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Set boundaries that your child understands

Boy picking flowers

You are a role model

"Do as I say, not as I do" sometimes seems to be the way we adults think. But how can we expect children to do something that we cannot even manage ourselves? You help your child with

  • clear expectations
  • clear messages
  • consistent behaviour – also in relation to yourself

If we tell children to use a quiet voice in the house, put away their phone during dinner and not eat chocolate in the middle of the week, this is much easier for them to accept if the same rules apply to the parents.

Natural protests

Protesting is a natural part of growing up. Have you thought about that when children protest against the boundaries adults set, this is also an expression of independence. For example, they

  • might not always do what they are asked
  • don’t want to follow rules and routines in the family
  • continue nagging about something
  • are negative to "everything”
  • refuse to join in with anything

Showing independence is important when learning to stand up for your own opinions, wishes and rights. Another aspect of becoming independent and getting on with others is learning how to balance what you want and desire against the wishes and interests of others.

Why do we set boundaries?

Your child needs your help to understand which rules apply in different contexts. When you set boundaries for your child, you also help her to become socially and morally responsible. She learns what is OK and what is not, while at the same time you provide her with predictability and safe limits.

Suppose you're going on a business trip to a foreign country. In the same way that you would seek advice about the customs that apply there, so that you know what is expected of you, your child needs help to understand what rules apply in the society in which she lives.

As a parent, you act as a kind of "traffic light" for the child who is out in traffic. In other words, you are absolutely necessary in order for your child to avoid chaos.

The objective of boundaries

Another approach to working with setting boundaries is to become more aware of why we set them in the first place. One thing is to protect your child from harm, but we also set boundaries on "autopilot", without worrying too much about the reasons for them. Perhaps they are a result of our own need to maintain control, or fear of what others will think about us?

When such feelings or needs feel very pressing, we may become unfair or too strict.

Clear boundaries provide security for your child.

How can you say “no” in a good way?

A good way to establish boundaries for your child is through clear routines and daily settings. Explain why boundaries are as they are, making sure that you are

  • calm
  • clear
  • certain
  • respectful of the child

It's easy for us to think about setting boundaries in terms of stopping the child from doing something we don't want. But stopping the child can be done in many ways. In some situations we must go in and stop the child very firmly, because the child is doing something that is dangerous for themselves or others. For example, if your child is about to run out into the street, it would be important to show the child that this is dangerous and that she must not do it again.

Other times, we have to say no to something the child wants or wants to do, perhaps because there is no time, or because something is not good for the child. Then it may be nice to show your child that you understand her desire, while explaining why you must say no.

Can you get your child to understand that it's okay to be angry if she's been refused something, but it's not okay to hit others, even if she's angry?

A good start

Sometimes we may start with a more positive way of setting boundaries, but end up shouting "No! No! No!” anyway. This is perfectly normal and something many parents will recognize. If you find yourself constantly repeating yourself without your child listening, you may want to change what you say.


Remember to

  • explain why you’re saying no
  • make sure that the explanation is clear enough so that the child understands
  • try to keep calm and maintain an understanding of the child’s behaviour

Then it is much easier for the child to remember and relate to what you have said later.

You can also practice saying what you want your child to do, rather than saying what you don`t want it to do:

  • Can you sit still? instead of Don`t tilt your chair!
  • Can you try to talk more quietly? instead of Don`t shout!

Setting boundaries for small children

With young children, it is difficult to get their cooperation on rules and boundaries. Here we often have to go in and regulate their behaviour. It is important that you explain why you’re asking him to stop doing something:

  • "It hurts Per when you hit him."
  • "If you don't share with Per, he won't want to share with you either."

Sometimes it can also be important to show that you understand the child — such as: "I understand that you want to play more, but we have to finish now."

When we set boundaries for small children, the aim is that they will be able to set boundaries for themselves eventually. Think about the little child who presses buttons on your music stereo and is told that it's not allowed. After a time, your child may stop himself when about to press and look questioningly at you (will dad say no?), and then finally say: "No, not allowed", to himself.

This development can be transferred to many other situations and also applies to older children.

Schoolchildren? Plan together

Homework situations can be challenging, both for parents and children. What do you do when your child doesn't want to do their homework? A good idea could be to plan ahead together. Bear in mind that it is not you as the adult who has to figure this out on your own, but that it is something you and your child should solve jointly.
Try to talk to the child and find out the reason for his avoidance.
• Does it help to eat a little first, or take a break and do something else before homework?
• Does your child need more help to concentrate and more support from you?
Try talking to the child, listening properly and offering your help and support: "I understand it's tiresome. How can I help you?" Perhaps you can find a good solution together?
• Are you the parent of a teenager? Read about setting boundaries for your teenager here.

When emotions get out of control

It is perfectly normal to feel useless and frustrated now and again, and be at a loss as to what one can say or do. If we are scared or angry, the feelings can quickly become overwhelming. When children are agitated they are rarely receptive to advice and guidance, and angry parents are not good parents.

You may occasionally have got carried away with your feelings and said something you later regretted when you were agitated? In that case, it’s possible to explain to the child what happened and take responsibility for your actions. Depending on the seriousness of what you have said, you can try to correct the damage as best as you can.

• Read more about tackling your own feelings as a parent (Norwegian)

What are the consequences?

When your child does something that is not okay, there may be many reasons for it. It may therefore be a good idea to talk with your child and try to understand her experience of what has happened.

Children do not always follow our rules. If you believe it is necessary for rule breaking to have consequences for your child, you may want to consider responses that either protect or help her.

An example of a natural consequence to protect the child may be to explain:

  • "If you don't wear a bike helmet, there's a greater chance of hurting your head seriously if there's an accident.”
  • "We're very fond of you and don't want you to get hurt, so if you don't wear a helmet, we don't want you to use your bike.”

If you explain with a friendly tone of voice, it may be easier for your child to accept rules.

Look for opportunities to praise your child

We adjust our behaviour depending on the feedback we receive, both positive and negative. To reinforce positive sides of your child, it's important that you notice when she's doing something good.

As a parent, it is important to look out for good opportunities to praise your child. Constant criticism, suspicion, and being corrected do not make us want to change our behaviour.

When days are hectic, it’s often easier to notice and point out behaviour we dislike in our children than to notice the good things they do.

Positive feedback should far outweigh the negative!