Boundary Trouble?

Boundary Trouble?

All boundaries are not equal. Here are three types:

  • Natural boundaries:


"Fire is not for touching, because you will get burned."


"Poison ivy is not for picking, because your skin will blister and itch."


"Baby sister is not for shaking, because that will hurt her brain."


  • Social boundaries:


"Clothing is worn in public, because your body is private."


"'Excuse me' is what you say after burping, because that is polite."


"Raise your hand, because that's how the teacher will know you want to answer the question."


  • Personal boundaries:


"Toys are to be picked up before bedtime, because... ?"


"Loud noises are for outside, because... ?"


"Family movie night is just for family, no friends over, because... ?"

Did you try to fill in the missing reasons for the personal boundaries? You might have, if you believe that every boundary has to have a "good" reason.

The problem with that belief is that when you apply it equally to all three types of boundaries, you hit a snag. Good reasons are easy to find for natural and social boundaries because the boundaries basically arise from the reason and serve as CAN DO's for reaching that goal: "If you don't want to get burned, you don't touch fire," "If you want to keep your body private, you wear clothes in public," etc.

Plus, those boundaries are decided for you - natural boundaries by the physical world, and social boundaries (rules and agreements) by the group. Not so for personal boundaries. 

Not only are you the only one who decides what your personal boundaries are, good reasons for them are hard to find. 

Why? Because personal boundaries do not arise from reasons, good or otherwise. Instead, they arise from your personal preferences - what you like or don't like - which are based on your emotions, not your intellectual reason. By definition, emotion-based preferences are not "reason-able." In fact, the more reasons you give for a preference, the more you dilute it, because the truth is that you either like something or you don't. That's all there is to it, and that's all that matters.

So to set powerful personal boundaries, you just check in with your emotions: "Yep, I like that," or, "No, I don't like that!" You might throw in some intellectual reasons or "shoulds" on top of that, but the bottom line is that you already know. It's innate...unless you've lost touch with your inner guidance system.

If you have a hard time recognizing or valuing your preferences (what you like and don't like), and think you need a good reason to set a personal boundary, you will find one.

Here are some unconscious strategies you might use:


  • Making up a good reason:


"Toys need to be picked up before bedtime, because pieces will get lost if you leave them out. (Really? Overnight is somehow different than daytime?)


  • Using "we" to make your boundary sound like a social agreement, not just you:


"We don't make loud noises in the house." (Really? No blender, vacuum or calling kids to dinner?)


  • Turning it into a natural boundary by waiting until you gather physical proof:


"Toys are to be picked up before bedtime, because I stepped on one and hurt my foot!"


"Loud noises are for outside, because your screaming has given me a headache!"


"Family movie night is just for family, no friends over, because you just spent the whole evening in your room with your friends instead of watching the movie with us!"

Unfortunately, waiting to find physical proof that you can point to and say, "See! See! I'm right to set this boundary," creates problems. Since physical proof only occurs after your boundary has been crossed, you will probably be reactive before your boundary is even declared. That leaves you feeling victimized, angry and justified to use forceful language or even punishment. Not the best atmosphere for creating cooperation.

So what do personal boundaries sound like when you don't need a good reason? Clear, clean, firm and confident with no reasons attached, or with a statement of personal preference if you want more practice with that:

"Toys are to be picked up before bedtime." OR "Toys are to be put away before bedtime, because I like it that way."


"Loud noises are for outside." OR "Loud noises are for outside, because I like a quiet house."


"Family movie night is just for family, no friends over." OR "Family movie night is just for family, no friends over, because I like an evening with just us."

One other thing that is helpful to know about "good" reasons is that they are relative:

  • Good reasons for young children include physical world proof, so natural boundaries are easily taught from a very young age.
  • Social interactions matter more to older children, so good reasons for them include more social proof, which makes social boundaries easier to teach older children than toddlers.

Once a natural or social boundary is learned, drop the reason. Repeating reasons doesn't make a boundary easier for children to accept; SAY WHAT YOU SEE validation does.

Regardless of age, no "good" reason can make your personal boundaries easier for your child to accept - that's up to you. Liking or not liking something is enough. When you accept your preferences as the final word without needing reasons, your children will too, and be able to grow up to do the same.

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  1. Julia Kurskaya |

    Setting boundaries is difficult for every parent, I guess. I loved the way you divided the boundaries into three groups – the way that is simple and easy to remember! It makes all the sense in the world now. I often had difficulties when trying to find a reason for personal boundary. All the reasons seemed wrong somehow. I think everyone who has read this post has some kind of a gift to take along into their everyday lives with kids. We can be calmer and more confident parents then before and that is great!

  2. Thank you, Julia! Those categories formed themselves during the writing of this post. So glad they are helpful and that you let me know.

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