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By Sophia Blaha, LSW – April 2, 2019

For most parents, talking about boundaries begins with simple statements such as “No hitting,” “Don’t push,” and “Ask before taking things from someone else.”  

As a parent I know I say these statements often, but I also try to instill a deeper understanding of boundaries in my own children as well as the kids at the school where I work. I try to provide an understanding of why we have these boundaries and discuss how someone might feel if their boundaries have not been respected. This is an important step towards building empathetic individuals.  

For younger kids, a concept that may be difficult to grasp is physical boundaries or space. For example, my daughter recently met a new friend. After playing together my daughter ran up and gave her a tight, lovable hug (at least that is what she thought she was doing).  

I watched the girl’s expression and noticed she seemed a bit uncomfortable with that type of physical contact. On the way home I took the opportunity to have a casual conversation about that moment with my daughter. I mentioned that I noticed that she may have surprised her new friend when she gave her a hug. I made a reference to a time when another friend of hers hugged her when she did not want to.

We talked about what we could do next time, and together we were able come up with a solution to respect her new friend’s personal space and boundaries.

We also discussed paying attending to body language. This is a harder concept for smaller children to grasp but one that I feel it’s never too early to start to talk about. 

A simple way to do this: While watching a show or reading a book, point out a character and ask your child how the character is feeling. I like to then have my daughter match the feeling with her face by saying, “Can you show me what sad looks like on your face?”      

A common lesson that parents teach young children is, “Don’t talk to strangers,” but we often forget to continue the lesson as children grow older. What I’ve witnessed for school-aged children (and some adults) is a blurred line of relationship building from a stranger to a close peer. 

I’ve talked with several students who talk about a peer who turned out to be unhealthy and has used shared personal details against them. Unfortunately, when we have an unhealthy emotional boundary with other individuals, we may inadvertently share more than we should when getting to know someone. 

Simply put, it is unhealthy to share our life story and our secrets with someone we are just getting to know. As parents, it is important to discuss with our kids healthy conversation topics when getting to know someone. Explain that although we hope our new friends have the best intentions, it’s important to take time to get to know someone.

Teachable moments happen every day all around us.  I encourage you to take these opportunities to build boundaries and foster empathy. It is essential that adults and parents model healthy boundaries. Remember that children do as they see.