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Kids Love Boundaries

A long time ago I had a meeting with a mother who told me her teen “does whatever she wants” and “she’s disrespectful” and it “really hurts”. The interactions grew so tiresome. Mom would ask her for a simple thing, the kid would huff and puff and then it would turn into a fight. Mom felt defeated and hopeless.

I remember trying to give her a simple suggestion like: “Tell her she can’t go out with her friends until her room is clean”. Break it down for her and make it specific, I said. Reward her when she does it.

Mom looked at me wide-eyed and said, “You can do things like that? I mean, like you do with little kids?”

She meant creating conditions that include rewards and consequences. She had convinced herself you can’t do that with teens anymore; they’ve gotten too big and outgrown it.

So I asked her if she had a specific fear or if this was about not knowing the nuts and bolts of setting a limit. Or both. She said, “I’m afraid she won’t like me or want to hang out with me anymore.” Her eyes filled with tears and her face got red.

The real truth was the arguing was creating an atmosphere where there wasn’t any room left for loving interactions. She was inadvertently creating the situation she was trying to avoid by tiptoeing around and backing down when her teen protested. Her teen learned to protest ALL THE TIME.

So we created new mantras.

“Kids love boundaries because then they know exactly what to do.”

“Kids love guidance because it takes some of the pressure off of them.”

“Kids love boundaries because when they meet them, they have a sense of accomplishment.”

“Kids love boundaries because it makes them feel like someone else has their best interests in mind.”

“Kids love boundaries because it helps them focus their mind.”

“Kids love boundaries because they can’t contain their own emotions yet. Their brain is not yet developed and they need help.”

“Kids love having situations where they have a challenge and then a reward.”

“I am my child’s guide. When I set a limit, I am merely guiding.”

“Guiding is not the same as controlling.”

“I am the wise mind for my child who has too many other voices inside them to discern their own best interests.”

“I can listen and affirm their decisions and also still guide them.”

“I am the one who teaches them about respect and openness.”

These mantras can help because often times parents get confused between control and guidance. They don’t want to seem like they aren’t affirming. They don’t want to be controlling or hurtful. They are afraid and often times it’s related to their own childhood experiences. They felt hurt and controlled. They felt like the adults in their life weren’t affirming.

Boundaries, rules, and limitations create room for loving expressions to exist. Loving expressions can’t exist when kids are huffing, puffing, complaining, arguing, resisting, and generally being annoying.

This is one of the best reasons to stay on top of your boundaries. Who wants to hang out with a disrespectful child?

What are some ideas for setting limits?

“If you are going to complain the whole time (imagine a complaining kid you are trying to take to a restaurant), we will just go home.”

“You can get your nails done if you’ve met your curfew every day for a week/brought your grade to an A/done the laundry and put it away/finished cleaning your room.”

“Let’s pick a fun movie to watch if we get our rooms cleaned.” (Join in!)

“If you sweep the floor, I’ll mop and we will jam to that album you’ve been liking so much.” (Kids love to share things they are into… )

“If we get this homework done for the evening, then you pick one YouTube video you want me to watch.”

“If you try two bites of whatever is on your plate, I will let you pick the dessert.”

“If you finish putting away your laundry, we will take a drive together.”

“If we get the groceries put away, let’s go sit on the swing and talk.”

“Let’s see who can get our clothes put away the fastest!”

“Whoever tries their brussels sprouts first gets to sit in the front seat.” (Notice I didn’t say whoever finishes their brussels sprouts. We aren’t going for control, just openness.)

“If you finish the study guide, I will quiz you and you get two M&Ms for each right answer”.

“If you finish two hours of the driver’s training class and pass the quiz, we will get ice cream/make cookies.”

You get the idea here. Be creative and don’t be afraid to join in. Turn things into races, competitions, or find creative rewards. Little kids often work for simple things like stickers and pencils. Bigger kids work for things like highlights in their hair, time with friends, sharing music and videos or art. My daughter loves it if I say I will paint with her. She’s the painter in the family but it’s about the experience of teaching me something she loves.

And don’t get discouraged if these immediately don’t work. Kids that are used to resisting aren’t going to immediately put down their strategies. They are probably going to be confused at first when you change the script. Your job is merely not reacting to the resisting. Ignore it and stick with your limit. “Okay, whoever gets their room cleaned first gets to pick dessert!”

They will come around.

Good luck!

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Free Clear Mind Therapy provides in-person therapy in Fishers & Indianapolis and online therapy across Indiana. Specializing in anxiety therapy for teens, adults, and kids.

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