How often do you get that sinking feeling where you know that you can’t let your child do what they want, but you dread the potential conflict which comes with saying no?
Maybe you avoid it and know you’ll have to face that internal (or external) criticism “You shouldn’t let them get away with that” “You’re too soft on them.”
Maybe you charge in to get it over and done with and then have to deal with the waves of guilt or shame which come after when you hope the neighbours didn’t hear too much of the shouting match and you wonder how you ended up so far from the parent you hoped you’d be.
At the heart of many of the areas where parents face battles is the underlying issue of boundaries - screen times, bed times, mealtimes, school, chores, what are acceptable ways to speak and behave at home – they all require boundaries in some form or another.
Setting boundaries is a struggle for many parents. Pre kids I had a long list of things my children would and wouldn’t do. Turns out it’s much simpler when you’re doing it all hypothetically.
Reality is much harder, more complex, emotional, confusing and exhausting.
Sometimes you end up feeling completely lost.
In your heart of hearts you know you need to “do something different” but you just don’t know what that something is and it leaves you feeling stuck, isolated and resentful. Add in the “I wouldn’t let them get away with that” comments or the sense of judgement from those around and before you know it family life is tinged with a constant sense of failure and dread of potential battles.
What those around you miss with the “you just need to….” Or the “why don’t you just…?” is that if you’re not taking action there’s probably a really good reason. Sometimes the first step isn’t about the boundary, but about understanding and addressing the obstacles which are stopping you setting those boundaries in the first place.
Here’s 5 reasons why you might be struggling to set boundaries and what you can do about it.
Reason 1: You’re exhausted
Setting boundaries and maintaining them takes a lot of energy and hard work. If you’re already running on empty and juggling lots of different needs and responsibilities then you probably lack the resources you need. Lockdown is a classic example of this – most people were operating in survival mode. When you’re in survival mode just keeping yourself afloat takes a lot of energy which means you have to let a lot go - for many families this meant certain boundaries slipped significantly.
If exhaustion is preventing you from progressing then the first step to setting boundaries may be topping yourself up. I’ll never forget a coaching session when one mum set herself an action to go and do some hoovering before tackling a particular issue with her child. She knew what she needed to do with her child, but she needed to get herself in the right headspace to do it. For her having the house in order meant she felt clearer and more ready to do what she needed to. None of the people saying “you need to” or “why don’t you just” suggested hoovering. I’d never suggest hoovering myself. The point is that this client needed to find what worked for her. When she had the space to work out what to do the next the process of change began.
What to do if this is you:
Have you got too much on your plate? If so, what can you drop? (If you find it hard to drop things try reframing it with what or who is taking priority over your family and that may help) Who could help you, even if it’s just temporarily whilst you establish new boundaries? What will help you get into the right headspace to be able to set boundaries? Get yourself resourced and ready so you have enough fuel in the tank to do what is needed to help your child.
Reason 2: You’re confusing rules and boundaries
Many parents hear boundaries and automatically think rules. Rules which feel rigid, suffocating and inhibiting their child’s freedom. Whilst they are similar and there are times when rules can be very important, confusing them with boundaries can sometimes trip people up.
Definition of boundary: something that indicates or fixes a limit or extent
Definition of Rules: a prescribed guide for conduct or action
If a metaphor helps perhaps how dog owners use a lead and fence will work for you. Please note this is a metaphor, not comparing having a child to having a dog! There are times when keeping your dog on a lead keeps them and others safe – leads (like rules) in the right place are great.
If you kept your dog on a lead at all times though this would be cruel. Neither would you let them roam free without some kind of protective measures. They may have the freedom of parts of your house or your garden, but you’d make sure they were safe and the perimeter (boundary) was secure.
Boundaries with your child are the equivalent – setting the perimeter of the safe space. They vary according to many factors – the age and stage of your child, your family values and many other variables, but they set a space for your child to have freedom, but with limitations which keep them safe, allow them to be a child and and mean they don’t have to carry the burden of adult responsibility.
I often joke that we only have 2 rules in our house – don’t eat my chocolate and don’t wee out of the windows – the second rule was added at a later date in response to a specific incident! These are rigid and non negotiable. Almost everything else is negotiable. Of course that doesn’t mean that in our home everyone can do whatever they like – we have lots of boundaries, but this is a moveable feast.
In the same way I’ve shifted the boundaries of the physical environment – we’ve no longer got stair gates and cupboard locks etc, so we’ve shifted around behaviour. Whilst screaming is ok as a baby – there are less occasions when it’s an acceptable response as a 6 and 8 year old. There are other ways to communicate which we work on teaching our children as we hold those boundaries.
Well set boundaries are a great gift to your child – the balance of freedom and security.
What to do if this is you:
Start exploring how you feel about the word “boundaries”. What misconceptions do you hold? Be honest about how you perceive them and what they mean to you? Focus on what your goals are for your child and then consider how boundaries can actually help with this.
Reason 3: You’re dreading your child’s reaction when you do set boundaries.
