How To Respect Your Children’s Boundaries

We might think that we’re being polite when we insist that our child hug a family member, but it’s one of the many ways in which we trample over our kids’ boundaries. Here’s how to honor them… 

Daughter hugging mother

As parents, we continuously impose our will on our children and force them to do things they don’t want to do. While some of the obligations we foist on them are necessary for their safety – such as wearing a coat in winter and buckling their seatbelt – others can unintentionally violate their boundaries and teach them that they don’t have ownership of their bodies.

Many of these transgressions stem from a time when children were meant to be seen and not heard and to respect their elders above all else. But if we deconstruct the lessons that they teach, we can easily see how they put our kids’ safety and wellbeing at risk.

Here are six ways to ensure that you respect your children’s personal space and boundaries. 

  1. Let them choose who to hug and kiss

Forcing a child to hug a relative or a family friend is one of the most common ways in which we disrespect their boundaries. Uncle Joe might feel like he knows your child thanks to the wonders of social media, but to your little one Joe is nothing but a scary stranger.

When faced with our children’s hesitation, we often insist by saying, “Go on, don’t be rude! Give Uncle Joe a hug.” This unwittingly teaches our kids to ignore their instincts and internal alarms. Respecting their boundaries can help protect them against abuse or exploitation.

Instead of hugging or kissing, your children may choose to greet adults with a smile, wave, handshake or high five. If Grandma accuses them of having bad manners because they won’t kiss her, gently explain why you’re trying to respect their choice.

  1. Let them decide if they want to sit on Santa’s lap

We might giggle at photos of crying children sitting on Santa’s lap, but the big man in red can be terrifying for tots. Let your little ones observe Santa for a while and then ask if they’re ready to see him. If they don’t want to sit on his lap, sit beside Santa and ask if they’ll sit on your lap. Their experience will be much more positive if you stay by their sides to ease their fears. 

  1. Say no to spanking

Not only does spanking teach our children that their boundaries mean nothing to us, a recent meta-analysis of 50 years of research found that it’s associated with defiance, antisocial behavior, aggression, mental-health issues and cognitive difficulties. 

It might feel difficult to break the cycle if you grew up in a spanking household, but you can teach yourself to use gentler methods of discipline. When you feel yourself getting worked up and you’re worried that you might spank your child, try the S.T.O.P. mindfulness technique: 

  • Stop what you’re doing
  • Take a few deep breaths (turning away from your child can help)
  • Observe the physical sensations and emotions that you’re feeling
  • Proceed with a more conscious approach

Alternatives to spanking include getting down on their level and trying to solve their problem, doing something silly to distract them, and redirecting their attention to another task.  

  1. Respect their feelings

How often have you told your children to “stop crying” or that there’s “no reason to be upset”? While it might seem like a natural thing to do when they’re having a meltdown, it teaches them that negative emotions such as anger, sadness and fear aren’t acceptable or should only be expressed in certain contexts. 

Instead, try to validate their emotions by putting them into words. You could say, “I understand that it’s very upsetting that I cut your toast into squares rather than a heart shape. Can you eat it like this today and tomorrow I’ll make you heart-shaped toast?” It isn’t always possible to deal with your child’s tantrums so calmly (especially if they happen in a public arena!), but when you do it teaches them that you respect their full range of emotions.

  1. Allow them to enter social situations at their own pace

If your child needs some time to assess a social situation before they’re ready to join in, do your best to respect and support them. Rather than forcing them to say hello to everyone as soon as you arrive at a birthday party, take them off to a quiet corner and chat about the decorations, games and food you can see. When they feel comfortable enough, they’ll join in the festivities.

You should also avoid telling other partygoers that your child is “shy” or “needs time to warm up”. If your child hears you, they could feel embarrassed or internalize those labels.

  1. Respect their privacy 

Unless you have a good reason to be worried for your child’s safety, don’t snoop through their room, diary or phone. If your child is generally responsible and reliable, invading their privacy without a solid motive sends the message that you don’t trust them and could push them to become more secretive. (Of course, if you’re in any way concerned about your child’s wellbeing, this rule doesn’t apply.)

Likewise, don’t share details about your child’s personal life on social media or with extended family and friends. Not only is it embarrassing for them, it’s also likely to deter them from telling you their secrets and feelings in the future. Earn your child’s trust by showing them that you’re an impenetrable fortress when it comes to their personal business.


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