HOW DO WE HOLD BOUNDARIES RESPECTFULLY? Non-Violent Communication and Parenting

We welcome Natalie Christensen back to our Parent Allies website with open arms. Now, part of being an ally to our child is recognising that as the adults, we are the power holders and our job is to try and share this with our children. In part this means looking for as many opportunities to say YES to our children.  But there is an important nuance around this yes-ness. Because sometimes it isn’t healthy, for us, our child, our family or our mental health to say yes. Sometimes we need to hold boundaries. Here are some great pointers about how we can do that respectfully.

Boundaries lay the groundwork for how we want to be in relationship with others. When it comes down to it, boundaries are really just preferences – albeit high-level ones – still just preferences for how we would like to be treated. We like to think of them this way because when we start seeing them as concrete rules that others MUST follow OR ELSE, we get involved in domination and control.

With our kids the temptation to control is definitely there. They are little and we can simply block their path, or remove an item from their grip. The inherent power dynamic when one person is little and the other is big gives us the illusion that being in control is the name of the game. But this is dangerous territory for two reasons:

a) We are never actually in control, we just think we are. We can’t actually make them stop screaming, or kicking the dog – we can only shame and threaten enough to wish they hadn’t. Sometimes we might think that the punishment will be enough to prevent future screaming or kicking, but in reality their anger just bobs up in a different place. Furthermore, eventually kids grow and there is no longer a high enough shelf to put the candy. They can grab a ladder just as well as you can.

b) When we use our might to control kids that is what they learn: If I’m bigger and more powerful I can treat others however I want. They have to do what I say because they fear me. That isn’t what I want to teach my kids. And what’s worse, until the day they decide to use their might against others, they have learned to be followers. Maybe for the first decade and a half they follow the parent – and perhaps we find this quite enjoyable – but eventually this is not the case. Peers become the power force to follow, and the child, so well versed in following orders, is perfectly primed to follow these peers wherever they go.

If we don’t use our might to manipulate our kids into minding our boundaries, how do we do it? We rely on the relationship. Our kids want the relationship to work out, instinctually they know that being on the same team with us is to their benefit. If we make it a point to stay in connection with our kids then they are neurally attuned to considering our experience and finding a way to make things work. In this light, very often saying something, like: “I don’t like that” is enough to bring their awareness to a boundary, and a connective conversation can begin.

For example:

“I don’t like it when your hands have juice on them and then you run them through my hair. I feel yucky when that happens. Would you be willing to wipe them before touching my hair? Or kiss me instead?”

(This is miles away from: “Hey! The rule is to clean hands after snack! What were you thinking?”?”)

Another example:

“We are having friends for dinner tonight. I feel a little anxious about that. Sometimes I need the space to be organized and tidy to feel more calm. Would you be willing to pick up the legos from the floor today?”

(Instead of: “I’m sick and tired of your toys all over the place! Pick them up or no dessert for you tonight!”)

Boundaries work best when they are seen as starting points for agreements. When both parties are fully invested in the relationship the task of negotiating agreements that work for everyone is pretty easy.

There are times, especially with young kids, that we as the parent have to hold a boundary that the child does not like. We make decisions for the health and safety of the family team that are not always welcome – meaning it isn’t immediately possible to find a mutually beneficial agreement around the boundary. In this case the children are likely to have very big emotions. Fortunately we don’t think of that as a bad thing. When emotions are valued and heard within an emotional safe context there is a vital release for the child and that release serves the entire family system.

For example:

“No honey, we are not having a friend sleepover tonight.”

“But mom! You said we could have a sleepover today! I WANT one!”

“I’m sorry love. It’s not happening. The day got away from us and it’s too late to plan for that.”

“But that’s not fair!!!”

“I know it was important to you. Darn it.”

“It’s not too late, just call them and ask!!”

“Shoot. You’re really disappointed huh?”

“Yes! I’m mad at you! You are a bad mommy!”

“Wow. You’re super mad. Darn.”

We hold the boundary and offer empathy for the feelings that arise. When the child welcomes it we add touch, but most importantly we wait. Sometimes for several minutes. The anger, the disappointment, the rage, the sadness – all of that wells to the surface, and our connection drains it off. Eventually the child bobs up into their upper brain and can have an agreement-based conversation about the boundary.

“I was really looking forward to having a sleepover. Can I at least have one tomorrow?”

“Hmm. I think we might be able to work that out. I don’t think we have anything else planned for tomorrow.”

“Can my friend come over right after breakfast?”

“Gosh, I’m not sure that’s the best move for every body. I feel some concern about jumping in to that much social activity first thing. What do you think about after lunch?”

“Can it be an early lunch?”


Boundaries meet our need for taking care of ourselves and our family, they meet the child’s need for structure and a sense of security (even if they don’t always like where the boundaries turn up), and when handled well, they bring about deeper connection, which is a need shared by all.

When we get into using boundaries there are a couple things to watch out for:

  1. Using boundaries as a way to get away from our uncomfortable feelings. Sometimes we reach for a boundary because it seems like getting the kid to stop what they are doing will make our feelings of discomfort, powerlessness, or anger go away. Unfortunately feelings don’t get fixed by other people’s behavior. Once activated, emotions need to be seen, heard, and understood before they will release.

  2. Blindsiding our teammates. When we don’t see a boundary coming ahead of time we startle the child and inspire defensiveness and disconnection.

  3. Using a boundary as a form of punishment. Sometimes we are so triggered by the child’s action that our processing slips down into our lower brains – where we are inclined to respond with a fight, flight, or fright response. When we formulate a boundary from this brain state it is likely to be aggressive and punitive, not cooperative and connective.

  4. Not looking beneath the trigger. Often the potency of emotion we feel when our child steps over a boundary, or commits some other unenjoyable act, indicates a deeper level of activation. We think our emotion is solely based on the current circumstance so we find ourselves doubling down on the boundary, or looking to make a new, stronger agreement, but very often the emotion we are feeling is sourced in a previous experience – an event from our childhood or past relationship. Those feelings are potent because they have been simmering and haven’t received attention and support. Trying to address old feelings with a new boundary is not reliably successful.

There is so much more to say about boundaries. We have a course that has just launched that goes into further detail on the what, where, why, when, and how to set and maintain gentle connective boundaries. Hopefully this gives you a good taste!

Natalie Christensen is a mother, step-mother, writer, artist, coach, and certified Positive Discipline parent educator. Her aim is to support women and children in developing powerful emotional support systems that pave the way for lifelong success and happiness. Her joy is helping people feel good. Natalie is co-founder of The Center for Emotional Education, and co-creator of Feeleez.

No Comments

Leave a Comment