'Boundaries' has become a buzzword in the therapy world recently, eliciting a litany of literature, and for good reason. Boundaries are applicable in all ages and stages of life.
Who and what are boundaries for, and how does one set boundaries?
A boundary can be defined as a dividing line, one that marks a limit, and in a therapeutic sense that limit can be physical, emotional, and/or behavioral. For young children, boundaries can include concepts such as personal space both for the child and for others. In a social setting, children learn rules and norms so they can follow acceptable behavioral boundaries.
Physical and emotional boundaries may be less clearly defined for young children. It is not uncommon for family members to expect children to behave in ways in which the child may feel uncomfortable, yet the parent may expect the child to perform despite the child's misgivings.
An example of this would be a child who is encouraged to hug or kiss a family member even when the child is resistant. 'Malka, come on, give Aunt Sara a hug!' When a parent encourages a child to be physically demonstrative despite the child's reluctance, the subconscious message may be received that they need to put their own desires aside in order to please others. This subliminal message seems innocent enough, but can deeply impact a child's personal safety and even future relationships.
Of course there are times in life when one must set aside their own desires, but for safety reasons one must be cautious when it comes to physical boundaries, even for young children, and even for what seems on a surface level to be of little consequence.
To encourage children in feeling empowered to define and maintain boundaries, parents should be supportive of children's decisions and support them within situations when possible. A parent might make a statement such as 'Bubby, Sori loves you, but she does not feel like hugging right now'. Within the nuclear family, even children and siblings can be made aware of expressing affection only as desired by the recipient. 'Dovi, you can only hold Yehuda if he wants to be held!'
To help children feel more comfortable when anticipating family visits, parents and children can work together to find solutions that are comfortable for the child to express love (or any feeling) in a way that does not violate their personal boundaries.
Emotional boundaries are necessary for children to grow into self aware adults. Imagine if you have a hard day at work, and call a friend to tell her about it. Think about what response you would like to hear when phoning your friend for support. Likely, it is not 'oh, at least it's over now', or 'tomorrow will be better'. Chances are you would prefer to have your feelings heard and validated. Caregivers may tend to dismiss children's feelings, depriving them of an opportunity to learn the skill of empathy. As well, the opportunity is lost for the caregiver to create a safe emotional space for the child and promote self-awareness.
Validating a child's feeling provides the child with an acknowledgement that their feeling is real, whereas 'fixing' or 'changing' the feeling for them diminishes one's sense of worth. Complaints, concerns, and feelings that children communicate to caregivers should be addressed empathetically to give children a strong sense of self and enhancing their ability to know their boundaries.