How to set (and stick to) gentle boundaries that work

a woman smiling while embracing her child

Why gentle boundaries work

The theory around attachment styles and how important a child’s attachment to a primary care giver is for their emotional and physical wellbeing isn’t new (check out Bowlby’s work around 1958). But more and more are now realising the importance of the attachment within their parenting. And reaping the benefits.

Attachment-based parenting focuses on the importance of the connection between parent and child. Being a responsive, consistent and safe base from which your child can explore and learn to relate to the world. And those in it. In order to raise secure, independent and empathetic children. And creating gentle boundaries is an essential part of this.

There has been a move from authoritarian parenting to a more gentle approach in recent years. Many parents want to be more gentle in their approach but don’t know how to see it through.

What are gentle boundaries?

There’s a general myth that gentle parenting means being permissive and letting kids do whatever they want. That you don’t ever say “no” to your kids or hold any boundaries. This simply isn’t true. Setting (and holding) boundaries is an implicit part of attachment- or gentle-parenting. 

Gentle boundaries are part of what helps your child to feel safe and learn about the world and how it works. 

Why use gentle boundaries with your kids

Think about how you feel when you go somewhere where you don’t know what’s expected of you e.g. a big conference or formal wedding party. It feels much easier when we know the deal; what’s expected of us (i.e. arrive on time) and what we can and can’t do there (i.e. don’t wear beach clothes or talk louder than the presenter). 

Boundaries help us understand our world, keep ourselves safe and makes it easier to interact within it. And it’s the same for our kids. They also need to know what’s expected of them and what happens when they aren’t able to do what they need to (i.e. get escorted out by security).

What sort of boundaries are gentle

It’s important to see the distinction between behaviours that you need to be involved in controlling (i.e. those related to safety) and those which your children need to be encouraged to take the lead on. For example, taking responsibility for providing nutritious food for your children (related to their health and wellbeing), but not making rules about how much they have to eat (which can teach some pretty unhelpful patterns).

Some boundaries are universally agreed e.g. that in most situations it’s not OK to hit others. Whereas others will be different from family to family e.g. whether you have to put your clothes in the wash basket or not. 

The importance to sticking to the boundaries you’ve set

The sorts of boundaries you create within your family will be down to you. What are the things that are important to you? Are the boundaries that you are trying to set realistic and fair? And respectful of your child and their rights?

When you’re creating boundaries, make sure that a) you’re able to stick to the boundaries you set (otherwise its a very confusing message) and that b) your kids don’t have to live bound by so many rules that they feel stressed and constrained as a result. 

How to set and stick to gentle boundaries

It’s all well and good setting boundaries with your kids e.g. “you have to sit at the table until everyone is finished”, but if you don’t follow them through then they send a confusing message. And your kids won’t believe you in future when you tell them how it’s going to be. Always remember: 

1. Be clear about what it is you need to happen (well before your temper gets raised). Do this before you’ve already asked 5 times and are close to losing your cool. State what you need (and by when), as well as what will happen if it doesn’t. For example, I need you to get into your pyjamas by 8pm otherwise there won’t be time for a story.

2. Communicate what has to happen with confidence. Rather than shouting through the wall, go to where they are and clearly let them know what you need them to do. Wait until you have their attention and get down to their level if they’re smaller and need more connection.

3. Stick to the boundaries you set – otherwise it’s confusing for your kids. Kids are designed to push boundaries. If they know that sometimes they can get you to change your mind, they will push you on them more often. Once you’ve stated the boundaries, make sure you see them through.

4. Use natural consequences when boundaries aren’t stuck to. Removing privileges like TV time or no pudding because your kids were arguing, can make little sense to a child. It feels like a punishment and using natural consequences instead e.g. getting a fail if they don’t do their homework, can help them to take more responsibility in the future.

5. Allow your kids to be unhappy about the boundaries you’re holding. They will cry if they’re unhappy. They will protest and try and change your mind. Which are all admirable qualities and should be encouraged. Stay strong though as holding your boundaries will mean that your kids can feel safe in the knowledge of what’s expected of them. And trust that you’re there and looking out for them.

Want to know more?

If you’re looking to connect with other conscious, gentle or attachment-based mums, you can also join our community for honesty, advice, support and connection.

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