Setting boundaries in everyday family life

There are these standard phrases I grew up with: “Children need limits” or even “Children test their limits”. There are consequences for overstepping boundaries – which is often an euphemism for punishment. But is that still in line with the times? Everyday family life is about making everyone feel comfortable and safe – boundaries contribute to this, but they can also lead to power struggles.

What are boundaries?

The word boundary means “edge of a space” and is thus a separator, a dividing line or dividing surface. In child rearing, we understand a “boundary” to mean a point where there is no further to go. This point must not be crossed. Those who do not adhere to it must reckon with consequences in the form of repercussions or even sanctions.

In a family, we live together in a setting in which everyone has the right to set limits – both parents and children. Parents also have a role model function: By standing up for themselves and their personal boundaries, parents show who they are and at the same time take responsibility for their own well-being. At the same time, children’s boundaries should also be respected by parents. In this way, children learn that everyone has boundaries and can use them as a role model to maintain their boundaries well, too.

What is the function of boundaries?

Boundaries serve as a protective space: Without boundaries or with not enough, children are at risk of harming themselves or someone else. Up to a certain age, children simply cannot yet assess the full extent of their actions.
Boundaries protect against danger. Both in and out of home, dangers and situations can always arise that make it necessary to follow rules.
Boundaries provide stability and security: sensible and clear rules make living together easier and give children security.
Boundaries show the scope of action (from here to here you have freedom, from there on I decide). This gives children orientation.

Note: Boundaries can be friendly, affectionate and supportive. But they can also be negative if they are communicated in a harsh and violent way or if they demand things from children that they are not capable of doing. Many of us have grown up with such unyielding, non-developmentally appropriate boundaries ourselves.

What kind of boundaries are there?

If we speak of boundaries in a social or family context, we can distinguish between two types of boundaries:

Subjective or individual boundaries are about the personal boundaries of each individual. These can be different and are influenced by many things: personal history, childhood experiences and personal body sensation. What is too loud for some does not bother others at all. What is very painful for some is bearable for others. Nora Imlau said, “It is important that we as parents, feel, communicate and maintain our personal boundaries. We are allowed to show our children where they stop and where we start, where our individual shame or stress limits are, what we want and what we don’t want.”

The objective boundaries or societal boundaries are rules or laws that have emerged from society. These rules enable us as a society to live well together. Children learn them over time by example and explanation. For example: People are not allowed to do physical or psychological violence to other people. Every person has the right to own property – property of others must not be destroyed or taken away deliberately.

Note: For all boundaries and rules, it is always true that we as parents and adults are the role models! If we want to teach children that violence is not a means, we must not use violence ourselves. If we want to teach them to respect other people’s property, we must respect their property – even if what is valuable to children does not correspond to our concepts of valuable.

How to set boundaries in everyday family life?

When setting boundaries, there are a few things you can keep in mind as a parent.

Boundaries should be appropriate for the age and stage of development. Babies need different boundaries than teenagers. It is important to know the developmental milestones, especially with babies and toddlers. The ability to make a change of perspective – for brain biological reasons, children can only do this around their 4th birthday. In fact, impulse control does not develop until children enter elementary school – before then, children cannot fully control themselves. At the same time, it is important that children are allowed to have a certain amount of personal experience – the older they get, the more they can and should be expected to do. In this way, they can better understand and perceive the world and become more independent.

When pointing out limits, it makes sense to be clear: especially with babies and toddlers, “don’t” formulations should be avoided (because the brain can’t process them yet). But also with older children it makes more sense to say directly what you want. Meaning that positive messages are clear messages.

There are situations where it makes sense to use few words. That way the main message is clear and some things simply don’t need to be explained or justified in detail. In other situations, however, it makes perfect sense to explain a child why you are sticking to this limit. If the child understands the situation, cooperation often increases – the goal is always a harmonious everyday family life and not a power struggle.

We want understanding and cooperative children who understand and recognize boundaries. However, it is absolutely human for children (and adults, too) to get frustrated or angry when limits are set. The job as parents is to ride out the frustration and anger in that moment – and to not take it personally. In addition, parents should not take the child’s behavior as a personal attack.

There are boundaries that are clear, logical and uncompromising. Others are individual and can be adjusted. When establishing boundaries, it is important to be clear with children and to stand by the boundaries. This does not mean that you have to stick rigidly to boundaries. Above all, subjective boundaries and rules can and should be reviewed again regularly and adjusted if necessary – children grow older and need change. When children express wishes – walking to a friend’s house alone for the first time or staying out until midnight – the first reaction is often rejection. As a parent, before you categorically reject something, it makes sense to think about it. The sentence “I’ll have to think about that!” allows time for reflection and discussion. It also takes the pressure out of the situation.

Note: What are no limits are standard phrases like “You just do it that way” or “That’s not how it works, you don’t do it that way” or even “I had to do it that way too”. This can quickly lead to frustration, discussions and arguments.

Do not lose sight of the goal:

In everyday family life, the most important thing is that everyone feels comfortable and safe. It is about enabling a coexistence between parents and children that is characterized by mutual respect and is not based on the assertion of power.

So much more can be said on the subject of boundaries in everyday family life. And do it: In our next Lunch & Learn on 06th December from 12 to 12.30 pm. Registration takes place in the customer log-in area “”.

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