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Children need boundaries to grow



Carin-Lee Masters


Becoming and being a parent is challenging. Just as much as it brings us enormous fulfilment, it is also one of the roles in our lives that’s beset with all kinds of frustrations and challenges, which we are often ill-prepared for.

Many parents I deal with either have an “old-school” autocratic or punitive approach to parenting or some go to the other extreme and may be totally permissive, allowing the child to rule the family.

Several researchers report that in today’s society, many households have “mini-democracies” where a child’s voice or opinion is equal to those of their parents.

In some families, the child’s voice even takes over. And in other families, certain parents will even fully sacrifice his or her own needs to ensure their child is happy all the time. This is not healthy for the child’s emotional development in the long run.

Culturally, the pendulum has swung from focusing on children’s behaviour (in previous generations) to mainly focusing on children’s emotions (today). With this, however, there has been an exponential rise in anxiety disorders in children and teens, as well as many unhappy and frustrated parents.

Although it’s extremely important for children’s emotions to be heard and validated, a parent still needs to be in charge to create a secure and stable environment for their children. In particular, parents are responsible for setting boundaries in the household, in order to foster an environment where children can be heard, but also encouraged to develop values including patience, consideration, self-awareness, and self-discipline.

Here are four reasons why parents need to be “in charge” of boundary-setting in order to set the tone for a child’s emotional development:

* Parental boundaries allow children to feel safe. Secure boundaries set by the parent (not negotiated by the child) reduce anxiety.

Rules and routines like meal times, bed times and homework time – set and monitored by the parent – create predictability in a child’s life. Predictability reduces uncertainty, which reduces anxiety.

Parents should not value a child’s self-expression over a child’s sense of security. Setting clear limits or boundaries doesn’t make you a mean or unfair parent. When a child tries to negotiate a later bed time this comes at a cost of the child’s sense of security because it allows the child to feel he or she has more power than the adult.

Children will test the limits but parents need to handle these situations lovingly but firmly, responding from principles which they are trying to foster in the child, and not from the emotions the child’s behaviour may stir up in them.

* Children have undeveloped prefrontal lobes (thought areas of the brain).

This means that a child’s brain (and thinking capacity) is not fully developed, and hence they shouldn’t be given decision-making power over adults. According to child developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, “magical thinking” predominates in children aged two to seven. This “magical thinking” is what makes children so imaginative and full of wonder. But it also suggests that young children are not equipped to be in charge of big decisions – beyond making simple choices such as whether they want jam or cheese on their bread.

School-aged children from eight to 11 are largely concrete (not abstract) in their thinking. This is why primary school children enjoy rules and often like the world to be black and white. After all, structure ensures predictability and security.

It is only after age 12 that children begin to develop more abstract and nuanced thinking.

This is why adolescence is a more appropriate time to experiment with various rules and limits.

Yet parents still need to be “in charge” of setting boundaries with their teenage children, as they are still developing the prefrontal controls around impulsivity, decision making, and problem-solving.

Even as we know more about brain development, we seem to have become less attuned to thinking about our children’s unique developmental stage, and what is an appropriate level of choice for them to have. Many parents negotiate with their five year olds as if they are mini-adults; thinking they understand the gradations of why rules change, but they don’t.

For this reason parents need to decide on what is best for their children to feel safe and ensure these rules are kept in place.

* Parental limits disrupt narcissism and entitlement. For many families, a child’s emotions, needs and desires can run the parent’s whole day rather than the other way around. Narcissism (self-centredness) is normal, and is developmentally appropriate in small children.

Yet unless the early-development narcissism is eventually disrupted (with healthy parental boundaries), children continue to feel like the world revolves around them.

Parental boundaries allow children to grow up, understand they can’t always get their way, to be more patient and mature. Knowing that there is a limit to how much comfort and pleasure their parents will provide, children can learn to cope with disappointment.

* We all learn from struggling a bit. In any developmental task from walking to talking to learning to read, children need to struggle.

Struggle is how we mature and learn mastery of new things. If children are brought up with the expectation that they will always be “in charge”, they will want and expect things to be easy. They also expect parents to remove struggle and fix their disappointments.

A parent in charge knows it is not only okay for a child to struggle with a limit or a rule, it is actually good and healthy. Parents who set boundaries are not trying to make their child happy in the moment. Rather, more importantly, they are trying to have their child develop skills to successfully launch into the world at 18 years (or 21 for others).

So the next time you are acquiescing your parental authority to your child, remember it is not helping them in the long-term. Instead, with healthy boundaries, he or she will have more maturity, resilience, adaptability, feelings of safety and connection to others.

* This column will appear every two weeks. Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist in private practice. While she cannot enter into correspondence with individual readers, she will try to answer as many queries as possible through this column or refer you to organisations that can assist. Write to her at helpmecarin@inl.co.za or send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774. Provide sufficient information about your difficulty.

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