How To Set Healthy Parent Child Boundaries Without Guilt
Being a parent is rough. It often feels like you’re not getting a moment alone. Every time you turn around there is a child hanging on your leg, another closely following you behind and talking incessantly, and another bombarding you with demands from their room. It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin.
What’s worse is you strive to be an informed parent and read many parenting books. And the one conclusion you came to is that in order to raise your kids “the right way” you need to be ever present, always open and available, always empathetic, never let them be alone, and essentially be their emotional garbage disposal. No wonder so many parents feel burned out by this parenting thing. There are absolutely no boundaries between the parent and the child. And the parent is expected to carry on without these boundaries and enjoy every minute of it.
How Do You Know You’re In Parental Burn Out
Before we talk about boundaries, let’s define parental burn out, as you may be unaware that you’re in the thick of it. According to a 2019 research study done by Moira Mikolajczak, James J. Gross and Isabelle Roskam, parental burnout is a “condition characterized by an overwhelming exhaustion related to one’s parental role, an emotional distancing from one’s children, and a sense of parental ineffectiveness”. It often comes out in the form of escape fantasies, disconnecting from our kids, yelling, verbal abuse, and harsh physical punishments.
Does any of this sound like you? Do you feel like your life would be so much better if your kids weren’t in it? Or the more likely scenario, if you weren’t in your children’s life? Because most escape fantasies don’t include dropping your kids off at the door step of a fire station. They include, you, the parent, driving off into the sunset and off a cliff.
Let me first assure you that those feelings while frightening, are common, and unfortunately have become very normal. Despite what you may hear from your relatives, Sally down the block, or some random Mary on Facebook, parenting 24/7 by yourself, with little adult human contact, and no breaks is not normal for humans. I repeat – Not Normal. We are social animals who need to be in groups in order to thrive. Throughout humankind’s history it was perfectly normal and expected that extended family took part in child care, that children played in big groups, and that multiple adults carried responsibility for a group of children.
So, if you’re burnt out, it’s not that you’re doing something wrong. It’s our modern society that has done us, parents, very wrong. But it doesn’t mean that you’re powerless in fixing this. You have tools at your disposal to fix the situation, and get out of your parental burn out.
Why Boundaries Matter In All Relationships
If you’re not powerless in avoiding burn out, what are some of the things you can do? Well, there are many, but in this article we will be talking about setting boundaries, as the first step to avoiding burn out in parents.
If you’re a frequent visitor to the blog, you may recall that this is not the first time I talked about boundaries (you can read more in Why You Need Strong Boundaries as a New Mom). But in my previous post, it was about establishing boundaries with people outside of your family. And while that may be difficult for some people to do, sooner or later they realize their power in the situation, and start embracing their boundaries. But it’s a little different when it comes to kids. We are never told, that we not only can, but should create boundaries when it comes to our children. And the biggest culprit of this misinformation is overreliance on Attachment Theory.
What Is Attachment Theory?
Let’s talk Attachment Theory. Attachment Theory has been the base of a lot of parenting strategies and suggestions that come from modern parenting books. Attachment Theory was originally created by John Bowlby and later expanded on by Mary Ainsworth in the 1960s. It is a theory that is concerned with the quality of relationships between children and their caregivers, and the impact this relationship has on their lives in the future. The simple explanation of it is that children need close and stable relationships in the beginning of their lives, in order to develop secure attachments and be able to form stable and secure relationships in the future.
When you hear that, it intuitively makes sense. We don’t have to look any further than into cases of child neglect and abuse to see the sheer power and necessity of security and stability in the early years. But that doesn’t equate to needing to spend every single minute with your child or not implementing time-outs as part of a comprehensive parenting strategy.
Furthermore, while we take Attachment Theory at face value and believe that a quality relationship with a primary caregiver will stave off future mental illness and guarantee stable relationships, there is actually no real evidence to suggest that it’s true. It’s a bit mindboggling because most psychologists are taught to use Attachment Theory as the base for their understanding of human behavior. And in the same vein are not taught about how temperament, social class, gender, and culture can impact a person’s development.
So, while I’m not saying let’s strike out Attachment Theory and all it taught us. I’m saying let’s not use it dogmatically to promote unhealthy expectations for parents. While someone’s neglect or abuse in early years could have led them to develop a disorganized attachment, we also can’t exclude the role their temperament and social class played in this scenario. But let’s be honest, most parenting situations do not involve neglect or abuse. Most situations just have parents agonizing over the fact that they let their child cry for an extra 2 minutes while they finished up an important phone conversation.
How To Set Your Own Healthy Boundaries
Now that you know that a healthy and secure attachment doesn’t mean being attached to your child 24/7. Let’s figure out what healthy boundaries look like in parenting.
First, sit down and write what a perfect day would look like for you. Don’t worry about how realistic it is, just write down what your day would look like, if you didn’t have to worry about anything. Now, look at your perfect day and identify which of the activities from that day you would need on daily or weekly basis in your life, in order to feel happy and satisfied. Those should be your non-negotiables. We all have things we need for optimal functioning. And while it’s ok to not get them for a short time, it’s not ok to not get those things for a prolonged period of time. If the perfect day didn’t include all your non-negotiables, make a list dedicated to just your non-negotiable items and separate them by daily, weekly, and monthly necessity.
