Without even being aware of it, all parents instill boundaries for their children. Things like: don’t touch the hot iron, hold my hand when we cross the road, or you shouldn’t throw toys at people. This is because boundaries are very similar to rules, but there is an important distinction to make.
A rule is a single or set of expectations that are enforced by someone (like a sign saying “No Trespassing”), whereas a boundary is a thing that enforces the rule (like the fence where the “No Trespassing” sign is hung). Confusing? I thought so. Think about it like this: If I drew two circles on the floor and we each stood in one, and I said, “No one can step outside of their circle,” that’s a rule because I’m enforcing an instruction or expectation. On the other hand, “This is my circle, and you can’t step in it!” would be an example of a boundary because I’m creating a barrier or limit around myself.
Why Are Boundaries Important?
A boundary is all about understanding and respecting our needs as well as the needs of others. Most parents create consistent rules and boundaries that set some kind of social expectation. Expectations such as we don’t say mean words to other people, we shouldn’t throw food, etc. However, as our children develop, their needs and social interactions become more complex, and parents need to start helping their children understand their own personal boundaries and how to protect and respect other people’s boundaries. This is because boundaries are about keeping us safe. They can be broken down into two key categories: physical and emotional boundaries.
Physical boundaries can relate to touch or proximal distance (how close we allow someone in our personal space). It can also involve when we accept or allow touch, the type of touch, where we are being touched and by whom, and our sense of privacy.
Emotional boundaries usually center on how we expect to be treated by others. It could be about words or terms others use that affect us. Or it can be respectful attitudes, honesty, or communication style. It includes anything that has some kind of emotional impact on us.
So how can we help our children to develop strong boundaries and respect others’ boundaries? Here are some essential things parents should teach their children about boundaries.
Essential Things Every Child Should Learn About Boundaries
1. Good Touch vs. Bad Touch
Body safety is a key element of physical boundaries. It relates to consent and awareness of “good touch” versus “bad touch.” From a very early age, children are exposed to touch that they don’t consent to. This could be a relative forcing a hug or kiss goodbye, other children in the playground hitting or hurting, or a stranger pinching their cheeks or patting their head. The very extreme end of unwanted touch is abuse (physical or sexual). Children cannot adequately express a boundary because they are so little and often have so few words. We need to teach them how to recognize good touch and bad touch from a very early age and give them the tools to say no.
Essentially, we teach them that bad touch is anything that makes them feel yucky or scared or something they want to stop. In contrast, good touch is a kind of touch that people use to show that they care about one another, like a high five, holding hands, etc. We should also teach our children the anatomically correct terms for their body parts, such as penis and vagina, breasts, testicles, etc., and ensure that we don’t create shame or confusion by giving those parts silly nicknames. Our children should be very clear about where they do or do not allow to be touched. We need to provide them with the appropriate language and the confidence to use the correct words.
However, good touch still requires consent. A relationship or even good intent from the other person (think about a well-meaning relative who wants a hug goodbye from your child who feels uncomfortable) should not override our children’s sense of safety and comfort.
From an early age, it’s good to pick up on your child’s cues and notice when they feel uncomfortable (shying away, hiding, avoiding, blatantly saying no, or physically trying to distance themselves). It’s also important to address their cues. For example, “I can see you feel uncomfortable, is that right?” And then supporting them to put a boundary in place by saying something like, “Aunty Muriel, I can see that you really want a hug, but James feels uncomfortable right now. Is there another way we can say goodbye? Like waving or a high five?” You can then check in with your child about how comfortable they feel about another way of expressing and saying “goodbye” without having to hug their Aunty Muriel.
We teach our kids consent by respecting their wishes. We should also help them to understand other people’s boundaries. One way is learning to ask permission to have contact with someone. For instance, “Sarah, before you hug Bella, why don’t you check if she is okay with that?” You can also give them choices that allow them to practice choosing and expressing their boundaries: “You did such a great job on your spelling test. Would you like a hug, a high five, or a thumbs up?”
We also teach children that no means no when they say it. Or if someone says “no” to them, it needs to be respected.
3. Empathize/Respect Others Boundaries
We need our children to be empathic if we want them to respect other people’s boundaries. Empathy refers to being able to place yourself in someone else’s shoes and see their perspective. If they cannot see things from another’s perspective, it will make it really hard for them to respect their boundaries.
We can encourage empathy by teaching them to consider other people’s emotions by reflecting on their own experiences. An example is, “Eva, can you tell me a little about how you feel when someone calls you names? [Wait for a response and use it to reflect back.] That’s right, you feel sad. I wonder how Miles might feel when you called him that name?” You can also read books or watch TV shows and just ask curious questions about the main character’s feelings as you go along. This helps get them thinking and considering that other people have perspectives and feelings about things too.
You can also encourage empathy by getting them to play dress-ups, particularly characters in caring professions. Don’t force it by any means, but have a toy chest with doctors, nurses, police, teachers, vet uniforms, or equipment. It can encourage your child to take on a caring character. Make-believe is a great way for them to practice empathy because they “become” another character and explore a different viewpoint.
You can also model and express your emotions so that they can better match experiences and view your non-verbal cues (facial expressions, body posture) to help them learn to identify emotions in others better. Throughout the day, just make little off-the-cuff comments like, “Gee, I got so mad when I spilled my coffee,” or “I was really worried about a presentation I had to do at work today.”
4. Seek Help From Safe Adults
Additionally, we need to ensure our children know how to seek help if their boundaries aren’t being respected. Or if they see someone else is uncomfortable and might need their help. Get your child to identify safe adults they could share information with. And give them scripts so they don’t have to think on the spot. For example, “I said no, you cannot hit/touch me, and no means no.” Or, “I feel unsafe. You need to stop speaking to me that way.”
You can also model your own boundaries and help them understand how to respect your boundaries—for instance, teaching them not to interrupt you and another adult talking—or teaching them not to walk in unannounced while you’re on the toilet. These are good teachable moments where you can share your feelings in a non-judgemental way and help identify a preferred outcome. “Instead of interrupting, why don’t you come and hold my hand so I know you want to join in the conversation? I’ll pause to let you join shortly after.”
And finally, keep having the conversation. As your child grows, they become more socially and emotionally complex. Their needs and understanding of things change. We must keep coming back to consent, body safety, respecting other boundaries, and building empathy to help keep them safe at all ages.