(Recovering) perfectionist parents may have difficulty teaching their kids to set boundaries because of their own tendency to people-please. But teaching boundaries is essential for your child’s safety, so that they gain the confidence to say, “No”.
An important strategy you can use, starting when your child is very young, is to say “no” on their behalf until they have the confidence to say it for themselves—no matter how long it may take (you may be doing this on and off for years).
This can be difficult if an adult family member is crossing a boundary (e.g., tickling after they say ‘stop’, insisting on a kiss/hug good-bye).
Maybe your child has said “no” to them, or maybe you can tell by your child’s body language that they don’t want to engage with the person.
It can be hard to speak up to our parents or other family members because a part of us wants to keep the peace and make the relationships work. But our kids need us to.
My son is now 17yo and he does a pretty good job of standing up for himself and others. I always said “no” on his behalf if anyone was tickling or doing something else that I knew he didn’t want, but just didn’t yet have the words or the courage to say “no” on his own. Fortunately, it didn’t happen often.
I’d always speak kindly but firmly, but if there was any hint that they weren’t stopping their behaviour, my tone changed to a firmer Mama Bear tone–“He said NO”. I’d explain how respecting his boundaries about his body is what teaches him the confidence to say no to others as he gets older–and I also made it clear that it wasn’t negotiable.
When my son was in grade 5, I had a Mom of a younger child (~7yo) approach me one day after school with tears in her eyes because she’d overheard my son telling her child that “you don’t have to do what the other kids say, if you don’t want to”, when they’d been pressuring her. Her child was shy and hesitant to speak up for herself. She wanted me to know what he’d done, and how grateful she was that he’d looked out for her child.
While we need to set boundaries with as much kindness and compassion as possible, our first obligation is to our children, their safety, and supporting their boundaries. We can do our best to avoid hurting other adults’ feelings, but as adults, it’s their responsibility to manage their feelings and heal their past wounds.
Most importantly, when we say “no” on behalf of our child, in that moment when they hear our words and they literally *feel* the energy of us firmly drawing a line that cannot be crossed–they learn that their needs, instincts and gut feelings are worthy of being listened to and need to be honoured.
That’s what teaches them how to honour their instincts and have the courage to do it for themselves and others in future.