We encounter daily situations of «disobedience» on the part of children. It is normal and necessary that it happens when the child is in the moments of consolidation of his individuality. And even more so when dealing with people with whom the emotional involvement is intense, so we should not feel like victims.

There are always difficulties and contradictions when educating children but let us keep in mind that the lack of consistency and clarity in transmitting the rules makes children insecure and nervous (more crises, tantrums, and whims). Those who live with the child must agree on the rules and educational guidelines that will be asked. 

If disobedience is continuous, we should think that the child is not happy and that he/she is asking for help.

Why do they sometimes provoke us?

The child loses limits easily, which distresses him, so he calls the adult to see if the same thing happens to us and to know with our example how to react. What reassures him/her is to see our security (it is not that he is asking for a spanking to calm down).

As adults, we must adapt our authority to the new individual who is growing up, with his own desires and rights that come up against the limitations corresponding to the desires and rights of others.

What are boundaries for?

Throughout their growth, children need limits and rules that help them know their possibilities, how far they can go, and what is expected of them. It is about providing a frame of reference and not so much about what to do when the child becomes «impossible».

Limits help them grow, while punishments create anxiety and low self-esteem. Through them, you can teach your son or daughter self-discipline; he or she will learn to deal with his or her own responsibilities without being reminded, developing strategies to impose limits on himself or herself.

The first limits have to do with the care provided to the baby in the attention to his basic needs, and allow him to differentiate little by little what he is from what others are, the internal and the external, with which he will be able to advance in the organization of his personality.

Limits will also help the child learn to deal with uncomfortable emotions such as frustration, anger, boredom, or sadness. Every boundary is an opportunity to learn to manage emotions.

Through boundaries, we teach our children that we care about them. Very often, children test limits to see how adults will react. Implementing negative consequences for breaking the rules shows that the adult is not letting the situation get out of control, creating security in the child.

Thanks to limits, he/she will learn to be able to postpone the immediate satisfaction of his desires, which favors coexistence and socialization. They will also be able to advance in their autonomy, from the external control provided by the adult to the development of their own criteria, being responsible for their actions and self-control.

How to set boundaries?

When setting boundaries, we must consider certain factors that will help us to do it correctly:

  • Be clear that limits are necessary for the child.
  • Be calm when we request or prohibit something from the child, so he/she will be more willing to comply with what is asked of him/her. That is to say, do not wait to set limits when they have already exceeded our patience.
  • If the child reacts to a small frustration with a tantrum, we must wait until it passes, restrain him physically if there is a risk of injury, and then put into words what has happened («you got angry because of…»).
  • When we forbid something, we can offer the allowed alternative. Knowing how to give him alternatives helps them learn to decide.
  • It is better to select and establish the highest priority that we are going to ask for and wait until it is achieved, rather than trying to make him respect new rules. Neither wear out our authority in the face of unimportant details nor fall into the extreme of «let them do it» for everything.
  • Offer explanations or reasons to justify the demands («it can break… «you can hurt yourself… «it is not yours…») without trying to justify ourselves. 
  • Do not try to discuss the reason for the limit. It is enough to give a reasoned explanation of the expectation we have, sometimes silence is a powerful tool.
  • Few commands, but clear and expressed in a positive way (negative commands invite rejection, create more resistance and desire to transgress them). In other words, express what you want, not what you don’t want.
  • Make sure that the rules are appropriate to the child’s maturity level (make sure that the child understands them) and that they are coherent, not contradictory or arbitrary. And also, they must be true.
  • The limit must be set in time and the child must be made aware of it, and even know how much time he/she has to react to the proposed rule. We cannot always demand immediate obedience as soon as we try to set a limit since we are not looking for a submission but for learning. 
  • Involve your son or daughter in the creation of limits or house rules. In this way, not only are they motivated to follow the limits and routines by having participated in their creation, but they are also learning problem-solving skills.
  • Let’s try not to mix up the different situations; it’s not the best time to «teach» rules when we spend time having fun through play and conversation.

Setting boundaries in adolescents

In adolescents, being able to set boundaries is one of the best ways to improve communication and build more trust, thus reducing conflict. At this age, knowing how to set and shape boundaries (perhaps from when they were younger) forces you to recognize the fact that your son or daughter is growing up and needs the control established when they were younger to be loosened and adapted to their new circumstances so they can mature.

It is especially important in adolescents that the limit be very clear; the following formula can be used:

Limit or rule (what is not allowed) + exceptions to the rule + consequences of not complying.

Important points to keep in mind when setting limits for adolescents:

  • Be consistent with the rules, it is especially important to agree with everyone in the house on what the limits are and not to forget to apply the consequences. Adolescence is a period in which it is normal to try to find inconsistencies in the rules we are given in order to break them.
  • Allow them to understand the natural consequences of their actions and decisions. Many times, it is not necessary to set a limit but to make your son or daughter understand that he or she will be responsible for the consequences of his or her actions. For example, if their actions result in a financial cost, they will be responsible for paying for it with their own money, or they will do a chore around the house that is monetarily equivalent.
  • Respect in the same way you want to be respected. Adolescents are beginning to create their own identities and understand their place in the world, and to do so they need to feel respected as individuals by their parents. It is through mutual respect that we manage to set limits that they themselves choose to respect.

At the end of the day, we have to remember that rules and limits are essential, but from the support, affection, and above all the understanding that makes us understand the struggle between complying with certain rules and limits and the child’s need to assert their independence and autonomy. 

We must find a balance between the socialization of our children and their need for affirmation, autonomy, and independence. It is from here that they will be able to face the negative emotions that appear throughout their lives without having to recur to alternative ways (alcohol, drugs, violence…) to manage them.

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Psychology, Psychiatry and Speech Therapy
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