I’ve experienced many unwanted effects as a result of my lack of boundaries over the years: anxiety, resentment, insomnia, indecision, burnout and poor anger management. As I learned about how to identify requirements for my wellness and take action to achieve them, all of these symptoms receded. It’s my goal as a parent to help my children notice these signs that they need to listen in and ask for help or do things differently so they can avoid mental and physical disease.
Children who grow up with healthy family boundaries feel safe saying no when they are faced with questionable situations, they are less likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors and harm themselves. These young people grow into adults who can listen to their body and advocate for themselves because they have grown up watching you treat yourself, your body, your needs with kindness and respect.
When I look back to my adolescent, teen, college days and early parenting years, I did everything but treat myself with kindness and respect. I often anticipated the needs of others while abandoning mine altogether. I kept myself quiet when I should have spoken up; I reluctantly agreed when clearly I should have said no; I said yes to obligations when the healthiest thing for me would have been to decline. When you look back at your youth, you may see similar patterns, and that’s normal. You can start strengthening your boundaries now for you and your kids by making small shifts in your understanding and your actions.
Boundaries can be hard to define; I like to think of them as your needs in action. This is a two-parter: You listen to your body and thoughts to identify what you’re needing and then use your words and actions to support what you know is true for you. Here are my favorite “starter boundaries” that I encourage parents to begin using as baby steps to bigger bolder boundaries down the line.
Communicating needs kindly. I used to be so ashamed of my needs that they only came tumbling out in a fit of rage. I stuffed my frustration and overwhelm down so deep that it would explode when the house got too messy. Suddenly, I would be throwing shoes and screaming, “I. Need. Some. Help. Cleaning. This. Dump!” After a long day of whining and complaining, I would go off like a cannon, “STOP Whining and GO to your room. I cannot stand to hear your voice!” These are (frankly embarrassing and hard to share) examples of my inability to notice what I needed and stay calm when asking for help or stating a need. Now, I still struggle at times, but I’m much more likely to kindly say, “before you have screen time, I need some help putting shoes, books and toys away,” way before I get to the point of yelling at anyone.
Saying no without guilt. This is a tough one for the recovering perfectionists in the room. Saying no is so hard when we worry about who we leave hanging or judging us on the other end. You might spend hours obsessing over how to decline respectfully, and you might feel sick to your stomach (I have personal experience with these, can you tell?) until you hear back from them and realize the world didn’t end when you said no. The truth is that in order to stay true to yourself, you might upset someone who doesn’t understand. My favorite Brené Brown quote on boundaries is, “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves even when we risk disappointing others.” There is space in this world for their disappointment and your self-love, so go ahead and choose you.
Respecting “no” when someone says it to you. The flip side of learning to say no yourself is honoring when someone says no to you. It’s tempting to take it personally, but in time you will learn to see it as a self-aware individual looking within and deciding what is best for them in this moment. Supportive responses might sound like, “Good for you; saying no is hard,” or “I know it was a tough decision; thanks for your honest response.”
Being responsible for your own feelings. It’s common for parents to try to teach right and wrong or empathy by telling your kids how they made you feel. The truth is that your feelings are yours, regardless of the stimulus you’re responding to. It’s important for kids to know that feelings come from our thoughts and our body’s reaction to what’s going on around us, and that they flow through us. Help your child see this by owning your feelings.
Instead of saying: “Ouch, you hurt mommy!” try, “Ouch, that hurt! I won’t let you hit me when you’re feeling mad, but you can hit this pillow or stomp around the room.”
I used to say, “You make me mad when you do that,” and it’s taken a lot of practice to say, “I’m out of patience right now. I’ll be back to talk about a solution when I’ve taken some breaths to calm myself down.”
Notice how the examples above are setting clear boundaries; I’ve taken stock of my needs and have stated what I will do to help myself. Boundaries take practice; this is a life-long skill that we will always be building. Be patient with yourself on this journey; this is not just something we read about once and flip a switch. Learning how to say no to certain things, people and activities so you can say yes to yourself and honor your needs takes work and sometimes feels uncomfortable if it’s new for you.
Petterson, lives in Moscow with her husband and their two children. She left public education to become a yoga instructor, sleep specialist and to teach parents alternatives to yelling and punishment as a mindful parenting educator. Her newborn and toddler classes are currently open for enrollment. She can be contacted via her website at www.kristinepetterson.com or email@example.com.