Helping Kids Set Healthy Boundaries

“No” used to mean no. Nowadays it’s more of a suggestion or an invitation to negotiate just how hard you will work to change my mind.

But what if the answer needs to be no?
What if the right response is no, but I know you really want me to say yes?
What if danger lay around that bend and I need the car to stop right here?

This is when our kids have to mean no and say so, graciously but unapologetically. But that’s not as easy as ‘just say no.’ We need to help them find the right the words and teach them how to use them.

“Politeness doesn’t mean pushover,” writes Jackie Ashton, in her Washington Post Parenting column, Mind Over Manners, but this doesn’t come naturally. We need to teach it to our kids. And that’s best done while they’re still taking turns on the playground, and well before it’s taking hits at the teen party.

The idea that we need to teach kids how to speak up for themselves may sound ironic, given the current trend in our public dialogue. But much of that chatter happens at a distance in anonymous comments or posts. Face to face can be a very different matter. And given our predilection for communication via screen, kids are getting less and less practice with that. Body language and non-verbal cues may send a very different message from our words when we are feeling conflicted.

Girls, especially, need extra help with this, according to Ashton

“Middle-school-aged girls in particular start to shy away from expressing their authentic preferences (in order) to fit in. …Girls often need help recognizing that self-assertion is not rude or aggressive, and they also often need explicit instruction on how to speak up for themselves, how to claim their strengths and how to accept a compliment.”

Middle school is a time of big change and many conflicting thoughts and emotions. Kids are learning about themselves and how to relate to their peers as well as new ways to relate to their parents and siblings. Confidence is low and insecurity is high. It’s a time when sports and athletics could provide a perfect practice zone for these interactions, but instead, a majority of kids drop out. The ones who stick with it –  often the especially talented or capable ones – are sometimes faced with holding their ground against adults who apply undue pressure to influence kids’ decisions.

I see this all the time: the high-performing, high-achieving kid who doesn’t want to let anyone down. She thinks the only right answer is yes, even when she’s already pushed past her limit of hours in the day and days in the week. We need to help these kids choose what’s best for them, not what other’s tell them is needed.

img_2076We can help them by:

  • First, checking our own behavior – How do we say no? Do we have a clear sense of our own boundaries?
  • Modeling how to ask for what we need – Do we ask honestly and graciously or badger and complain?
  • Helping our kids develop self-awareness – Are kids tuned into their surroundings and their companions or into technology and entertainment?
  • Using family dinner table (or chauffer to practice) talk time – Communication is key and subtext can be revealing. What do we really mean by what we say?
  • Practice, Practice, Practice – Role plays can be fun and illuminating. How much easier is it to perform after plenty of good rehearsals?

Navigating sports as a youth competitor is a perfect practice zone for the “No” skill. Here are some practice phrases for your tween or teen to try out:

“I know you need everyone at practice, but our music rehearsal is mandatory for the show opening this weekend. I will give 100% to the team at the other 3 practices.” (Restate the expectation. Clearly express the conflict. State what you CAN do.)

“I’m flattered you think I would make a great addition to your team, but in order to devote time to my schoolwork, my family and my other team, I have to decline your offer.” (Diffuse conflict by expressing gratitude. Reaffirm your reasoning. Clearly and succinctly state your decision. Walk away.)

And in our current environment where experimentation with drugs, alcohol and sex are being called epidemic, all youth need to be armed with a No …

“Thank you for inviting me, but that kind of party is not my scene (or their wording).” (Appreciate the gesture. State your decision without judging their behavior or decision.)

In a society where maintaining our boundaries in word and deed is becoming increasingly difficult, our most important job may be to help our kids learn how to draw that line in the sand and then walk away graciously with no regrets.

For more on setting boundaries in relationships using good communication, check out this article at the inlp (international neuro-linguistic programming) center.

Next Up: A Pediatrician Helps us Learn How to Help Our kids Say No To the Pressure toward Early Specialization in Youth Sports


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