Practical tips for making boundaries work
* Use boundaries to let your children know your limits and tolerances, your availability, the conditions under which you will participate in some activity, which privileges are available, or the conditions under which a privilege is available to your children. Use boundaries to give your children information they can use in making decisions.
* Using past experience (and common sense), anticipate what you will want and what your kids will probably want as well. Consider both your needs and their needs when formulating your boundary.
* Be clear and specific about what you’re asking for, what you would like, which options are available, the times or conditions under which a positive outcome is available, or any other factors that your children will need to know to make choices or anticipate a particular event.
* Communicate your boundary before there is a conflict, or before the conflict continues or re-occurs: “We’re not buying any toys today.” “If you want to get your homework in on time, you need to remember to take it to school yourself.”
* State boundaries positively, as promises rather than threats: “You can watch the movie if your homework is done by 7:00,” rather than, “You’re not watching the movie if your homework isn’t done by 7:00.”
* Be prepared to follow through. If you’re not willing to withhold positive outcomes until your kids so their part— whether it’s finish their homework, complete a chore, put their plan in writing, or tone down their voices— don’t bother setting the boundary in the first place.
* Examine your attachment to particular outcomes. For example, if you are heavily invested in your children’s success in school in order for you to feel OK about yourself as a parent, you may have a hard time following through on your decision to allow your children to be responsible for getting their homework, lunch money, or permission slips to school on their own. Either refrain from setting this boundary (and don’t complain when your kids need you to deliver their “stuff” for them) or use your resistance to following through as a chance to examine your need to protect your kids (or yourself) from their forgetfulness.
* Watch the tendency to make excuses, give warnings, or let things slide “just this once.” This is a great way to teach kids that you don’t really mean what you say and that it’s OK to disrespect your boundaries. If you want to build in some flexibility, do so before your children blow it. One parent, for example, let his son earn “bonus” cards by doing extra chores or making curfew a certain number of nights in a row. Then, if his son wanted to stay out an extra 15 minutes, he could trade in cards for the privilege ahead of time. Another parent gave each kid one “Get out of Jail Free” card every month, to trade for chores or small, specific extensions on curfew, agreed to ahead of time.
* If the child is unable to perform or complete his or her end of the bargain because the request or time limit was truly unreasonable, because the instructions were not clear or understood, or because the child was developmentally incapable or lacked the necessary skill or experience to do what you want, it’s a bad boundary. This is not the same as making excuses for a developmentally capable kid who simply doesn’t come through. In this instance, back up and try again (delaying the request until the child is more capable, setting a different boundary, or offering more clarity, instruction, or a more reasonable time limits, for example). Do not withhold positive outcomes at this time.
Excerpted and adapted from The Parent’s Little Book of Lists: Do’s & Don’ts of Effective Parenting by Dr. Jane Bluestein, © 1997, Health Communications, Inc., Deerfield Beach, FL.