Teaching Children About Physical Boundaries

Healthy boundaries are essential to maintaining healthy relationships, whether they are personal or professional. Children are in the process of developing the skills to manage their emotions and see things from other’s perspectives. As a result they naturally struggle with boundaries.  However, if we begin to teach children about healthy boundaries from an early age, they may carry these healthy behaviors into adulthood.

Lead By Example

Describe What You Are Doing

One of the best ways to help children develop healthy boundaries is to respect their own boundaries. This can begin from birth. Of course, every touch that newborns experience should be as loving and gentle as possible. However, you can take this one step further by communicating that their physical boundaries are important.  One way that this can be done as by simply telling infants what you are doing as you touch them. Examples include, “Now I am going to take off your diaper and clean you up,” or “I am going to put you in your crib now.”  Although doing this before they can respond may feel awkward at first, this will instill good habits as they grow.

Ask Permission

Another way to communicate respect for children’s boundaries is to ask permission before giving hugs and kisses. Of course, waiting for a newborn to answer before giving affection would take forever! You can ask younger infants for permission and then continue on to give them affection. As your children become older, if it appears that they don’t want be touched and touch is not absolutely necessary in the moment, acknowledge their wishes by saying “it looks like you don’t want me to touch you right now”. Pleading with children or touching them against their will can communicate that the decisions that they make about their bodies don’t matter. Forcing children to give or receive affection to or from others can do the same. If Grandma has come to visit, you can always ask your children to hug her. But if they refuse, do not scold them for the choice.

When Touch is Not Optional

In situations where touch is not optional, try to give as much choice as possible. An example might look like, “Bobby, we have to cross the street and I need you to hold on to me. You can choose to hold my hand or my arm.”  Asking permission before touching children, honoring any desire not to be touched, and giving as much choice as possible in situations where touch is necessary will help children learn that their bodies are their own property and they are not required to receive unwanted touch. This will also model respect for others’ boundaries. Lastly, this will help children understand that touching others without consent is not appropriate.

Using Everyday Life To Teach Children About Boundaries

When Children Cross Boundaries

Another way to help children develop healthy boundaries is through limit setting when they cross boundaries. Physical aggression is always a boundary violation and is important to address.  Physical aggression and misbehavior usually come from a need. Examples can include to express anger or to communicate that their own boundaries have been crossed.  In order to avoid a power struggle, let your children know that you understand the need behind the misbehavior. This may look like the following. “Tommy, I know that you feel angry with Susan for taking your toy truck.” Next, communicate the limit that you wish to set. “But people are not for hitting.” Lastly, provide some alternatives for expressing the need. “You can tell Susan that you feel angry that she took your truck, or you may tear up a piece of paper to show how angry you are.”

When Children’s Boundaries are Crossed

It can be helpful to communicate that your children’s feelings about boundary violations are important. If your children regularly allow others to cross their boundaries, you can do this by pointing out what you see. For example: “Laura, the frown on your face tells me that you felt sad when Stephen pushed you down. If you’d like, you may tell him how you feel about it.” Honor whatever decision that your children make regarding setting a boundary, but continue to acknowledge their feelings.  Even if your children regularly choose not to set boundaries, continue to offer the option whenever possible.

In Closing

Helping children learn to honor others’ and set their own boundaries is an ongoing process. However, parenting is often like caring for a growing sapling. You might not see the results right away, but continued efforts to nurture and shape the sapling will help it gradually develop into a beautiful tree. If boundaries continue to be an issue in your child’s life, ParentingWorks can help you and your child develop strategies catered to your family’s specific needs. Follow the links to learn more about our services such as play therapy or our Empowered Parenting groups.