Last week I wrote to you about my own journey in boundary-setting as a business owner and woman. This week I’d like to dive deeper into boundaries and talk to you as both a mama and a clinician about boundaries on the home front.
As a clinician, not only do I have extensive knowledge about early childhood development but one of my areas of expertise is reducing disruptive and dangerous behaviors. I spent the first five years of my career in Applied Behavior Analysis working in early intervention and on crisis cases.
I can see my young self now, rested for the day, walking into a therapy session and teaching things like how to work through a tantrum. I worked with each family on their own values and expectations of their child, observed the needs the child was trying to get through their tantrums, and taught consistent consequences to the family as well as adaptive skills to the child. In the range of adaptive skills I often taught language (use your words), patience, tolerance to hearing ‘no,’ disappointment tolerance, and expression of feelings. Each family and child was unique but the structure of the treatment was similar and based on boundary setting.
Learning Boundary Setting as a Mom
Fast forward about 8 years to when I became a mama and my son Henry became a toddler. Henry was (and is) a strong-willed child. I remember writing in his baby journal “I didn’t know babies came out like you…” because Henry was (and is) so vocal about how he sees things and how he wants things done. As a mama, I tried to also be a BCBA and use the same tried and true treatment structure with Henry. State a boundary, follow through with the boundary, use your words, and teach new skills. Easy right? No. Hard no.
Throughout my journey into motherhood, while I love my boys above all else, I have struggled with both postpartum depression (Henry) and a toxic home environment because of domestic abuse. Toss in three boys who all have varied needs, wants, desires, and voices and the stress of setting boundaries felt impossible. You see, the thing with setting boundaries is that when you first set them children tend to resist them. Boundaries feel like a “no” to children (often they are) and the “no” feels like something for them to rebel against. As a parent, you have to be ready for the explosion as you set expectations. I’m going to be honest here; I could not weather the explosions so I became a, “yes mama”. Ugh.
Boundaries by Example
A year ago when I left domestic abuse my children & me. We were living in a psychologically frightening environment and I knew, no matter how much I wanted their dad to get help, that I couldn’t stay any longer. I set the boundary that I would not live in an abusive environment and modeled this incredibly important boundary for my children.
Yet as the last year passed my small children had so much change in their little worlds. While some of my “yes mama” tendencies went away, some remained. Want a new toy? Sure. One more piece of candy? OK. TV time? You got it. This also worked the other way and when my children behaved in ways I didn’t love (not staying in bed, dumping their food on the floor, screaming for things) I would spend time making empty threats (one more time and then…) and eventually give in. While home life was much calmer as a single mama and my children were happy with me, I knew I had to reset, buckle in, and teach boundaries.
You see, without boundaries children don’t know which behaviors are OK and which ones are not. Without boundaries, they don’t learn how to navigate unpleasant emotions and what to do with their unpleasant emotions. They also don’t learn how to behave in social situations and can become impolite, spoiled, and disruptive.
Keep in mind that little children are still children. It’s basically their job to overreact while testing boundaries early on. It’s our job as parents, however, to shape their behaviors in positive ways. Yes of course I want my children to be happy but I also want them to know how to navigate their own inner and outer worlds. Boundaries are the way to teach this.
As the fall came so did a new peace in our home. I set some simple boundaries for the boys I knew I could follow through with and continued to teach them how to navigate their emotions. I spent time making sure the values I set were in alignment with my values and that I was ready for tantrums when they came. The boundaries I set were for good listening, respect, kindness, and understanding “no.”
My children have become calmer overall after the initial, “holy crap” boundary bursts. Boundaries tell them what is OK and what is not so they don’t have to guess or use tantrums to figure a given situation out. When they don’t like the answer they know we can hold space for them to be sad or mad. It’s a win-win.
Me? I have a ton of compassion for the woman I was in early motherhood and know I was doing the very best I could at the time. I also am incredibly grateful that I’m in a space to apply my clinical skills to mommyhood. One day (and boundary) at a time.