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Respecting Boundaries

The moment parents think that they’ve mastered the skills needed to raise their children, their little cuties go through another phase of development. Just like that, families need new and different strategies and boundaries to continue to thrive and for parents to continue to raise kind and considerate children.

Setting boundaries and learning about empathy:

In the early years, setting boundaries seems quite natural and straight forward: “Don’t hit”, “Say please and thank you”. As children get older, setting boundaries starts to become more complex as the societal norms and social interactions becomes more complex too. While young children and teenagers need to have boundaries set for them, they also need to start to develop the skills of setting these for themselves in a way that begins to align with their own values and that of their family of origin. While forming boundaries for themselves is very important, but considering the boundaries of others is an important step too in raising a considerate young person, and this requires empathy.

To be empathetic is to be able to recognize the needs and desires of both yourself and also another person. Just like learning any other skill, the earlier you start the more natural it will seem, and is more likely to become a part of who we are and what we do; with time, age and experiences their understanding of being empathetic will become more nuanced. By the age of three, most children are able to show empathy when another hurts themselves and will want to hug them or get them a band-aid, or show concern when another person is looking sad or crying. During early childhood, children can start to think about how they and others feel with relevant day-to-day experiences: “Ohh, that was a big fall. I think she may be hurt, what do you think? What should we do?”, “How do you think she felt when you took her ice-cream?”. As children age, you may begin to ask questions like, “how do you feel when your brother breaks your Lego construction?”, “So then how do you think she would feel if you did the same to her?”. It’s never too early or too late to start to build self-and-social awareness of how others are feeling and to then use this awareness to guide behavioural choices.

By beginning to understand that the experience of empathy works the same for all people; that it is a two-way street means that children can start to see and appreciate that their actions have impact for others, and like-wise for them. As such, there are rules within social interactions and in forming healthy relations that we all need to follow to show kindness and to also have that shown to us. Of-course though, relationships are complex at all stages of development and an important part of growing-up is for children to develop the skills to stand up for themselves and when to seek help from a trusted adult. For instance, when others are not playing fairly, or are playing too roughly in the playground and not respecting their feelings or personal boundaries, even when others might be acting in an unsafe way. By teaching your children some simple phrases and go-to strategies when they are feeling unsafe or are concerned for the safety of others, can begin their journey to setting and advocating for their own personal boundaries and care for people close to them. For example, “Can you please stop. I don’t like that. Let’s take turns. Umm, I’m not sure about this decision.”

Being a good role model is another great way to continuously demonstrate to children that they too can set their boundaries. By checking in with other friends and parents, and the way that they hear you speak to one another shows important communication skills, and how to be a respectful partner, friend and community member. As they see that this is what we do, then they are more likely to act in turn.

Respecting everyone’s boundaries:

From all ages, children should be allowed to decide for themselves how they like to show and receive affection from others. It may be that aunties and grandmas like to give big cuddles and kisses, but a child may not be comfortable with that level of closeness.

Supporting your young person to be comfortable in their choice of giving and receiving affection is an important skill in advocating for their personal boundaries, and how to communicate this in polite and respectful way – no one wants to offend aunty & her bright red-lipstick. It may be that together you come up with a special handshake or fist pump that your young person can teach aunty how to do. This can become their special way of showing affection.

While it seems quite obvious at face value that listening to a child’s expression of what is and is not ok for them, but inadvertently dismissing their boundaries happens more frequently than we realise. Day-to-day moments of this can be as simple as “jokes”, not liking being tickled; a little more awareness and slight changes in response can help children establish their boundaries more clearly. For example, rather than saying, “Oh no, you don’t really dislike that”, say, “Oh sorry. Ok, I won’t do that again”. “Thank you for telling us that you aren’t ready to play right now.”

Over time, by a young person experiencing being respected, forming and holding boundaries they are better able to continue to do this as they enter their teenage years and grow into respectful and empathetic members of the community.

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