When you think of boundaries, limits may come to mind. This can be a good or bad thing. If you think of a limit as restricting someone’s self-expression or ability to achieve their goals which equals a bad thing. But a limit to what they are allowed to do is necessary. We have laws which are a limit to what an individual can do, a boundary for acceptable behavior if you will, equals a good thing. Some laws may impose too little or too much of a limit, that is a discussion for another time. In a civilized society, limits and boundaries are needed to create the structure of said society otherwise it would be a free for all.
Even during childhood, we learn what the boundaries are: “Don’t touch the stove, it’s hot. Don’t hit your brother. You can walk to school with your friend, but you can only take this one path.” These are guidelines to shaping behaviors that are wanted and keep you and others safe. Boundaries are important in small ways like if the bathroom door is closed, we need to give the person privacy, and in big ways such as acceptable ways to express emotion and unacceptable behaviors like hitting. Boundaries are also designed to support the child’s needs. For example, not eating a ton of candy is an appropriate boundary for good eating habits and nutrition. Bedtime is to ensure the proper amount of sleep so that a child can have the energy and regulation to get through the next day as well as allow for growth which occurs during the sleep cycle. Children push up against boundaries, especially the candy limit, but as a parent you need to reinforce the boundary. This establishes trust in the parent as far as consistency and, by extension, trust.
If a parent changes the boundaries when pushed or is inconsistent in establishing them, children may not trust their word and feel unsafe. Boundaries show where the limit is so a child knows “okay I can do this, but I can only go this far.” Boundaries are linked to attachment between a child and a caregiver. The main aspects of attachment are safety and security, essentially “If I walk too far away, my caregiver will stop me in order to keep me safe.” The consistency allows for trust which results in security in the relationship and the development of an internal working model that the child is worthy of love and security. This is the ideal for children who can then grow into healthy, secure adults.
Boundaries are a good thing, but too much or too little is not. Consistency is important but the ability to adapt boundaries as children grow and enter new developmental phases is even more important. Parenting is one of the toughest jobs and navigating these topics can be challenging. Treehouse is here to support should you need help with figuring out how to approach the topic of boundaries in your household.
Michelle A. Culver, LMFT