I often hear parents talk about setting limits for their kids. Sometimes they’re actually talking about holding clear boundaries, but often they really do mean setting limits or establishing ground rules.
Holding clear boundaries is a healthy practice in all relationships, including your relationship with your children. Setting limits, on the other hand, may encompass holding your boundaries, but it also includes the arbitrary: the limits or rules that we enforce because we think we are supposed to, because that’s the way kids should behave. And when you’re trying to enforce an arbitrary limit, you’re going to have a hard time coming up with consequences. They’re likely to be more punitive, and you will have a lot more pushback.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers several definitions of the word “limit,” the most relevant to this conversation being:
- Something that bounds, restrains or confines
- The utmost extent (i.e., our own physical limits)
- Something exasperating or intolerable (our mental limits)
Boundaries, on the other hand, are defined as “something that indicates or fixes a limit or extent.” Boundaries are what we put in place to mark and protect our own (or our kids’) physical and mental limits. They are established to preserve our personal rights or the rights of another person. You, as an individual, establish your own boundaries from a place of knowing your own limits.
It helps me to think of boundaries as a way of marking my territory. When I establish a boundary, it’s like putting up a fence or installing a lock on my front door.
There are times when we, as parents, do need to establish clear boundaries and place limits on (and define logical consequences for) our children’s behavior, but these are situations where are staking out our own personal boundaries or there is a legitimate threat to our child’s or another person’s bodily safety. “I can’t let you hit me or your brother,” or “I can’t let you play in the road because you could get hit by a car,” or “I can’t let you play with the hairdryer in the bathtub.” You know, the big things. And what we’re really doing in these situations is establishing a clear boundary.
I’ll leave you with a couple of questions to ask yourself to help you decide if a limit you are considering setting is a necessary boundary, or if it’s somewhat arbitrary and an area where you can relinquish some control.
- Do I need to establish a boundary for self-preservation? (i.e., Does this behavior have the potential to push me past my physical or mental limits?)
- Is there a natural consequence, or do I need to impose a consequence?
- Is the natural consequence serious?
If there is a natural consequence and it’s not serious, your child will gain more by exploring their own limits and experiencing natural consequences than they will if you impose a limit and a consequence on them. And if there is no natural consequence? Really consider if you need to establish a boundary for your self, and if you don’t, consider that this is an area where you could relinquish some control. Relinquishing control can sound scary. We’ve been inundated with messages that the parents should be “in charge” since we were tiny ourselves. But providing your child with opportunities to experience autonomy and make choices for themselves allows them to experience a healthy degree of freedom and power, and when your child feels they have some agency in their own life, they’re less likely to express their frustration through defiance. In other words, life flows more smoothly for everyone.
Is Your Child Overstimulated?
For highly sensitive children, many of the behaviors we associate with pushing boundaries and testing limits are actually signs of an overburdened nervous system. Sometimes it’s easy to tell that overstimulation is the root cause of our children’s behavior, but sometimes the signs are more subtle. That’s why I’ve created this free guide to Overstimulation – how to recognize it and what you can do to help. Sign up for my email list to claim your free copy.