Why did we need to do a non-negotiables list? Because you need to figure out what you need to protect with your boundaries. For example, you may enjoy waking up and having a cup of coffee while reading a book every morning. If you have young kids, it may be very difficult to do that in the morning. Mornings are often very hectic and filled with a lot of kid energy (where do they get it anyway?). So, it might be difficult to create the space once the kids are up.
The solution to protecting this non-negotiable may be getting up 30 minutes before your kids to enjoy solitude and peace. And this solution may work very well for some people, but it won’t work for everyone. If you’re not a morning person, then getting up earlier won’t make you happier or more satisfied with life. So, you will need to find the time for that cup of coffee after the kids are up. And depending on the age of your child it might be easier or harder to do. But you can still do it.
We often hear these very sad jokes about moms and cold coffee. The mom pours herself a cup, but is then pulled away into many different directions because one kid needed a snack, another a change, and yet another some sort of a toy. And if you are coming from the attachment parenting model, you feel like every request your child makes needs an immediate response. But it really doesn’t. This is where boundaries come in.
While I am not a critic of attachment parenting, because it is biologically appropriate. I’m also not a huge fan of a mom feeling like she can’t take a break. There are no studies linking attachment parenting to secure attachments in the future. Which means, if you need to put your baby down into the swing for 10 minutes, or tell your toddler to play by themselves, you are not doing anything wrong or hampering your child’s development. In fact, studies support the idea that satisfied mothers help children be better adjusted with more positive developmental outcomes.
So, whenever the guilt creeps up about holding your boundary strong, remind yourself, that it’s about the quality of the time you spend with your child, not quantity. In fact, quantity may be leading to an overall worse outcome. Because you are completely checked out with your kids, or are snappy and irritable because your needs are not being met. In essence, figuring out your own boundaries and respecting them will lead to a better relationship with your child and a better outcome for them in life.
How To Set Healthy Parent Child Boundaries
So, let’s talk about setting these healthy boundaries. I’ll be honest, if you haven’t set boundaries before, it will feel uncomfortable in the beginning. Your inner voice will be shaming you for not devoting every moment to your child and taking time for yourself. You will need to remember, in those situations, that your inner voice isn’t actually coming from a good place. It is merely reflecting societal messages back at you. And we live in a society where we subjugate women, and especially mothers, and try to diminish them to no more than mere servants of their family. So, let go of that inner voice. It is not serving you or your family.
Once you let go of that inner voice, you will realize that saying “No” to certain activities with your child, so that you can engage in an enjoyable activity for yourself is perfectly fine. Same goes for things like inappropriate behaviors from your children. It is fine to draw a line and say that you are not engaging in this and walk away.
What does this look like in practicality? Let’s get back to that coveted cup of hot coffee. You’re up with the kids and you desperately want that cup of coffee. The best way to go about it is to make sure your children are fed. Then tell them that for the next 10 minutes you are not to be disturbed unless there is an emergency (set a timer for clarity) and leave them be. They may not be adhering to this at first, you will need to remind them many times to respect your time. But with repetition, they will understand and start to respect your sacred coffee time.
If you’re having a bad day and your kids are unruly (aren’t they always when you’re having a tough time?), it’s ok to sit them in front of the TV and drink that cup of coffee. The supposed damage from them watching an extra 10 minutes of TV versus the benefit they receive from a mother who enjoyed her cup of coffee, can’t even be compared.
The same principle goes for engaging in play or activities that you don’t enjoy with your children. If you are not the type of parent who enjoys or is physically able to engage in floor play, roughhousing or other type of play, then don’t. Suggest an alternative that you do enjoy and allow yourself to enjoy it and fully engage in it. Maybe you love singing songs to your child, and that’s your special time. While your significant other loves to roughhouse. This way your child still gets their needs met, but both parents engage in enjoyable activities for them.
This also applies to things like whining, tattling, and involving you in sibling disputes unnecessarily. While whining is communicating a need, it is still not a preferred way to communicate that need. Thus there is nothing wrong with teaching your child that you will not respond to whining. And when your children try to drag you into their sibling disputes and want to spew negativity about their sibling to you, help them channel their grievances in a more productive manner. Suggest that they write their grievances down and then discuss them at a family meeting. For younger kids, do get involved when truly needed. But get involved in a way that teaches them cooperation and gives them tools to figure out their next fight on their own. Under no circumstances choose sides. Listen to both parties and help them find a solution.
Setting up healthy boundaries is for any activity that is important to you. If you need to find time during the day to work out, finish a project, make a meal, do a household chore, or just sit and read a book or watch TV, your children need to learn to respect that. They need to learn that mom is a human with her own needs. She does not exist solely to wait on them hand and foot. And while they may fight against it in the present and show their displeasure, know that you are teaching them a lesson for the future. You are raising adults who will understand the value of boundaries and will set up boundaries for themselves. Which in turn will lead to a healthier and happier life for them.
Parting Words On Healthy Parent-Child Boundaries
I hope that after reading this post you walk away feeling validated and empowered. You are a person first and everything else second. And as a person you have every right to pursue your passions, heed your needs, and protect your time and space. Children are demanding and we adults need to be there to meet their demands. That, however, does not mean we need to meet every demand or meet it at the moment it is made. We can choose what demands we meet and when we meet them. After all, by showing the power of negotiation we are teaching our children that they have that power too.