Boundaries: Helping Kids Feel Safe
We’re grateful for this week’s post by “Coach Sarah,” a certified coach who helps women set boundaries as they heal from betrayal trauma. Find out how she mentors her son to deal with his own trauma by helping him set boundaries. Excellent advice for all parents!
My son lay in bed, listless. He had missed four days of school that week with migraines —migraines caused by the stress and anxiety of having his dad back in his life. I tried to help him set up some boundaries regarding his dad. We started with setting certain days and times when his dad could call to talk to him, but my son wasn’t getting any less anxious. So, there I sat, trying to figure out how to help my son.
I felt so powerless.
So I tapped into what I knew from coaching my clients around how to set healthy boundaries. I asked him how he felt about the current boundaries we had set. Did he feel like they were too strong or not strong enough? The short answer was that he didn’t know. He was confused. He was scared. He didn’t know what to do in this situation.
And then it hit me like a ton of bricks —the weight of which settled in my stomach. I instantly connected with being in a similar place a few years before when I was trying to figure out if I could stay in my marriage. How I wished, at that moment in my own life, that someone could/would decide for me! And I knew in that moment, looking at my son, that though I was trying to be helpful by letting him (a 13-year-old boy) speak into what he wanted for his boundaries, what he needed was for me to set the boundary for him. So, I did. And his migraines went away. I learned an important lesson that day.
New lessons learned
There is safety in good boundaries. That’s why we need them. That why our kids need them!
But how do we do that? Boundaries are difficult enough to figure out as an adult, let alone when you’re a child!
Obstacles in setting healthy boundaries
- A child's developing mind may not be ready to anticipate the natural consequences of enforced boundaries.
- Knowing when to include the child in the boundary setting, and when to decide for them.
- The child’s inability to communicate what they’re thinking, feeling, or needing.
- A child’s tendency to feel responsible for the needs and feelings of the parent the boundary is being enforced upon.
- Confusion that could arise from conflicts between deeply held values. For example, a child who believes they should be loving and kind may feel conflict with a boundary that limits a parent’s access or ability to communicate with them.
Keep good things in, and bad things out
That night, sitting with my son, I pulled out a tried and true analogy —one I often use with my clients to visualize how to know what boundaries to set.
Imagine your home with a yard and a fence around the yard. Why do we have the fence? Well, to keep the dog from running away, to keep our things safe from people taking them, to keep the coyotes out of our yard, to keep strangers from coming onto our property, etc.
Basically, we have fences around our yard to keep the good things in, and the bad things out.
But that night, talking with my son, I realized it was more complicated than that. So, this time, I added to the analogy. I told him, “It’s difficult when you don’t know if something is good or bad. When that happens, we should keep it out of the yard until we do know that it’s safe for it to be allowed in.”
If you're in the situation where you need to enforce protective boundaries for your child, it’s important to have a few key principles in mind:
- Boundaries are complicated. There are different kinds of boundaries. Some boundaries define; others protect.
- Boundaries take time to figure out. There's a process of trial and error, to see what works for each person. Different people have different needs (This includes our children!).
- Protective boundaries are flexible. For example, if safety and trust is being restored, the boundaries can be lessened; however, if safety and trust is continuing to be damaged, the boundaries can be increased.
- Healthy boundaries are created out of our needs for safety, stability, peace of mind, etc.
Questions that help create good boundaries
Forming healthy boundaries is kind of an art, and it takes time to become a master at it. Here are a few questions to help you get started:
1. Where do I and my child(ren) not feel safe? Where is there fear? Where is there instability?
2. What, or who, is the source of those feelings/circumstances?
3. Can I minimize their exposure to that situation or those people? Do I need to? Can I remove them from those situations or those people?
4. How can I create the peace and safety I and my child(ren) need? What resources are available to me? Which people can I ask to be my allies?
Teaching our children healthy boundaries is one of the most loving things we can do for them. Helping them to develop a strong voice (being able to own their 'yes’s' and their 'no’s', and knowing they have the right to ask for what they need to feel safe) empowers them to know how to navigate relationships and recognize when they are not healthy. What better gift can we give to our children!
Learning to set boundaries yourself is the first step to helping your children. Consider Coach Sarah’s Betrayal Trauma Recovery topic sessions, Setting & Holding Healthy Boundaries as a good start to keeping your children safe.