Our school-aged kids have embarked on a new school year. For both parent and child, this time of transition can present both promise and challenge. One form of challenge is the significant pressure felt by kids to have, do, fit in and achieve. Kids perceive subtle and not-so-subtle pressures from the adults in their lives, from their peers and from society-at-large. Healthy boundaries, and communication of those boundaries, are important allies for our kids’ mental health and well-being—for a lifetime.
What are boundaries? Healthy boundaries are created by a child knowing what is okay and not okay for them, at a given time, along with the ability to communicate about that okay-ness or not-okay-ness—with both their peers and adults. We teach our kids that when they stand in who they are, they’re strengthened by the self-respect and self-love that arises from them honoring what’s okay and not okay for them.
Lack of healthy boundaries contributes to anxiety, stress, depression and overwhelm our kids. Meanwhile, creating and maintaining healthy boundaries can help our child feel confident, resilient, happy, comfortable in their life and centered in who they are. There are six approaches—three for you and three to teach your kids—that will help you guide your child in starting off their school year happier and healthier while building tools for life.
Start With You (For Parents)
1. Build your own boundary-setting skills.
Most anything in the parenting department must start with us, as opposed to simply things we tell our kids. In this case, having healthy boundaries and saying no are skills that many adults struggle with! And our kids learn most by what we model to them, as opposed to what we tell them. I invite you to use the approaches below to create healthy boundaries in your own life.
2. Release the pressure valve.
Our Gen Z kids have an immense amount of societal and parental pressure on them to be amazing and successful. Often without any definition of what comprises “amazing” or “successful.” The message often seems to simply be “more, better, faster.” Be mindful of how much you may be pressuring your child—even subtly— around grades, extra-curricular activities, college entry, and social status.
My youngest child, now 17, created a healthy boundary with me last year. He’s interested in attending college, and when I told him this past spring that we’d only visited one college and we needed to get cracking on college visits, he disagreed. “Mom, there’s basically two colleges I’m interested in going to, and I expect I’ll get in. I don’t want to take any more time out of school for these college visits. It’s stressful to constantly be catching up.” Point taken.
3. Pay attention to your child’s feelings.
If your child is continually talking about feeling stressed, overburdened or overwhelmed—or you notice them staying up too late to finish homework—open a dialogue about time management, saying no and boundaries. This doesn’t always ensure that they’ll open up to you at the moment, but the door has been opened for them to come to you for help, once they have time to sort out their feelings.
Teaching Your Kids How to Create Healthy Boundaries
1. Start a dialogue about “no” and healthy boundaries.
Open the conversation about boundaries and re-visit it every so often, especially when you sense a child is struggling with it. Help your child be clear about what is okay, and not okay, for them. They need to be able to say no to their peers and, in some cases, adults.
2. Rehearse phrases for “no” and boundary-setting.
It’s hard to say no and set boundaries; this is true for adults and even more so for kids. Our kids can feel supported in this endeavor by learning to communicate clearly and kindly by rehearsing phrases like, “That’s not comfortable for me” or “Thanks, but I’m not interested” or “Unfortunately, I can’t take that on” or “Sounds fun, but I have to pass.” These practiced responses can be game-changers when kids are able to pull them out at the moment, helping them navigate a situation that might otherwise feel uncomfortable.
3. Help your child build confidence and resilience.
Saying no and being clear about boundaries can help build confidence and resilience, and building confidence and resilience can help kids be better at saying no and being clear about boundaries. Unfortunately, practicing these skills that we’re discussing can be challenging from a place of “I’m not enough.”
Help your kids see and appreciate their strengths. I’ve often been amazed to find that my kids can be blind to their own inherent strengths and gifts and that it can be game-changing for them to have them lovingly pointed out for them. We can also encourage our kids to get involved in hobbies, chores, sports or organizations where they feel like a valuable creator or contributor.
Saying no and creating healthy boundaries is a muscle that we build up over time so that it becomes easier to call upon when we need it, and to use as a life tool. The great news is, that the effort you expend in working with your kids on this, will serve you as well!