healthy boundaries

Helping Teens Set Healthy Boundaries

If you’ve ever flown in a plane, you know the drill with the oxygen mask: If the cabin loses pressure, the masks drop and you need to put yours on first before you take care of your child’s. While this is rational, it’s deeply counter-intuitive. Your knee jerk reaction is to first ensure that your child is safe. But the principal is important: you can’t help another person if you don’t have what you need.

This translates well to life. While we want to be helpful, compassionate, loving people, we can’t do this well if we’re not taking care of ourselves. And this is a critical lesson for our kids to learn. Children need to understand self-care and self-awareness if they are to be adults who are able to both show compassion and not be a doormat. They need to learn that taking care of themselves isn’t selfish, it’s the first step toward putting yourself in a place to help others.

In other words, our kids need to learn to set healthy boundaries. Teaching boundaries isn’t easy, but it is necessary work if our goal is not just to make our kids happy but to create an environment that helps them become healthy adults who can live well in the world. Here are some tips as you look to begin this difficult but necessary work.

Put your mask on first.

In his helpful book Boundaries with Teens, Dr. John Townsend (who has written several ‘Boundaries’ themed books along with Dr. Henry Cloud) says “When it comes to good parenting, who you are is more important than what you say.” If you don’t model healthy boundaries, don’t expect your kids to have them. Do the hard work of setting boundaries for yourself in your relationships. Your kids will pick it up more than you think.

Just say “no”.

We can have a strong aversion to our kids using the word ‘no’. We expect compliance. And, of course, our kids need to learn that they must sometimes do things they don’t want to do. However, there should be areas in our kids’ lives where they are encouraged to exercise their will. If a relative says, “Give me a hug”, for example, your child should be allowed to say “no” (for young children, this may require a parent stepping in to say “Sorry, he’s not comfortable with that.”). Whenever possible we need to help our kids learn that they have the right to set boundaries on their world. They have a right to say “no”.

Clarity is key.

One of the ways we can have fuzzy boundaries is by being unclear with others about what we want. Too often we teach either explicitly or implicitly that expressing what you want is rude or selfish. We need to help our kids practice communicating what they want clearly. Of course, expressing what you want is different than demanding what you want. Compromise and negotiation are part of any good relationship. But you can’t actually compromise if you don’t understand what the other person wants. As Brene Brown says in her book Dare to Lead, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.”

We’re talking about practice.

If you’re a basketball fan you may remember Allen Iverson’s famous ‘We’re talking about practice?’ rant. He was questioned about his commitment to practice and Iverson proceeded to go off about how ridiculous it was that he as the ‘franchise player’ was being questioned about his commitment to practice. However, as any coach will tell you, how you practice is how you play in the game. Psychologists call this ‘deliberate practice’ and it’s essential to learning to do something consistently well. We need to talk with our kids about the importance of setting boundaries and allow them to practice saying what they want or don’t want with us.

Live with purpose.

The best gift you have to offer the world is a healthy version of yourself. Setting boundaries is difficult, but if setting boundaries is arbitrary it’s nearly impossible. If you are trying to get your child to say “no” to someone who continues to rely on them in unhealthy ways, you can’t just tell them to do it. You have to process with them the importance of this individual learning to make decisions on his or her own. Therefore, setting boundaries is actually a great way to help others as it both prevents them from avoiding the hard, but necessary, task of decision making and it models for them healthy interpersonal relationships. In other words, the best gift you have to offer the world is a healthy version of yourself.

Sound off: How do you model boundaries for your kids?  

Huddle up with your kids and ask, “Do you think you have healthy boundaries? Why or why not?”