4 Simple Principles for Setting Healthy Boundaries with Kids

4 Simple Principles for Setting Healthy Boundaries with Kids

It can be frustrating and painful when kids act out and behave in ways that are inappropriate or disrespectful.  In last week's article we explored three things you can do to influence change when you face circumstances that are beyond your control. 

These three things will lead to big wins in the long run.  But in the meantime, how can you set healthy boundaries with your kids and step-kids?  This is something that the bio-parent and step-parent need to conquer together.  And we all need to understand that kids really do NEED healthy boundaries. 

The Real Goal of Healthy Boundaries

Some adults believe that boundaries are something to be used in order to get kids to comply, but that simply isn't where the focus needs to be.  The real goal of healthy boundaries is to provide stability, clarity, and motivation so kids can begin to learn self-control and responsibility.

According to Drs. Cloud and Townsend,  If you feel weird or mean about having rules and expectations for your teens, you should see that feeling as a problem! It's not cruel or unloving for parents to have requirements for their teen’s behavior and attitude. Teens who have reasonable expectations for their behavior tend to do better in life, because boundaries are part of life.  As adults, we can’t show up late for work every day, nor should we yell at our spouse when we’ve had a bad day. As long as the rules are appropriate for the situation, you are helping your child see that structure, self-control and responsibility are normal and expected in life.

We also need to consider that "behavior is the visible expression of invisible issues", according to Mark Gregston -" it's the warning light on the dashboard".

So how can we respond to our kids' emotions with care AND establish healthy boundaries?  Here are four principles that come from Psychologists Cloud and Townsend, authors of Boundaries with Kids and Boundaries with Teens.  You can use them to implement and enforce healthy boundaries with your kids and step-kids.

Principle #1 – Love:  I Am on Your Side

Start with love — always!  Let the kids know that you care about them and want good things for them.  This will help them to hear and accept your boundaries and tolerate the consequences.  Conveying love and care will also guard children from feeling bad about themselves, unloved or wounded.

Love is a stance.  It's an attitude to embrace even when the child is upset and misbehaving.   Kids need to see that their parents are able to handle their negative emotions and behaviors.  Let your kids know that you love them enough to help them learn better ways to respond to life's ups and downs.

Principle #2 – Truth:  I Have Some Rules and Requirements

Love opens the door to change but is not enough.  Truth exists in the form of rules, requirements and expectations; as well as guidance, wisdom and vital information.  Kids need a clear understanding of where the line is; otherwise, boundaries won't work and discipline seems unfair to them.

Work as a team, behind closed doors, to create a 'Code of Conduct' (or 'House Rules') that's based on your family's values.  Prioritize what's most important at this stage and start there.  If you're in the early stages of integration, make sure you begin this process slowly and try not to overwhelm yourselves, or the kids.  New expectations can gradually be added as the kids begin to adapt and accept the Code of Conduct.  

Bio-parents are responsible for communicating the Code of Conduct to their kids and letting them know what is required in behavior and attitude.  This is critical in step-family dynamics.  You may want to post your family's Code of Conduct somewhere visible in your home, just so there's no confusion.  

When we consider setting boundaries with adolescents and teens, we need to understand all the developmental changes they are experiencing.  They often don't have good control over their behavior, a clear sense of responsibility for their actions or much self-discipline and structure.  They naturally tend to lean toward impulsiveness, irresponsibility, misbehavior and erratic behavior.  Parents provide the structure your kids need for healthy development, which is the ultimate goal of setting boundaries.


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Principle #3 – Freedom:  You Can Choose to Respect or Reject the Rules

There are two reasons why freedom is absolutely necessary:

1) You can't really make your child do the right thing.  This may be a scary realization for you, but it's true!  There's a lot of things you can't control in your child's life — especially if they're a teen.

 2) Even if you could "make" your kids do the right thing, it wouldn't help them develop into mature, loving, responsible people.  Children need to have opportunities to learn from their own mistakes.  This is the best way for them to internalize important life lessons and grow in their own independence.

Principle #4 – Consequences:  Here Is What Will Happen

Kids need consequences because that’s how they experience this fundamental law of life: good behavior brings good results and bad behavior brings uncomfortable results.  Consequences should be appropriate.  They need to be both verbalized and executed.  Kids need to know what will happen when they cross the line. If you state consequences without enforcing them, you will train your kids to ignore you, because your bark has no bite.

Bio-parents, you are the safest, most well-defined parent figure for your kids and you have the highest level of parental authority.  Your kids can more readily accept discipline from you without the stress and tension that gets stirred up when a step-parent attempts to administer discipline.  This is just one reason why consequences need to be verbalized and executed by the Bio-parent.  

Step-parents, focus on building a connected and trusting bond with your step-kids.  Don't attempt to discipline a step-child until it's clear that they are willing to accept authority from you.

Now It's Your Turn

When it's time to communicate boundaries to the kids, here's a quick reference list of the messages you both want to convey for each of the four principles:

Principle 1 - Love: 

Bio-Parent:  "I'm doing this because I love you, not because I'm mad at you…I'm on your side and I want the best for you"

Step-Parent:  "I care about you and I want good things for you.  I'm someone you can count on"

Principle 2 - Truth:

Bio-Parent:  "I have some rules and requirements for your behavior, they are based on our family's values"

Step-Parent:  "It's not okay for you to treat me this way…We can either start over and you can choose a better way to respond or we'll need to put some space between us until you're able to treat me appropriately"

Principle 3 - Freedom: 

Bio-Parent:  "It's your choice to respect or reject the Code of Conduct"

Step-Parent:  "Regardless of the choice you make, I'm for you"

Principle 4 - Consequences: 

Bio-Parent: "This is what will happen if you choose to reject the Code of Conduct"

Step-Parent: "If you chose to reject the Code of Conduct the result will probably be a bummer for you.  I'm here for you if you need me, but when your dad / mom gets home I'm sure that he'll / she'll have a conversation with you about the consequences of your choice."  (keep your demeanor calm and caring)

The Right Thing for Everyone

Implementing boundaries with kids is hard work, but if we want to raise respectful, responsible kids we've got to step up and do the right thing for them.  You may not feel especially close to your child when you're setting a boundary or following through with a consequence.  But love is greater than momentary feelings. 

In the end, your kids will look back and appreciate that you loved them enough to teach them the importance of healthy boundaries.  And your family will enjoy more stability and peace when appropriate boundaries become a way of life for everyone! 

QUESTION:  How can you begin to implement healthy boundaries with your children?  Leave a comment below…

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