You've probably heard that a child needs boundaries. At one time I did not believe this statement. But what I learned from my observations of children has been confirmed by research findings in the field of neuroscience.
When children are faced with the need to curb their impulse to do something they want (eg, grab the toy from the baby) so that they get something they want more (a happy, warm relationship with you), they learn to self control. So our boundaries actually teach children to set their own boundaries, or to put it another way, they learn self-discipline.
“But I hate setting boundaries. That's the worst part of being a parent!”
Some parents, what I would call liberal, tell me that they hate setting boundaries, especially in the toddler years when children react with more frustration.
They hate the idea of making the child more sad, they don't want to cause a tantrum, and they definitely don't want the child to be angry with them. But over time, they often notice that their child has not developed the ability to tolerate frustration or deal with their feelings. We often call these children "spoiled".
“I count to three and they jump. No drooling!”
Other parents boast that they have no problem setting boundaries and are proud of how quickly their children obey when given instructions. Their children often do well until they enter high school, when it becomes apparent that they have not developed the ability to make good judgments or think for themselves.
Children raised in authoritarian ways are more likely to associate with other children raised in the same way, to become bullies or victims, have difficulty managing their anger, and as adults are more prone to depression.
There is also a middle ground that works well. Research shows that children thrive best when boundaries are set when necessary, but with empathy.
Empathy makes the set boundaries easier for the child to swallow, so the child does not resist them as much and accepts them. Children need appropriate boundaries, but it matters how you set them.
"Isn't setting boundaries about having the courage to say NO and stick to it?"
Yes, but setting boundaries with empathy means that you:
• You start by establishing a strong and supportive relationship with your child so that he knows you are on his side.
• You look through his eyes and offer genuine empathy that he feels.
• You resist the urge to punish in any way. Setting boundaries teaches a child a lesson. Anything more has the opposite effect.
• Look at his life through his eyes and set only those boundaries that are really necessary so that his life is more filled with intimacy and discovery than with limits and frustration. Saying NO too often undermines your relationships.
"But how do I judge which boundaries are really necessary?"
If you think a little, you will find that you already know the answer. Safety, for him and others around him, is not something that is compromised. All the other rules will change over time - he'll have to learn to clean up his own mess, for example, and not interrupt people mid-sentence - but if you look at things through his eyes, and remember what's appropriate for his age, you will know what the child can handle.
You'll also know what he needs, such as a good night's sleep, and you'll be ready to enforce those things. So be careful not to set unnecessary boundaries, but feel free to set those that are necessary.
“I've always followed an attachment parenting philosophy and consciously try to create an egalitarian home as opposed to the authoritarian one I grew up in. I want my children to think for themselves. I limit them as infrequently as possible.'
If your kids are fine, that sounds great. But you should know that attachment parenting means meeting children's needs for closeness, and that doesn't preclude setting boundaries. In fact, I can't think of a single attachment parenting expert who doesn't encourage setting boundaries.
It's certainly desirable to let children have a say in their lives more and more as they mature, but we shouldn't let a toddler decide everything, and I don't think most 14-year-olds are ready either. such responsibility.
The bottom line here is that as a parent, you shouldn't feel uncomfortable setting boundaries when necessary. Research reveals that children raised too liberally become "difficult"—unable to deal with their feelings, inattentive to others, and unable to form mutually satisfying relationships with others.
I have noticed that most liberal parents are afraid of losing their child's love. While rejecting the authoritarian role is a good thing, it is not good to reject the role of parent. All parents have a vital responsibility to teach and guide their children. And that includes setting boundaries.
“Okay, we understand that boundaries are important. So why not just count to 3 and then slap the kid? Why should we set boundaries with empathy?”
Because research shows that when we try to control children, especially through punishment, they react with anger and resistance like all humans. Unfortunately, boundaries are perceived as punishment by the child unless you offer them with empathy. In other words, you understand why they want something and that they're not bad kids for wanting it, even if you don't grant their desire.
So boundaries are an inevitable part of a child's life, and if he perceives you as being unfair, or that you simply don't understand his point of view, he will rebel. If the situation is too frustrating for him, he will not be able to overcome his feelings in a constructive way.
