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How to Set Boundaries with the Ones It’s Hardest to Set Boundaries with–Your Kids

Dr. Meg Meeker

Dr. Meg Meeker

Most of us know the importance of setting boundaries. We do this with the adults around us—friends, bosses, in-laws. But when it comes to our kids, setting boundaries can be incredibly difficult. 

I recently interviewed boundaries expert Dr. Henry Cloud on my podcast. Dr. Cloud co-wrote what is now the classic book on boundary setting: Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life. I encourage you to listen to the full podcast episode here [direct link to episode].

In our conversation, we talked a lot about discipline because disciplining your kids is the ultimate form of boundary setting. In my experience as a pediatrician, I know many parents feel uncomfortable with discipline. Telling our kids no a hundred times a day is exhausting, implementing consequences and sticking to them is difficult, especially when our kids are so good at talking us out of them. 

This is why I think it’s important to reframe discipline as simply setting boundaries—healthy boundaries that are good for your kids and good for you. Not sure how to do this? Here are three simple ways to get started:

1. Be intentional. 

One of the biggest mistakes we parents make is disciplining on the fly. In other words, we create rules and consequences during an argument or when a child has acted up. This makes discipline very ineffective. One of the most important things to do for successful discipline is to decide what boundaries you need to set for each child. Explain to them to the child when you’re both relaxed and then tell him or her what the consequences will be for crossing the boundary or breaking the rule.

This makes it easier for both of you to know what to expect when your child acts up. If your child doesn’t know what’s going to happen, he’s not going to pay any attention to you. When your child knows what the rules are and what the consequences of breaking the rules will be, he is far more likely to keep them.

2. Choose one to three behaviors that are most offensive to you and discipline for these first. 

Sometimes it gets overwhelming when we’re disciplining our kids, particularly young ones. We feel that we say no all day long. Our kids don’t listen, and we burn out. Pick one, two or three behaviors that are dangerous, offensive or drive you the craziest and discipline for those. Get your child to obey you in those things and then move on to other rules. 

3. Once you set a boundary, stick to it.

One of the hardest parts of disciplining our kids is following through. We tell our kids what the rules are—the boundaries—and we give a consequence only to fail to keep it. This is normal. We’re tired, and our kids know just how to ware us down. But it’s so important to stick to the rules you set for your children. Why? Because that’s how life is. You and I have to stick to boundaries. We can’t show up to work half an hour late. There are many rules that we have to obey, and it’s really important to teach our kids they have to obey them too.

If you tell your teen curfew is 11 p.m. and if he comes home later his car will be taken away, and he comes home at 11:20 p.m., the boundary is crossed. The car gets taken away for a period of time, no matter what. I don’t care if he argues with you if he tells you you’re being unreasonable if he gives you a good answer for coming in at 11:20 p.m. The car gets taken away. This will set him up for a realistic future where parents aren’t setting the consequences but rather a boss or a bank account or something or someone much less forgiving than you.

Boundaries are good for kids. If you don’t consider yourself a good disciplinarian, think about setting boundaries instead. As an adult, you know they need and value for boundaries. Your kids need to know this too, and they can only learn it from you. 

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