April 25: Helping Children Hold A Boundary
This month, in collaboration with the Center for Parents and Teachers, I led a webinar for teenagers. I spoke for about 40 minutes and then offered time for questions. For the next 30 minutes, the teens in attendance asked so many incredibly thoughtful and poignant questions. Several of those questions had to do with how to help and support friends who are struggling, and this led me to thinking about how parents can help children learn to respectfully hold a boundary.
When children are young, a strategy I recommend is teaching them scripts to help them self-advocate and then practicing those scripts so that they become more automatic and easier to use in a stressful moment. One of my favorite simple scripts is, “Please stop, I don’t like that,” perhaps paired with holding up a hand like a stop sign. If a young child feels overwhelmed by someone else violating their physical space or grabbing their toys, it can be so useful for them to have practiced these words. That way, they don’t need to think about what to say in an overwhelming moment, they can just repeat the words that they have practiced with you. It can be particularly effective to practice these skills with your child’s stuffed animals or other favorite toys or characters. You can take turns playing different roles so that the parent is able to model holding a boundary and then the child can practice saying the words themselves.
Another great phrase is, “I’d rather not.” I think of this as a lifetime script, because it can be equally effective when used by a young child who is being tempted by a peer to do something unkind or by a middle schooler whose friend suggests trying something contraband. Part of the beauty of this phrase is that it does not offer judgement of another person’s choice. Rather, it is a way for a child to clearly state their own choice and hold the boundary between what my friend is choosing to do and what I choose to do.
Sometimes children and teenagers are in a situation where a friend needs help with a more serious problem. In these circumstances, it is important to encourage children to reach out to an adult for support. Younger children can be encouraged to look for a trusted adult if they need help solving a problem. For tweens and teens, choose a calm time when you can talk with your child individually and ask them to think of one or two kind, caring adults whom they trust. This might be a parent or other relative, teacher, coach, or school counselor. Encourage them to write down the names of these adults in a notebook or planner or on their phone. If your tween or teen is worried about a friend’s safety, concerned that a friend is making risky decisions, or is faced with a situation that feels like too much to handle on their own, encourage them to trust those feelings and seek guidance from one of their trusted adults. Explain that part of being a good friend is knowing when a problem is too big to be solved by a peer and requires the support and resources that an adult can offer.