Learning the hard way about holding boundaries – 6 things I wish I’d known earlier!

Updated: Jan 13

When I started teaching I remember thinking setting boundaries with children would be relatively easy. (I was only 21!) I figured it was really just about having some rules and following a system and everyone would get with the programme or experience a consequence. Happy days……. and then I hit reality!

I’ve learned a lot since then, especially as we embarked on our fostering journey and then had our own children. In the words of Leonardo Da Vinci – “Wisdom is the daughter of experience”.

There are many reasons why setting boundaries can be difficult. In my last blog I talked about reasons you may be struggling to set boundaries but even when you’ve worked out where to set your boundaries there’s the whole question of how do you hold them without family life becoming a constant battle ground, especially if your child struggles with them.

Whatever impressions you might get of other people’s experience, being a calm and assertive parent who can hold boundaries but maintain a close bond with their child takes work. It doesn’t just happen. It requires strength, dedication and commitment, but it’s such a worthwhile investment.

When I didn’t know how to do this I would swing between trying to be relational and then when I hit problems trying to be super strict. I was unclear on the way through and felt pretty confused a times so how much more confusing must it have been for those around me too? I cringe when I look back on those times but I also know you can’t manufacture experience overnight and the advice from those around me wasn’t always the most helpful as the old school approach of stamping your authority regardless of a child’s feelings is definitely NOT me. I had to find my own way through.

Here are some things I wish I’d known a lot sooner as they’d have given me a load more confidence on the journey and been a much better experience for those around me:

1. Calm and assertive parents and caregivers talk to themselves calmly and assertively.

Notice what you’re telling yourself.

What is helpful and what isn’t? If the story you tell yourself is about how awful you or your child are then the odds are you’re going to have some pretty bumpy interactions. Clues you’ve got an unhelpful script running are thoughts with absolutes such as “They always/never….” “No one…….. appreciates me/supports me/helps me…” “Everyone else…”

You don’t need this drama and it only makes everything much harder. Ditch the negative scripts.

Find honest and helpful messages which assume the best of you and your child. Then use them to help you approach the challenges constructively. “They’re finding this hard.” Or “They don’t like this boundary so they’re going to fight it, but I know it will help them.” is probably going to be far more helpful than “They’re rude/spoiled/ungrateful /disrespecting/manipulating me” or “I’ve got it all wrong.” Getting that self talk right is a crucial first step to boundaries. What do you need to tell yourself?

2. Cooperation beats obedience (and they’re not the same thing)

Do you really want your child to simply submit to authority without question? It might be easier in the short term, but in the long term, negotiation, cooperation and working together towards the same end will give you both a much better relationship and your child important skills for life. The difficulty is this is slower, messier and requires more give and take as you navigate the grey areas.

Ask yourself how can you work together with your child?

Dr Daniel J Siegel and Dr Tina Payne Bryson frequently talk about “connect and redirect”[1]. Connection is the stepping stone to cooperation. Showing your child you understand they’re finding a boundary difficult doesn’t mean weakening your boundary, but it diminishes the “them and us battle” which serves no one.

Simple shifts can make a significant difference. It may be taking time to fully explain the bigger purpose of the boundary – what’s the win/win for you and them? Perhaps it’s asking for (and listening to) their opinion as you work on how to meet that goal. Does your child needs you to take a more playful approach such as making it a game? It may feel like hard work to do this, but proactive hard work is so much better than the hard work of meltdowns and fall outs.

On the days I make getting to school on time a race to beat the bell I and my children have a much more positive journey than the frustrated “I told you to put your shoes on. We’re going to be late!” If you can work together towards a greater purpose then the odds of holding boundaries positively are much greater.

Showing you understand your child’s feelings and you’re open to working together and communicating rather than demanding immediate obedience might not mean they instantly cooperate, but you increase the likelihood of long term benefits as they feel seen, heard and understood in their frustrations. Your future relationship with your child will most likely benefit from this!

3. Strong and firm can also be gentle and quiet – perseverance beats volume and threats!

Are you expecting too much of your child and thinking they’ll get it straight away?

Boundaries may be welcome on a deeper level – they can help people to feel safe – but rarely are they so welcome on a surface level. It may take time for your child to process what the limits are and why they are there.

Holding a boundary doesn’t have to be loud or aggressive to have authority – a quiet loving but unwavering approach can be much kinder and mean you maintain connection and understanding.

Sometimes you have to be a “Broken record” where you just stay focused on the same thing regardless of the reaction (or the fact that you are late and what will other people think etc etc). “I know xxxx, but we still need to xxxxx.” It’s boring and time consuming, but perseverance is often far less toxic than a raging argument.

Many children (and adults) are masters of avoidance and distraction. These are fantastic tactics to steer away from unwelcome boundaries. Creating a different argument or drama in the hope of avoiding that other tricky thing. If this has been a successful tactic then it may take some perseverance for your child to realise you’re staying focused and the boundary is not going to change. It may also mean you have to ignore a lot of secondary behaviour (the reaction to the boundary) in order to hold that boundary.