Firstly I feel your pain. Having lived with some very traumatised and therefore volatile children through our fostering career I know that dread. When you know you have to set that boundary, but you will then have to ride out the storm it most likely trigger - it IS immensely difficult.
Not setting boundaries also makes family life tough and it also leaves your child adrift, carrying the weight of responsibility for how things go. If there are no limits it’s like being left in the middle of the ocean searching for a rock or land or a lifeboat or anything vaguely solid. Boundaries offer security, safety and freedom.
One of the most useful supervision sessions I had when we were fostering was in the midst of a turbulent time with one young person. When we set a boundary he would push and push until I felt like I’d have to become such a pedant over ridiculous details in order to maintain it.
The insight from supervision was actually this wasn’t that we’d got the boundary wrong or that this was someone trying to upset us, challenge our authority or trying to dominate us – this was a young person feeling frightened and checking (and double and triple checking) if his world was safe. When he tested those boundaries and found they were holding this reassured him (even though his behaviour took a while to show this). Once I knew I wasn’t just being petty and I WAS helping this child to feel safe it was a different ball game. Still difficult, but purposeful. For me understanding the WHY was so important – doing something hard for a positive reason makes a huge difference.
For some parents there is the terrifying concern that the extent of their reaction is going to cause them harm. If you feel there is a genuine risk, especially if your child has additional issues then this is where engaging the help of a professional can be so beneficial.
What to do if this is you:
What’s the reason you dread your child’s reaction? How do you feel when they react? What do you need to tell yourself? What do you need to know which might help you? Consider whether getting some support or finding someone to talk to about this.
Reason 4: It’s triggering your own issues
We all carry baggage from our life experiences and childhood. Raising your own children can often bring some of those issues to the surface. If you never felt heard as a child then setting boundaries may feel like you’re crushing your child’s voice. If you feel compelled to please others then displeasing your child when you set a boundary may be particularly tough. The temptation is to pendulum swing in the opposite direction to your own issues and go so far you miss giving your child what they need in a different way.
It is emotive, hard work and time consuming to take an honest look at your own experiences. It’s something that Philippa Perry writes about a lot in “The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read And Your Children Will Be Glad You Did.” Whilst this isn’t a light and fluffy read it’s very worthwhile if you are serious about making sure you don’t just pendulum swing in the opposite direction.
What to do if this is you:
Start by noticing – what is particularly emotive for you as a parent. What deeper issues might be playing a part in this area of boundaries? Who could help you with this?
Reason 5: You’ve lost your bearings and have no idea where to start.
You’re not even sure where you want to set your boundaries, let alone how to actually do it this whole boundary thing AND get your child to accept it.
Whilst classes on how to push your baby out and feed them are plentiful most parents find themselves leaning into their own childhood experiences when it comes to raising a child. The difficulty comes when those approaches don’t fit your values or work for your child. Whilst there may have been many positives if it’s not quite aligned with how you want to do things then you may be really feeling that misfit as you try to set boundaries.
But how do you know what to do instead? What’s a reasonable boundary? Even if you look around and see what your peers are doing it doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for your child. What if you set a boundary and your child won’t listen or do what you ask? What if you don’t want to resort to shouting and threats, but your toolkit is empty and those around you tell you this is what you should do?
What to do if this is you:
If this is what’s going on for you then there is one really simple, but crucial step to moving forward – acknowledge this is the case. Firstly to yourself and then find someone who you can talk this through with. Working out what you want and then how to make it happen is the crux of coaching and something I do with clients regularly. What I also know I is if your heart isn’t in the boundary it’s much harder to maintain it so working out what boundaries you want and starting one step at a time on the area most relevant to your child can be key steps.
There are also some brilliant resources out there to help parents work out how to set boundaries in loving supportive ways – many schools and community groups offer courses for parents and teach approaches on this.
2 books I often recommend are “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen And Listen So Kids Will Talk” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish and “No Drama Discipline” by Dr Daniel J Siegel and Dr Tina Payne Bryson. I’ve also got a how to blog coming up soon with 10 steps to help you set and hold boundaries - you can sign up to the mailing list at: http://eepurl.com/gAo-o1 to have it straight to your inbox.
Let’s be honest – setting boundaries can feel complicated because it isn’t as neat and tidy as many people make out, especially if you’re taking a child centred approach. What’s the right boundary for your child isn’t the same as someone else’s and how you want to establish those boundaries may be very different from your own childhood experiences!
Boundaries often require thought, understanding and commitment time and time again rather than a one off quick fix. However the benefits to you and your child of great boundary setting are huge – if you want your child to grow up feeling safe, secure, to able to take responsibility and be able to thrive then boundaries are a crucial part of this.
So here’s a reminder. You’re not alone. It is hard, but getting clear on what’s stopping you may be a crucial first step to making family life flow and setting those boundaries which will make family life a happier experience for you all.
If this is an area you need a helping hand book a chat to find out what help is available at: https://calendly.com/optimumcoaching/appointment-with-julie-cresswell-clone .