Updated: Aug 9, 2020
Boundaries equal Safety
Much like a fence, a boundary that can be easily knocked down is unreliable. A weak boundary provides no safety. Therefore, if safety is the function of your boundary, it must withstand attack.
Effective Boundaries An effective boundary is explicit. It is not implied or alluded to. It is prominent and notable, not a question or suggestion. It is built to withstand prolonged attack. Remember that while they are in your care, a child experiences the world through you.
Everything a child experiences from their primary attachment figures (caregivers) is a template for what they can expect from the world out there. By providing or failing to provide effective boundaries, a parent is showing their child what their behavioral options are: to trust or not to trust?! The answer they learn from their parents will determine a child’s default approach to being in the world as an adult. There is no safety in being an all-powerful two year- old. Or five year-old. Or even fifteen year-old. If one can push against a boundary and cause it to crumble easily, such a boundary provides little to no safety. It is an unstable fence. In fact this kind of experience teaches us to test any future boundaries, as they too may be ineffective and unsafe. Imagine the level of anxiety this can build in a child: Am I a defective person who breaks everything I touch? Or is the world just too unstable and unsafe for me? More importantly, when can I ever trust that I will be safely seen, heard and protected in this uncertain world? In testing a parent’s boundaries, a child is really seeking safety. The child feels that in order to feel safe within said boundary, it must be tested. The child needs to know that he can push against the boundary or even shake it and, like a sturdy oak in the wind, it will not break. Only then can they enjoy the safety that the boundary provides.
The Parent as Boundary In setting clear limits and boundaries, a parent provides safety for the child. However, the parent herself is a boundary. An inter-psychic (between two minds) boundary if you will. This inter-psychic boundary must herself withstand attack. Sometimes this is a very real physical (and verbal) attack. Being attacked by your child is no picnic, we all know. Think about it this way, though: If boundary-setting is a problem for the parent, then the road that led to this attack has been paved with ineffective boundaries. A breakable parent provides no psychic security to their child. To this child, a world (represented by the parent here) that cannot withstand his loss of control is a fearful and unsafe one. This can only lead to more loss of control. Hence you now have an older child who still has to perform the boundary testing task of a toddler. The attacks are likely a symptom of the child’s frustration with that road. Like everything else in life, however, parent and child must repeat this lesson until it is learned. Life will continue to present you with opportunities to strengthen this muscle.
Pick your Boundaries Not all boundaries are equal. By virtue of being human, parents must exercise flexibility in order to grow. That you want to build effective boundaries does not grant you the right to be tyrannical. Sometimes, the boundary your child needs is the one that teaches them how to wield control. Think about the kind of person you are trying to raise. Do you want them to learn to advocate for themselves? To know their own minds? To express their needs appropriately? To see the value in who they are? The boundaries are here to help. The kind of all or nothing thinking that caused our parents and grandparents to use the “my way or the highway” approach is the same thinking that causes some of us to overcorrect into the “anything goes” style. Neither extreme is particularly helpful. Some boundaries are expressly to maintain a child’s physical safety (e.g., no drinking disinfectant, no running around the pool). If these boundaries are violated, the child will likely be injured. Such boundaries are non-negotiable. We cannot allow such limits to be broken. They teach the child to trust that they can always be safe and protected in this world. Other boundaries are more for a parent’s peace of mind. They may be well-meaning and well thought out but their violation does not pose danger (e.g., dinner before dessert, eight o’clock curfew). These can be negotiated. Through mutual dialogue, a child can be motivated to come up with other ways to ensure their parent’s peace of mind. Half-hourly check-ins after curfew, desert as pre-dinner snack; these options allow the child to develop perspective-taking and problem-solving skills that are far more important than a calorie count or behaving like a proverbial good girl.
A negotiated boundary does not mean a broken boundary. Negotiated boundaries build mutual trust, deeper understanding, a generalizable feeling of safety, self-respect and a positive outlook. Negotiation of flexible boundaries serves to strengthen safety, thereby keeping the boundary effective. If this is not the case, the negotiation has gone awry.