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, but 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.


  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.

  3. mila |

    Thank you. Boundaries is a big topic. Its good to divide it into categories. It makes it easier and I can visualise it now like a space around me – closer and further away – like circles or boxes.

    You brought a good point about the difference between environment/safety/social and private boundary and how easy it is to confuse and mix them and to start justifying your personal boundaries.

    I think personal boundaries are the most complicated and sensitive especially in child/parent dynamic or any close relationship for this matter. But what makes it the most difficult in child/parent relationship is the power dis balance. Its so easy to overlook and override our child’s boundaries, because children are depended and helpless at first.

    But thank goodness that they grow. And they are our best teachers. Especially about private boundaries – about their likes and dislikes. We often disconnected from those, this is perhaps why we justify them so often in hope of turning them into some logical, reasonable, common sense boundaries.

    Also in private boundaries it would be good to mention likes and dislikes around private space and touching. These are perhaps are the most important boundaries that get violated and assaulted daily so our senses give up in exhaustion at the end of the day. Its good to become aware of our personal censorial tolerance, the need to be alone, touched/not touched,quiet…or we run risk of getting overstimulated and could shut down.

    I’d like to find an article on need for privacy. Thank you.

  4. mila |

    I would like to have another category of personal in terms of like and don’t like concerning time, space and personal space-body issues. I like your categories division. It definitely makes boundaries clearer. However, the last category I would place in social space/family/living together guidelines, not even boundaries, because they can change and also set not by one person only. It made me think of group boundaries also.

    coming back to personal boundaries, that we like so much, it would be good to revisit our likes and dislikes, especially as parents to let go a little and to allow our children to like and most importantly … to dislike especially our rules. To let go of our learned “badness” and let ourselves be.

    • Mila, you might also like this post I wrote called
      Removing Judgment—A simple Exercise

      As for allowing kids to not like our rules, absolutely! And they still have to follow them, which is much easier for them to do when they know it’s OK to feel what they feel.

      Thanks for your comments!—Sandy

  5. Ashlee Overdick |

    I have to say, this post was a little freeing for me. When I first read the headline, I expected something that challenged me to let go of my personal boundaries, in order to avoid power struggles. But it’s actially freeing to see the “personal” boundaries stated as such, and given just as much validation. I think this is somewhat revolutionary to me, also, in part because I come from a large family, some of whom have had children before my husband and I did, and it is hard to not feel like we’re doing something wrong if we don’t parent in the more authoritarian style that our predecessors have. But realizing that there’s a difference between the kinds of rules we make, and the reasons we make them, is really helpful. Our coffee table is made out of old, used, pallets, for example. My kid is a huge climber/jumper/runner. Sometimes I’m completely amazed at what he can do with his body (and judging by his gymnastics instructor, who looked at me wide-eyed and said “wow! He’s really good at that! When my kid, for the most part, had been the one running off across the gym, happily unconcerned with the teacher trying to get him to follow along with the class). I sometimes had trouble because I dont care (and am actually happy) to have my Littles jump, hop, skip and use their imaginations in whatever ways they want with regard to that table (and our surrounding couches), so long as they’re being safe. But it was hard to reconcile it with other people’s “no jumping, no climbing, no feet on the couch” kinds of rules. Now I’ve realized that there’s value in my kids learning what is appropriate at home vs. in other places. They’re might be some instructional points along the way, but that is beneficial, right? Im thankful for this breakdown of boundaries. It’s been very helpful!

    • Ashlee, it sounds like physical boundaries like “safe” are very solid for you! You sound very practical in your boundary-setting at home, taking into account what works for you kids.

      I’m glad this article felt freeing to you. Sounds like it opened up social boundaries based on “appropriate” as well as personal boundaries base on what’s OK with you or not. Boundaries help children master self-control, so they are good on all counts when used as statements of just “what is.”

      Our personal preferences are already there. All we need to do is stop and check. It’s great for kids to see you doing it, too, to model internal guidance. You just stop, touch your chest or heart, and say, “Yep, that’s OK with me,” or “Nope. Not OK,” and go from there. Those are not something you can change in the moment. Honoring them is all there is to do.

      Thanks for your comment!—Sandy


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