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Set Boundaries for Healthy Development

Good parenting means standing firm when kids overstep the limits.
This article was first published in the SCMP Good Schools Guide.
By Katrina Rozga CCC MC (Psych)

Today’s hectic, high-pressure environment makes growing up more of a challenge than ever, but establishing sensible ground rules can make the challenges of adolescence less daunting.

The advent of new technologies, different approaches in parenting, and more competitive education environments are all contributing to new challenges for children as they grow up. It’s a complex mix for children who find themselves with potentially fewer coping skills, more power, and less time to do important developmental work.

Avoiding uncomfortable feelings

With our current reliance on screens, children have near constant access to distraction. Anytime they experience an uncomfortable emotion such as boredom, loneliness, worry or sadness, they can grab a tablet, phone or computer — and then escape. They aren’t the only ones doing this; adults have started avoiding these common discomforts as well.

Negative emotions are a part of life. Kids need to learn to cope with them without a psychological buffer to dull the pain. If we only model escape when a problem arises, rather than acceptance and action, we will never teach our children how to be resilient.

Screens are not the same as IRL

Screens are also replacing the face-to-face interactions that children used to have more often through play. As a result, children’s communication and social skills are suffering. Research shows that children have less developed language skills for their age than in past years, they have trouble listening and maintaining focus in face-to-face interactions, and are also lagging in common age-appropriate social skills such as taking turns, negotiating, and taking the perspective of others.

All of these skills are developed over time and through repeated experience, with a large part coming from interactions with parents. Multitasking is a common parental misstep, such as having a conversation with a child while simultaneously paying attention to a chat on the phone. While it may seem like part of a busy day, it teaches children that they do not have to give their full attention to something.

Good parenting isn’t always fun

Active listening and full attention are needed to create connections with other people and to build positive relationships. These seemingly simple interactions build rapport, trust, establish common ground, and bind people together. We need to ensure our kids are capable of having conversations in real life so they can find acceptance and belonging as they grow beyond the safe boundaries of family.

Changes in parenting have also thrown into question how some families are organised internally. In some cases, it has lead to a shift in who makes decisions for the household. While children should absolutely be given the responsibility for age-appropriate decision making – another important life skill — they should not be give free rein to run the entire family. Not every decision requires their full acceptance and agreement, nor should it.

While it may appear that children want to be the boss, what they need from adults is quite different. The reality is that children thrive with reasonable, age-appropriate rules and routines. Decisions should be made by someone who has the child’s best interest at heart, even if the child doesn’t like it. It should not be an 8-year old’s decision as to how many hours of screen time a day they get, in the same way it shouldn’t be a 16-year old’s decision as to what time they need to be home. This is good parenting at its least fun.

Children learn from boundaries

Good parenting may also mean standing firm when children test the integrity of the boundaries you have set. Children learn self-regulation and limits through boundaries, but their natural inclination is also to push at the edges to understand why boundaries are there, and if they can be moved. It is the parents’ job to set and maintain boundaries to provide lessons in safety, accountability, responsibility and consequences.

A lack of structure and hierarchy is uncomfortable for children and causes anxiety. While your child may appear like they want to be breaking the rules, the truth is that they are testing the strength of the safety net you have constructed. Too much responsibility for any child leaves them feeling anxious. Age-appropriate rules, routines and expectations make children feel secure and safe.

Competitive educational environments also present new challenges for kids. With the expectation to matriculate to specialised programs in high-ranking universities, children are expected to choose their life’s path in their teenage years. This is the time when they are exploring new identities, listening to their peers more closely, and striving for independence. It is formative work in developing their sense of self separate from their families. That they must also decide their future goals at this time is a perfect storm of pressure.

Boundaries provide safety

With this in mind, parents should also maintain a stable, secure haven for children, especially teenagers. With so much pressure to plan for the future and explore independence, children need a place where they can be themselves and ceed responsibility to others. Home should be the place where teenagers can still play with toys, read childhood books, and generally decompress outside of school.

Children can learn to navigate our current world in a healthy way if given the right tools. No matter what the future continues to bring our way, parents have the ability to help their children learn to cope. Part of that learning is always going to be coping with emotions, boundaries and communication.