Deciding the best way to teach your kids boundaries and rules can feel overwhelming, but the biggest help can simply be getting on the same page as your partner. For many couples, relationship health is the quiet elephant in the room when you are in the throws of raising young kids. But there are ways to ensure that while you may feel exhausted, your relationship does not!
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An overarching key theme to remember is that healthy vibes in the home are a top-down effect. Whether you are married, cohabitating, or co-parenting keeping the communication between the adults in the room healthy impacts the communication towards our children. Ultimately, their communication with others. We all try to raise respectful kids and have healthy relationships in the process. Just remember there is a big emphasis on the word, “process.”
When I tell clients that they need to set boundaries with their kids, they often assume that I mean a boundary regarding the child’s behavior towards the parent. While that is important, what I often emphasize is the need for a boundary of the parent’s behavior towards the child.
Tantrums, demands, or the incessant “mamma, mamma, mamma,” or “daddy, daddy, daddy,” are examples of where a boundary gets set for the child’s behavior towards the parent. So when I tell people they need to have boundaries for their behavior towards their child this means you are able to check yourself before responding to your kid. This can be challenging when the one making demands has the endurance of a world-class marathon runner when it comes to asking for attention.
Sometimes, I hear parents telling me of ways they give in to their kids prematurely. So they give in even before the kids emend anything in hopes of anticipating the demand. However, while they have the best intentions, they're releasing control of the situation and giving it to the child. Also, the reason this boundary makes such a difference is that it gets you and your partner on the same team. That is what teaches your child that you and your partner are a team. It also gives them an example to watch how to make decisions and how they may one day parent their own child in the future.
Set some house rules. The way we speak to one another and treat one another should not only be rules for your kids, but for everyone in your family. This sets an expectation for your kids and yourself. One way to begin is to watch your language when you give behavioral directives.
If your child says something that is against the house rules, tell them, “We don’t talk to people that way in this family,” rather than, “you don’t talk to me that way.” This tells kids that you have rules too and you follow them as well. Kids attune quickly to the emotional temperature in an environment, so if you want house rules to stick, you have to stick to them yourself. The message should never be, “I’m an adult, so I get to say what I want.” They will hear this message all too often outside the home, and this is a chance to teach them that message is wrong.
Just as we have to know what a realistic expectation is for our kids, we have to know that for ourselves and our relationships. Putting limits on your time and your priorities show your kids that it is ok to do so for themselves as well. Kids are presented with so many options for extracurricular activities, parents too. Schools have meetings, fundraisers, events, and there is often pressure for parents to stretch themselves to prove their devotion they have towards their kid's education. Is it good to get involved? Absolutely. Do you have to do everything someone asks you? Absolutely not. Discuss priorities as a family when appropriate. Make these decisions intentional.
Some days just stink. When my oldest son started school this year, the level of exhaustion in the house was unprecedented. My husband and I would give each other the look of, “what is happening?” more than a few times.
I know these are times you may want to scream or just give everyone (and yourself) ice cream, but hang in there. Call it what it is. Tell your kid, "this is a big week, we are all tired, we are all feeling a lot of things, and we all need to be patient.” Again, you are teaching your kids that you do not actually have superpowers and need to work through each day, just like they do. Walk with them in their mess.
My kids are persistent boundary-pushers some days. They are curious and want to know what they can get away with. Developmentally, this is completely normal. We repeat some rules every single day. If you hear your child who acts crazy at home is a little cherub at school or daycare, you are not alone. Your kids know that you are their ultimate teacher.
They know you will correct them when they are out of line. They also know you will still love them after all is said and done. It is a result of the early development of trust that kids experience and explore in their lives. Ever see a little baby crawling across the floor and looking back at their mom or dad for a thumbs up and approval? They are learning to trust that your encouragement is a green light to keep exploring and pushing their own limits.
Some days, simple redirection does the trick. Other days feel like a battle. This is when you and your partner need to be on the same page. Be in battle together. Children continue to do more developed versions of the crawling baby looking over their shoulder for approval. They are always looking for you.
Also, kids often match the energy in the room. So if you and your partner increase your tension in this time, it can increase the children’s tension as well. Snapping orders and directives of frustration in this time to your spouse can unintentionally give kids permission to imitate you. My husband and I have to be constantly mindful of this at the end of a long day. Especially when bedtime is just around the corner. And, if ever I'm not sure what I said or sound like, I have a four-year-old who is an excellent mirror of my words and actions. It is humbling.
Take things one day at a time. Just because you feel like you lost the battle one night, does not mean you have lost progress you have made with your kids' behaviors or the effort you make with your partner. Tomorrow is a new day. Last week, as I was putting my 4-year-old mimic to bed, he said to me, “we were really bad listeners tonight, right mom.” I took a breath, still stressed and irritated at the chain of events that transpired that night, and realized not all was lost. He knew he broke the rules. I knew I had not held up my ideal of parenting in stressful moments. So I just said, “Tomorrow is a new day. We can all try again.” And so can you.
If you are looking for a solid read on setting up boundaries and disciple with your child, I highly recommend The Whole Brained Child by Dan Siegel. If you are interested in a fun yet honest read about relationships after having kids, check out Jancee Dunn's How to Not Hate Your Husband After Having Kids. Both offer great insight, research, and pointers for things discussed in this article!