How to Develop Age-Appropriate Boundaries in Children

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A child who has failed to develop healthy personal boundaries is a threat to himself and others. Down the road, teenage alcohol abuse and obesity are examples of how children without boundaries can behave. Lack of boundaries can lead to poor self-esteem and a lack of clear identity, making your child vulnerable to predators. You can help your child develop good boundaries through education, modeling and setting your own parental limits.

Babies and Toddlers

Keep your baby safe by imposing limits and boundaries through the word "no." Physically remove your child from dangerous situations. Externally imposing boundaries on a baby plants seeds that later help your toddler start setting personal limits.

Listen when your toddler learns the words "no" and "mine." Pediatrician Sue Hubbard indicates that these two words are among the first that toddlers learn, and it's important for parents to respect these limits when they are appropriate.

Provide corrective feedback to your toddler when respecting her "no" or "mine" would place her in danger. Toddlers learning rules during this developmental stage are likely to set their own reasonable, safe boundaries as they age.

Spend time with your toddler, getting to know him. Quality one-on-one time every day is important in shaping your child's behavior. Through the use of play, your child will explore with you any situations he is struggling to interpret. Gently introduce boundary setting through having toys set limits and boundaries with each other during the course of play.

Preschool and Elementary School

Expand your child's repertoire of boundaries during preschool by introducing "good touch/bad touch." The Ramsey County Social Services website advises teaching children the difference between "good touch" and "bad touch" when they are 5 to 7 years of age. Introduce the topics in a nonthreatening, nonemotional way. Make the lesson participatory by having your child complete sentences, such as, "Good touch for me is." Listen to how your child applies this logic.

Teach your child the importance of not talking to strangers. This is a difficult lesson for a child to apply so you will have to practice this behavior when you are in public. Do not be afraid to tell adults who try to engage your child in conversation that your child is practicing not talking to strangers. Praise your child when she exercises good boundaries in this area.

Encourage your child to express his feelings. Be aware that preschool- and middle school- age children have difficulty expressing their feelings, have a limited repertoire of feelings and do not understand mixed feelings during this stage. If your child is having trouble expressing himself, encourage him to draw or use play.

Invite playmates over so your child can learn to set and uphold boundaries. Supervise the play and encourage healthy limit-setting while correcting abusive behaviors. A child saying "no" for example is appropriate, however, a "no" accompanied by hitting another child is not appropriate.

Junior High and High School

Encourage independent limit-setting in a preteen or teenager to help her develop her own boundaries. Keep in mind that you will not agree with some of her decisions during this phase. It's important, when possible, to allow her to experience natural consequences of her actions so she can refine ineffective boundaries.

Set limits when your child is in danger. Sometimes preteens or teenagers think they have adult decision-making skills, when in reality, they are still just a child. Impose limits as necessary, even if these limits are met with resistance and hostility. Examples of areas in which teenagers need adults to set limits include drinking and sex.

Negotiate the limits when imposing parental restriction is not appropriate, but allowing the child to make his own decision may not be the best course of action, either. An example is a child choosing a career study path in school or going to a certain rock concert. Listen and offer advice, helping your child to come to his own decision whenever possible.

Allow your preteen or teenager to earn trust based on her ability to demonstrate good boundaries. If she has handled being alone for a weekend appropriately, it may be appropriate, for example, to allow her to travel independently to a weekend seminar. Do not be afraid to restrict boundaries for awhile if your child fails; it's normal for preteens and teenagers to be inconsistent in their ability to hold good personal boundaries.