SETTING boundaries for our children can be the most challenging aspect of parenting. And it makes us unpopular.
But being unpopular is the inevitable result of giving your child what they need instead of what they want. We do this all the time, whether saying no to another biscuit or refusing to buy a smartphone.
Most children and teenagers will want to do things you don’t want them to do. Your role, as a parent, is to redirect them towards more sensible options. In most cases, this intervention is unwelcome, and conflict will ensue. But what is the alternative? Allowing them to do things you disagree with to keep the peace? If so, the peace will be short-lived, and more and more boundary testing is sure to follow.
Conflict with our children is not a symptom of poor parenting: It’s evidence you are holding a line, being consistent, and reigning in their desires.
Learning to delay gratification is critical for emotional development. All children need to learn how to regulate their desires, and a parent is that regulator. You may have to suffer the consequences — sulking, tantrums and meltdowns — but viewing this as evidence of parenting failure would be a mistake.
These incidents are more likely to reflect the measure of your resolve, a quality needed in abundance with toddlers and teenagers.
I am a staunch advocate for listening to the voice of the child. But we are under no obligation to agree with them all the time. Listening is not, and should not be, a commitment to blindly support your child no matter what the request or demand.
I have witnessed many examples of parents who adopt a permissive parenting style, which means they struggle to say ‘no’ to their children.
And while this might reduce their child’s challenging behaviour in the short term, it can lead to long-term issues with self-discipline.
A 2016 study published in the Journal of Genetic Psychology found that permissive parenting adversely influences the development of children’s emotional intelligence by limiting the number of challenging experiences they have.
Authoritarian parents place strict rules on their children and have expectations that tend to be overbearing and excessive. By contrast, authoritative parents expect their children to take part in household chores, adhere to clear boundaries or rules, and are comfortable saying ‘no’ to their children.
According to Dr Lisa Damour, clinical psychologist and author of The Emotional Lives of Teenagers, research consistently demonstrates that children of authoritative parents are more likely to enjoy positive relationships with their peers, to do well in school, and to become independent and self-sufficient than children whose parents take an authoritarian, permissive, or neglectful approach.
Some situations call for tough love, and others require unconditional support. The skill is being able to decipher which approach is needed and when. In the case of regulating our children’s desires, our boundaries need to be consistent so it’s clear what is acceptable and what is not.
For example, if your 15-year-old child wants to drink alcohol with their friends and you decide that it is not allowed for someone their age, they may react by throwing a tantrum and informing you that all the other parents are allowing their friends to drink alcohol.
But you have to hold the line and not succumb to parental peer pressure.
While it is reasonable to consider hormonal changes as possible causes of their outbursts, we can’t condone their unacceptable behaviour.
We must be objective and brave enough to sanction our children when they are at fault. This means validating their upset, but not condoning how they manage their distress.
One of the most effective parenting skills is assessing when our children need an arm around the shoulder or a dose of reality. This may need to happen simultaneously.
You may say, ‘I get how upsetting it must be to see all your friends being allowed to drink alcohol when you are not. I want you to know I hear what you are asking and understand that my saying no is upsetting. However, swearing at me and being rude and hurtful is not an OK way of managing that upset’.
Being firm is not the same as being overly strict with our children.
Being excessively harsh can have devastating consequences for their self-worth, which can continue throughout their lives. We must be acutely aware of our children’s need for a loving parent, but unquestioning loyalty or consistently caving into their demands does our children no favours in the long run.
Effective parenting is about balancing having your child’s back and imposing sanctions or limits on undesirable behaviour.
Knowing when to pick your battles is critical. This means intervening firmly and absorbing the inevitable disagreement to teach a valuable life lesson while letting less important things slide.
So you might decide to ignore the messy bedroom and wet towels on the bathroom floor but step in when they are mean to their siblings or tell lies.
The issues you tackle will show them what values are important to you and worth absorbing conflict to uphold.
Teaching children about values is rarely done by sitting down and having a single conversation: It is taught through role-modelling and lived experiences. So when you are absorbing the wrath of your teenage child because you are standing firm on a boundary, take solace in the fact that this discomfort has a purpose. And while they may not see or appreciate it now, they will realise in time why you held firm and may even thank you for it.
- Dr Colman Noctor is a child psychotherapist