Sometimes you do need to take a breather because it’s all too heated and emotional and you’re going round in circles – that’s ok – often you can take a time out and revisit once everyone’s calm. Sometimes you're persevering down a dead end and you need to step back and regroup. Consistent doesn't mean rigid to the bitter end. This is why it’s so important to reflect and use your intuition AND knowledge rather than following a formula.

This is also where knowing your child is so important as well as taking time to step back and learn. You’re not going to handle every interaction perfectly –my children and husband will tell you there are days that I definitely don’t handle things well - but when it doesn’t go well you can learn and repair.

Consistency isn’t glamorous, but it is crucial with the boundaries which really matter.

4. It’s ok to help them get started in the right direction

Sometimes they are just stalling, but often getting started is the hardest bit and they are genuinely in need of a hand. It might just all feel a bit big to them. Whether it’s tidying your room, coming off a screen or handling conflict without losing your temper – these are all areas where your child might just need a stepping stone to get going in the right direction.

Helping them for the first 5 mins of a room tidy or homework or showing an interest in what they’re doing before requesting they come of a screen or teaching them a phrase or tool they CAN use which will help in a conflict might just kick-start cooperation.

Again it takes a little time, but it’s usually time much better spent than in a full on fall out.

5. Natural consequences are often enough

It’s very easy in the midst of an intense and frustrating moment to want to resort to banning everything or offering the moon on a stick to just get something done, but this often just means short term cooperation and you’re back in the same place sooner or later. Threats and bribes are how many of us were raised, but it’s often not very helpful.

Similar but different is the focus on the natural consequence – “the sooner we get this done, the more time we have to play”. It’s slower and can feel a bit “soft” if you’re used to the full on threats and bribes approach, but calm and clear natural consequences are often much better teachers for life than interactions laden with threats or even promises completely unrelated to the real issue. If you can avoid over emphasising and bashing your child with them from the get go then they also are much better at keeping family relationships positive.

It’s also tempting after a difficult moment to feel like you should take a heavy handed approach to send a message that it’s not ok. However, often the natural consequence is enough. Do I need to make my child feel really bad – no! We're increasingly learning about the toxic impact of shame. If it’s been hard for you it’s probably been hard for them too. They may shrug it off on the surface, but the odds are they won’t have enjoyed it either. When things are calm there may be a great opportunity to reflect together and learn!

6. The drama starts and ends in the small things

Recently I stopped at a supermarket on a brief errand with my child who did NOT want to get out of the car. The temptation to enter into a battle of threats or even wrestle him out was high, but it would have created a huge drama and distressed us both. That small moment could have escalated exponentially. Recognising that crucial moment was key.

So instead I reminded him that I understood he didn’t want to do it and we weren’t going home until I’d done the errand. I then told him I’d wait until he was ready.

This meant him (and me) sitting in the car bored until he was ready to get out and complete the errand. His regular experience is that I mean what I say and the sooner we got the errand done the sooner we could go home and play. After a couple of minutes of me waiting quietly he took his seatbelt off and came. End of story.

It didn’t need a long lecture or any telling off – he knew that when I set a boundary I meant it. Whilst he didn’t like having to follow it the boundary wasn’t going away. It took him a few minutes to get there (and I’ve waited much longer with some children in the past), but it was worth the inconvenient quiet wait for it to be done in a positive way. At the end we had a small moment of reflecting that it was actually a quick errand and not as bad as he thought - I'm sure that small reflection was far more valuable than a long lecture or severe punishment.

Sometimes we look for big steps and actions, but it's often the small ones which make the greatest difference.

20 years ago I handled boundaries differently. I wish I'd know more then, but in the words of the great Maya Angelou: “Do your best until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Holding boundaries takes stamina and determination. To do it kindly and calmly also takes a huge amount of patience, not least because our children rarely choose the most convenient times to challenge boundaries. When we’re up against other pressures it raises the emotional intensity levels of any interaction. It’s an up and down process of learning and no one gets it “right” all the time.

As a society we are building very different relationships with our children from our parents and grandparents generation. It’s not about a right or wrong approach– it’s a different era with different understanding of children’s development and also different challenges. It does mean sometimes our loved ones may misunderstand our actions which can be tough.

Working out how to hold boundaries wisely and kindly is often one of aspect of family life parents find most difficult – it’s often a daily dilemma, but it’s well worth the effort, time and patience as it’s an investment in a relationship which will last a lifetime.

If you’re struggling with boundaries in family life then you can book a free initial chat to find out how I can help support you at:

For further reading I’d recommend:

No Drama Discipline – The Whole Brain Way To Calm The Chaos And Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. By Dr Daniel J. Siegel and Dr Tina Payne Bryson

The Whole Brain Child – 12 Proven Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind

How To Talk So Kids Will Listen And Listen So Kids Will Talk – By Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read And Your Children Will Be Glad You Did – Philippa Perry

The Explosive Child – A New Approach For Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children by Ross Greene

[1] They mention this in many of their works. If you’re unsure where to start then “The Whole Brain Child – 12 Proven Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind” is a great start.

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