How to Set Age Appropriate Boundaries

Nobody said that raising a child was easy!

Explain Clearly the Consequences 

As a parent, it’s your job to teach your child the differences between right and wrong, help them to develop, teach them how to do important tasks, how to be kind and generous towards others, and of course, you need to teach them to behave within boundaries to achieve all of the above. 

Many parents assume that boundaries are rules, but boundaries are a little more blurred than that in some ways. If you tell a child that you’re giving them rules, they’re far more likely to push that rule to the extreme and try and break it. That’s what children do – they’re exploring their limits and rules are the easiest way to do this. 

Healthy boundaries are the guidelines in which your child operates. It teaches them how far they can go, what they should do, and it also informs them of what will happen if they don’t work within those guidelines. For instance, you can tell a child that they can go out and play with their friend but they need to be home before 5pm. That is a boundary. If they break that boundary are consistently need to be reminded, i.e. you need to go around and knock on the door to get them to come home, you need to exercise the consequence that goes along with that boundary. In that case, it could be that they can’t go out and play for three days. 

The problem with boundaries is that they need to be age appropriate. Every child understands and sees the world differently but there are specific ways to see the world depending upon their age group. For instance, a teenager would have more responsibility than a child of 8-9 years. That means their boundaries are going to be different. A teenager may be able to stay out until 9pm, but a 9 year old wouldn’t be able to. 

Always Follow Up

Of course, healthy boundaries aren’t all about the time you return home from spending time with friends. They can be for anything. It can be about helping you to tidy up after dinner has been served, it can be tidying their room, staying clean, doing their homework. Boundaries can be attached to anything and they help your child to learn and develop in a  positive way. Without boundaries, chaos ensues! Your child won’t understand what they should and shouldn’t do, they won’t know the differences between right and wrong, and their behaviour will be rowdy and chaotic as a result. 

So, how can you set age appropriate boundaries for your child?

Think About The Boundaries You Want to Set For Their Age And Personality 

First you need to be clear in your own mind. Sit down and think about the most important boundaries and guidelines you want to set with your child at this specific moment. Remember that they will have new boundaries as they grow and age, and they may have had different ones when they were younger. So, what matters right now? What are they starting to do more of than they never did before? For instance, a young child probably doesn’t show much interest in going to play football on the park with their friends, but by the age of 7 or 8 years, they’re probably going to start asking if they can go. 

In order for this to happen in a safe way and also teach your child about coming home at the right time and why, you need to set a boundary for this particular thing, which is appropriate for their age. 

If you’re not sure what your child should and shouldn’t be doing at 7 or 8 years, or whatever age they are, you need to ask yourself what you’re comfortable with. Remember, every child is different. Some children are a little more streetwise than others, and some chidden are a little more sensible than others. 

Once you’ve come up with an idea, speak to your partner, family and friends if you’re still not sure, but always go with what feels right to you – you know your child better than anyone and you know what they can handle versus what they’re just not ready for. 

Explain The Boundary Using Language They Can Understand 

This is the biggest crux of age appropriate boundary setting. You need to use language that your child will understand when you are explaining the boundary to them. 

Let’s stick with the idea of your child wanting to go to the park to play football with their friends. You might have decided that they can go but only at the weekends, and they must be home by 5pm. To explain this to your child you need to be clear and use words that aren’t misleading or confusing. Avoid using ‘if this’ and ‘if that’ phrases, because that adds confusion and opens up the situation to be manipulated a little if your child wants to come home a little later one particular day! 

Explain that they can go and play football in the park with their friends but they can only go on Saturdays and Sundays and they must be home before 5pm. Then, you need to tell them why this is the case. If you don’t back up the boundary with a ‘why’, it’s going to be broken, for sure. 

So, in this case you could say that they can only go at weekends because they have school work to do during the week and it’s not safe to be out late after school on weekdays. Explain that during the weekend they can go out earlier because they’re not at school, hence why weekends are the decision here. You then need to tell them why 5pm. In that case, you can say that dinner will be ready shortly afterwards and they need to be home, showered and clean for dinner with the family. Explain that this is a boundary that has to be stuck to and if they break it there will be consequences. 

We’re going to talk about consequences shortly, but just another word on language. Do not use long explanations for younger children, but make sure you get the point across. Again, you know your child and the types of words they understand. Make sure it’s firm and clear however – use ‘do not’ rather than ‘I don’t want you to’, and ‘you must’ rather than ‘you shouldn’t’. 

Use a Consequence They Will Care About 

If you want a child to stick to a boundary you have to attach a consequence to that boundary that they’re going to want to avoid. Again, this will be different for every child but it’s also going to be different for every age. 

You could say that if your child comes home later than 5pm from the park, they cannot go and play football again the next day. That means they can’t go for a week because they’re only allowed to go at weekends. Follow that up with a stronger consequence for repeated breaking of the boundary – if they repeatedly come home late, you won’t let them go to the park again because it shows they cannot be trusted to stick to what you’ve said. 

The consequence has to be something they’re going to care about otherwise they’re just going to shrug their shoulders and go against it. Remember, children are strong-willed and they’re going to try and push their boundaries as they grow and develop. 

Ask Them to Explain The Boundary to You

To make sure that your child has understood the boundary and to further press home confirmation that it’s appropriate for their age, ask them to explain the boundary back to you. So, after you’ve told your child they can only go to play football at the weekends and must be back by 5pm, ask them what the boundary is. They will then repeat back what you’ve said and you’ll know they’ve understood you. 

Of course, you also have to ask them to repeat back what the consequence is going to be if they don’t do as you’ve said. 

It’s a good idea not to try and explain too many boundaries at any one time as you’re going to confuse your child and therefore lead to them rebelling against you. So, priorities the most important once and work slowly up from there. Once your child has started to adhere to a boundary on a very regular basis, almost as habit, you can implement a new one, and so on. 

Of course, older children will be able to work with more boundaries at any one time, so in that case, you can implement two or three at a time. 

Final Thoughts

Boundaries need to be age appropriate in order for your child to learn and to keep them safe too. If you try and teach them something which they’re just not ready for, they’re not going to understand the importance of it and you’re pushing them towards chaos. 

Move slowly and work within the capabilities of your child.

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