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Boundaries: A Tricky Balance

Can you remember a childhood experience of being forced to do something or stop doing something, and the adults involved didn’t understand your perspective at all? If you can recall such a situation, you might get in touch with anger and frustration. On the other hand, did you ever feel insecure as a child because you knew if you got upset enough, you could get your parent to back down? This is a tricky balance for all of us.

Children can feel frightened when their big reactions cause adults to change course. We have to be able to handle children’s natural distress at not getting their way, but that doesn’t mean we have to disregard their emotions. We can aim for the balance of being empathic but firm. “I know you don’t want to wear a mask when we visit Grandma. It doesn’t feel good when it’s hot, but that’s what’s needed right now.” Research shows that children feel more confident and able to handle stress when adults are authoritative but notice and validate feelings.

We all know this isn’t easy. Children’s emotional explosions can wear us down, and hard situations often occur when we are exhausted and have few internal resources left. A common example is a child not wanting to leave an activity. A parent comes to pick up a child from school, but the child falls apart because they want to keep playing on the big playground or in the preschool yard. The parent has been looking forward to a happy reunion, and the child’s intense emotion makes them question their own insistence on leaving in a timely way. Did I come too early? Should I accommodate?

We want children to know that we see them, they are not alone or bad because they feel frustration, anger, disappointment, sadness, jealousy.

There is no right answer to this, but experience teaches us that if we give in on one afternoon, the child, now empowered, will push the limits every afternoon they can. The clearer, more productive path might be to say, “I know how hard it is for you to leave when you’re having so much fun, but we have to go. Maybe we can plan ahead for you to stay on another day, and I’ll arrange to come later.” We aren’t giving in on the basis of the child’s strong feelings in the moment, but we’re showing we understand their feelings and want to stay connected. Calm, authoritative statements work better than over-explaining.

It's children’s job to have every different feeling and learn to name them and develop confidence over time in recognizing and managing them, without disbalancing everyone around them. We want children to know that we see them, they are not alone or bad because they feel frustration, anger, disappointment, sadness, jealousy. We hear their feelings and understand.

It’s our challenging job as adults to hold clear boundaries, even while we validate that all those feelings are just part of being human.


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