Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy and
Marital Therapy Centre

Parents and Children: Setting and Maintaining Boundaries

Parents and Children: Setting and Maintaining Boundaries

Every individual creates a personal space in their lives. The size of this personal space is different for everyone and the size may vary from time to time. They decide who can enter this space, and when and how they can enter. The size of the space someone creates between themselves and another person will depend on their relationship to that person, and the context. 

For example, when you are travelling in a packed bus, you may be aware that you're very close to the person next to you. This may not make you uncomfortable, because you know that it's specific to the situation. But you wouldn't want someone to stand that close to you in an empty bus, because in that scenario, someone you don't know would be entering your personal space without consent. 

People create their own personal space in order to establish boundaries. These boundaries are not only physical, but psychological. At some point, it becomes important for parents to set boundaries for their children. But how do you decide on these boundaries? And how loose, or strict, should they be? 

Many parents have difficulties setting boundaries for their children. One reason is that children are completely dependent on a mother’s (or other caregiver’s) care when they are born, and only separate from mothers as they grow older. As this separation occurs, it's hard for parents to figure out how much autonomy they should give their children, and where boundaries should be set. Their natural instinct is to protect them, but acknowledging children as individuals is very important for their development. 

Another reason parents struggle with setting boundaries is because of the feelings they have for their children. They love their children so much that it can be difficult to make objective decisions. They don't want to upset their children, but they know that they have to do what's best for them. Saying no to their children is probably more difficult than saying no to anyone else. The only way to overcome this is by establishing ground rules, knowing that not everything they want will be for their own good. Likewise, refusing everything they ask for can also be harmful to children. So these rules should be flexible, depending on the situation. 

What does setting boundaries mean and how can it be achieved?
By setting boundaries, you let other people know what your limits are; which lines can be crossed, and which can't. The first step is knowing what you want. If the rules are clear in your own head, your child will learn from you. By establishing boundaries, you are helping them develop the skills they will need to make sensible decisions by themselves. 

Let’s look at an example. Your child wants some chocolate before dinner, but you know that it will make them lose their appetite. If the child persists in asking, let him/her have the chocolate once. By sometimes getting their own way, children understand that they are recognised as individuals. However, you shouldn't let them eat chocolate every time they ask because you don't want them to get upset or start crying. The best answer to give a child is: “I know that you love chocolate and you want some now. But as your mother (or father, grandmother, etc.), I think you should eat it after dinner because….” You shouldn't do everything they ask for but you should keep your promises and let them take the initiative sometimes. Just as in any other unbalanced relationship in life, if you do whatever they want without boundaries or rules, children will take control of your relationship. There are two people in every relationship and both should be in control. There should be a balance between both people's needs so that no one gets hurt.

Remember that you are an individual and that your purpose isn't making everyone happy; even when this person is your child. If you really acknowledge your child as a separate individual, you can't let them rule your relationship. Your boundaries should be clear, but flexible when necessary. You shouldn't say “yes” or “no” to everything. Reactions such as crying, irritability or screaming after you say no shouldn't change your answer. The trick is explaining why you said “no” and letting them know that they've been heard and understood.

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