A parent writes:
How do I teach my 8-year-old son to have better personal boundaries? For two years, he has been friends with a boy who is often in trouble at school and whose parents find him challenging at home. While the boys share some common interests and frequently want to have play dates together, the other child often treats my son in a way that makes him feel sad or stupid.
My son doesn’t do a good job at standing up for himself, and falls apart when the other boy is mean to him. I have to say that I don’t have very good personal boundaries myself, so it doesn’t come naturally to me to teach him not to let people mistreat him. Is there anything you would recommend I do to help my son deal with this boy?
Here’s my response:
There are many ways to help a child establish better boundaries, but the most important one is built upon what he observes in the behavior of those he watches most carefully — his parents and primary caregivers.
You’re wise to notice that your son may be mirroring the struggle you have with asking for what you want and need. If he doesn’t see you being assertive on your own behalf, it will be harder for him to feel ok about standing up for himself.
Did you learn that to be worthy of love, you had to be agreeable and “nice”? Were you shamed for asking for what you wanted, or asking someone to treat you kindly?
Take an objective look at your choices and behaviors. What feelings come up when someone asks you to watch their kids and you’re exhausted? Even a few counseling sessions may help you get started on a path of redefining your own worth.
As you untangle old patterns that make it hard to establish healthy boundaries, you will be better able to model the behavior that you want your son to adopt. (Note: I’ll be doing a class soon with Terri Cole, author of Boundary Boss; see below.)
You may also find it helpful to discuss mixed feelings with your little boy. One of the things that makes relationships so complex is the fact that we often like some things about a person while not liking other things about them.
The process of deciding whether someone’s overall character and personality make them a good friend involves admitting both the things we enjoy and the things that concern us.
Help your son understand that it’s normal to have mixed feelings; he may like playing with his friend, even if he also feels bad about how the boy treats him. With your support, he may decide that despite the fun they often have, the negative experiences outweigh what is good about their friendship.
Before you tell your son to let go of this friendship, help him discover what feels right to him. In other words, use the experience he is having with the other boy to teach him how to listen to his own instincts about relationships.
In his excellent book, The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker describes how in nearly every interview he had with the victim of a crime like mugging, they confessed that a “little voice” inside had warned them to avoid that person or walk on the other side of the street, yet they had disregarded it.
Help your son tune in to what his own “little voice” is saying when this boy is unkind so that he can learn to act upon his own inner wisdom.
Establishing healthy boundaries is easier said than done. With your help, I trust that your son will be able to discover that he is worthy of caring friendships that leave him feeling happy and good about himself. 🌞