why setting boundaries IS the key to positive parenting relationships with our children
This week as I have been listening to different parents discussing behaviours and parenting approaches with their children I have been reflecting a lot on the importance of the consistent and fair approach to delivering boundaries in our homes.
Before I even had children of my own I was listening to psychologist, Dr. Pamela Stephenson, being interviewed and they asked her what advice she would have for any parents listening and her reply has stayed with me throughout time –'Be your child’s parent first and foremost and not their friend'. Most recently I read Janet Lansbury’s reflection on boundaries and her comment that setting boundaries tells our children that “we can see them and that we love them” really resonated with me and this is why...
When our children arrive in this chaotic and confusing world all they have to make them feel safe and secure is us- their parents. We instantly become the people who hold the key to love, discovery and understanding. They attune to us emotionally, they respond to our physical closeness and contact and we instantly become their first and most enduring teacher throughout life – and with that comes a huge amount of responsibility.
As our children grow and have more contact with the world around them they use us as their reference point to find out if a behaviour, idea or concept is correct and they follow our responses with avid attention to form their own responses and behaviours. When we find them challenging us it is often an impulsive behaviour they are building a concept around or an emotional response as their rational brain has yet to develop. They have no control over the behaviour or response displayed and are relying on us as their co-regulators to help them to resolve their emotions and find a positive way forward.
As parents when we approach boundaries we need to be clear about the reasons we make them - firstly to make sure they are reasonable and not bending rules to suit our own preferences and secondly to ensure that we know the reasons why the boundaries are in place so as our children get older we are able to help them see why the boundary is set. The ultimate desirable outcome for our children is that they understand the difference between right or wrong and are able to make safe judgements for themselves about the choices they make. Boundaries are there to keep ourselves, others and our environment safe and our relationship between them trustworthy and respectful. If we follow these guidelines for ourselves when we make our house rules then we can deliver them authentically and without reproach. They also have to be boundaries that we can live by because we have to be the ones to set the example and believe me they learn through our actions and not our words and take great joy in pointing out any of our indiscretions!
Finding our inner calm
The joy of parenting is that where we can often turn a blind eye to other peoples children's disregard for our boundaries, or even find it cute or funny, when it is our own we immediately feel the emotional connection and this can make it very difficult for us to find our calm place before we respond. But the truth of it is that it's our inner calm that makes boundaries effective. Our children have to allowed to make mistakes because that is how they learn, and if we meet them with love and compassion then they can connect with us and feel safe to try again. We, as adults, are able to rationalise and respond in an appropriate way that makes all the difference to a child's ability to cope with the situation and be guided by us to try it differently. Rather than feeling we are heading into a battle field we need to take three deep breaths, remind ourselves it is not personal, that we are on the same side as our child, that it is healthy for them to express themselves and that they are testing us because we are the person they feel the safest with - it's a huge compliment if we look at it from this side!
Delivering boundaries consistently
As parents this can sometimes feel difficult particularly as our children can seem like very skilled negotiators at times, or may respond to our boundaries with extreme emotion that can feel challenging to navigate when we ourselves may feel tired, stressed or under the weather. We need to remind ourselves that our boundaries are in place for a reason and that they are immoveable- the bare essentials that we cannot negotiate around. We also need to remind ourselves that these boundaries show our children that we love them and care for them. Boundaries are so important to build a strong connection with our children because they create a structure of understanding from which our children can navigate and interact with the rest of the world. Imagine trying to do this if the rules change all the time - how can you make sense of anything? Imagine how frightening that is for a child who already knows so little about how the world works and is trying to find their way? When our boundaries move and some days its a firm 'No' and other days it's a 'Maybe' and other days a definite 'Yes' children can't manage our expectations or understand our reasons, for them it is very black and white, and when we move these boundaries they feel unsafe and out of control and this is where we see behaviours escalating or boundaries being tested and pushed - they want to hear us state our boundaires so they can feel safe and secure again.