"So setting limits means stopping a child from doing something, but not punishing them for it. But if we stop it, where is the difference with the consequences? Like, if you don't listen to mom and stop throwing sand, we're going to have to leave the park?''
Yes, setting boundaries means that sometimes you will stop the child from doing something. In fact, you may even have to leave the park. But if you do it in the form of punishment, the child will only stumble on the unfair treatment and his anger towards you, and the lesson will fail. But if you say instead
"It was hard for you to stop throwing sand at others. But it hurts people, so we have to leave. Soon you will be able to restrain yourself, so we can stay in the park and play. Maybe we can try again tomorrow."
That way, even though your child is still upset that you had to leave, they still see that you're on their side and understand that staying at the park next time is up to them.
Loving guidance and empathic boundaries help the child just WANT to follow your guidance so that these good habits become a part of their personality whether you are there or not. Here is the difference between setting boundaries and showing consequences.
"But when I set boundaries, she throws a tantrum!"
She has a right to feel those feelings. It's normal to get angry and frustrated when we set a boundary. Our task is to accept these feelings and love the child regardless of them. The more often we do this, the easier the child's feelings will be to swallow and the less likely he will have a tantrum.
If we fail to empathize with a child's anger and sadness—in other words, fail to respond to his response to set boundaries with empathy—he learns that a part of him is unacceptable and something to be ashamed of, and worse, that he is completely alone.
As with any other unvalidated emotion, anger and sadness don't just disappear, but sink deep into the soul where they are magnified and set the stage for depression.
"So we set the boundaries and respond with empathy when they don't like it?"
Exactly. If the parent can provide an emotional "containment environment" while at the same time reinforcing the boundaries, the child has the freedom to rebel against the imposed boundary, cry and be sad, and finally accept it and move on.
To move on is to give up that path and find another acceptable one, eg “I can't play with Maggie now. I'll see her tomorrow.'' Firm boundaries accompanied by empathy are what enable our children to fully experience their reactions and "cross over".
The child learns that the world is indeed full of obstacles in the way of his desires, but he is not left alone to struggle with them, as happens if the boundaries are not clearly established. It is sad, but it moves on, looking for another way to feel better.
Also, the child is not left to feel despair and depression, as happens with authoritarian boundary setting, which makes him feel like a bad person.
He learns that he can't always get his way, but he gets something better: someone who loves and accepts him completely. This unconditionally positive attitude becomes the core of unwavering positive self-esteem and stable inner happiness.
The child also learns that he can bear his anger and unhappiness and then feel better. This is how endurance is born - when it accepts other lines of behavior. "My birthday party can't be at the circus because that's too expensive, but maybe mom and dad will help me think of a sports party in the park and let my girlfriends stay the night at home."
"Does that mean the more frustrated the better for the child?"
No. First, you need to have a strong emotional connection in order for the child to accept your empathy. If it feels like you're sabotaging its happiness by creating frustrations, or imposing despotic or unfair boundaries, it won't accept your attempts to be empathetic.
Yet it is in your power to gratify his desire, and you continually refuse to do so. Second, children have enough frustrating experiences in their lives every day, you don't need to create them too.
"Does that apply to babies too?"
Although most of what has been said so far applies to both babies and older children - ie. sometimes you need to set a limit, for example stop him reaching for the socket, and you need to be sympathetic to his frustration - babies can take much less frustration. They just haven't learned how to deal with their feelings yet.
And since there's a growing body of evidence that emotional states in early childhood lay the foundation for emotional habits later in life, you'll certainly want to minimize the amount of time your baby is unhappy.
If it gets used to this state, it will decide that this is the normal human state and will make every effort to reproduce it throughout its life. So when it comes to babies, it's always best to avoid frustration.
"But now that he can crawl, my baby is already pushing himself everywhere!"
Of course, you can't let him do what he wants, but luckily, it's usually easy to distract the baby. Secure everything and stay one step ahead of it. You will find that gradually as the child grows, you increase the limits, because you realize both that the appropriate behavior requires them and that the child can handle them.
Author: Dr Laura Markham, Chartered Clinical Psychologist
Translation: Mina Parceva for bezperdah.com