Picture of Dr. Sam Himelstein

Dr. Sam Himelstein

Co-Founder and CEO, Family Spring, Inc.

Three Qualities of Healthy Boundary-Setting with Kids

“Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously” — Prentis Hemphill

There are two types of boundaries we need to maintain with our kids. First of all, we need to recognize that our children are their own unique selves, not just an extension of us. (Think about parents who over-identify with their children’s success in academics, sports or the arts.) The second type of boundary involves the limits we set on their behavior.

There are three factors to consider when setting limits with your kids. They should be predictable, age-appropriate, and positive.

Predictable: It’s important that your children consistently understand where your boundaries lie. To give an extreme example: Imagine that one day you let them play video games until midnight, and the next day you take away their console and insist they go to bed at seven p.m. Of course, this would make it impossible for them to understand the household rules and predict your reactions from one day to the next. Unpredictability leads to uncertainty which leads to a lack of emotional safety and trust.

Age-Appropriate:  Make sure the boundaries you set are age appropriate both biologically and developmentally. Younger kids need more supervision and guidance. Older kids need more privacy and autonomy. So a mature 17-year-old shouldn’t be tracked 24/7, and could negotiate a reasonable curfew and how often to check in with you if they’re out at night.

Positive: A positive relationship with your kids doesn’t have to always feel “happy” or “upbeat.” In fact, there will be times that your kids may say they don’t like you as they strive to separate and become more independent. Your boundaries will get tested at times, and it’s important to respond as calmly and firmly as you can. This means not giving in to a tantrum, but also not screaming back at them.

“Kindness should not take place in the absence of limits, and limits are most effectively reinforced using kindness. It is not usually kind or nice to allow [kids] to step over the line, ignore rules, or compromise expectations or boundaries. Teens [in particular] are famous for negotiating, pushing back against limits, and convincing adults to give in. […] They also express the greatest respect and connection with those adults who stay consistent and have high expectations for them—including the expectation that they will exercise self-control and follow the rules.”  

Baron & Rathbone, What Works with Teens, p. 140

A primary caregiver is the most important relationship in a child’s life. If they can view you as (generally, across their development) positive, you’re doing more for them than you know. If you ask your child when they’re 28 years old what it was like being raised by you, the goal is that overall they’d characterize their upbringing as “positive” even if there were tough times along the way. Think about what you want your relationship to be like with your kid(s) when they’re 28. Now work backwards with that goal in mind.

Your relationship with your child has the potential to become their internal working model for all other relationships in their lives. Setting predictable, healthy, positive boundaries for your kids will help them grow into strong, capable, emotionally-balanced adults. 


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