child needs.
3. Be with your child as the emotions overflow
This is the bit we are trying to avoid by not setting the limit. The meltdown.
Chances are if you set a boundary your child is going to get upset. Your job is not to solve this, fix it or make them feel better. Your job is simply to be there.
This is the “I know” in Dr. Vanessa’s sentence builder above after the “No more cookies”…. You pause and add “I know, you really wanted more”.
This last part is actually the hardest bit by far, it is so hard for us when our kids are sad. It is so tempting to step in and make it all better. Being with them without making it better is a struggle. But it is a vitally important struggle.
It is so important to ride that wave of emotion all the way to the shore, uncomfortable as it might feel. Knowing that providing boundaries is one of the highest forms of love there is.Find out more about Genevieve and her work here.