The words we use make a difference
When we are delivering boundaries or reinstating them we have to remember to offer them in a calm but firm manner so that our meaning is felt but in a non-judgemental or responsive way. They are neutral and fair because they are there to keep the child safe. We have to be careful to address the action and not label the child - telling them they are naughty or wrong can be very damaging to their self-esteem and more often than not the behaviour has been an impulse or an attempt to understand something. Try and pre-empt situations by offering the boundaries in an activity before you start it, then gently remind them as it happens "Remember I can't let you climb on the table. It's not safe and you could hurt yourself." Use eye contact, at their level and use the first person to directly connect with them. Always offer a reason for your boundary that makes sense and focuses on safety and wellbeing. Label their emotion so they know you can see them - "I can see you are angry and want to throw the bricks. I can't let you do that, it's not safe and could hurt someone." offer a safe alternative wherever possible "you could throw the soft balls in the tub instead". Offer positive specific praise that focuses on desirable behaviours and characteristics when they don't expect it to reaffirm safe and positive choices - "You really listened well when I asked you to stop. Now we can cross the road safely together"- focus on the skills rather than the end result - "you must be proud of yourself, you really tried hard to put your shoes on. Well done for asking for help. We can practise again tomorrow." When you use these techniques you are building a positive internal monologue and language to express themselves with, and are building strong neural pathways for developing their own understanding of making choices to keep themselves and others safe.
Weathering the storm
As our child lies down on the floor to kick and scream, or bursts into tears and runs upstairs to sob into their pillows, as they lash out or sink their teeth in it can be extremely hard to hold onto our resolve and not make allowances around an unpopular decision that has been made- but we have to find that strength in ourselves and know that once the storm has passed a rainbow of realisation will appear. If we consistently deliver the same response then our child learns over time that this is how it works and so there is little point in displaying unwanted behaviours because it will not change the outcome, it becomes part of how life works and they accept this in good trust of the loving grown up in their lives.
If our response changes depending on our child's reaction then this is what they learn and each time you deliver the boundary they will kick or scream a little harder in the knowledge that eventually it will change your response. To put it in Laymen's terms, if you walk into a room and stamp your foot and the light comes on the next time you walk into that room the first thing you will do is stamp your foot, if it doesn't work you may stamp a little harder until it does and if it doesn't you may comply and press the switch, but each time you enter the room you are always going to try stamping your foot first to get the result you want.
The balance to avoid power struggles
Have you ever heard the saying 'pick your battles' - this is something that holds so much truth in the delivery of boundaries. Boundaries should only be held around the really important areas in life, the core values for your family and to keep everyone safe - there are plenty of smaller boundaries where you can give children the room to make their own choices and practise their negotiation skills - problem solving and the opportunity to learn from mistakes are important life lessons too. The point of boundaries are to keep your child safe and to create core values but we have to find the balance so our children also have the opportunity to feel empowered, to test out their understanding of the world and to make their own choices as capable human beings. It's also important that they see us as adults who make mistakes too, who can say sorry when we are wrong and who need help sometimes - this teaches them empathy and co-operation based on mutual respect and trust. Using 'playful parenting' strategies are a really fun way to instil this - things like putting our shoes on the wrong feet, getting words wrong in a favourite story book, tidying objects up in the wrong places, trying to brush their teeth with a hairbrush - they offer our children the chance to correct and guide us in a positive interaction full of humour and love.
To teach, not to punish...
And finally, consequences for breaking rules are important but we have to remember the motive behind them - to discipline means to teach and not to punish. To have authentic relationships with our children where they trust and respect us and feel safe to express themselves and learn from us has to come from a place of unconditional love, understanding and empathy. When we use strategies like the naughty step and reward charts or taking away a toy or activity they love, or methods that have no end result such as counting to three we are placing conditions on our children, laying blame at their feet for their mistakes, and teaching them that they are only worthy of love when they behave in a desirable way, that they must obey. To help our child understand boundaries and positive choices we have to offer direct consequences that relate to the behaviour and they have to be realistic consequences that you are willing to carry through, for example "if we continue to throw the bricks then they have to go away as it's not safe", "if we don't put our shoes and coat on now then we can't play outside", "if we don't go up to bed now we will only have time for one story, not two". If we use punishment methods or offer consequences we don't really want to carry through then our children don't feel safe and secure with us and it compromises our relationship and connection with them.
Be kind to yourself and learn to say sorry
We are all human beings, our first response to any situation will always be emotional before our rational brain kicks in, and we will all make mistakes along the way. The important thing is to be kind to ourselves, to know we are always trying to be and do the best thing we can for our children, and to learn from our mistakes and celebrate our triumphs. Saying sorry to our child when we haven't done the best job we could have is a huge learning curve for our children too - it teaches them empathy, compassion and how to say sorry authentically. They learn from our actions, and the beautiful thing about children - their love is unconditional, they live in the moment and in their eyes we are truly wonderfully perfect.