Are you setting a boundary or telling off?

Jun, 06, 2022

If no didn’t feature heavily in your vocabulary pre parenthood, this little word has most certainly crept into your everyday language since becoming a parent. Kids constantly want. It’s how their development is propelled although at times it can feel like nature made a mistake.
I mean;

  • Cake before breakfast?!
  • Playing hide and seek for the 100th time in an hour!?
  • WANTING a toy when all you went to the shops for was a pint of milk!?

It’s often unrelenting and it requires us to dig deep to not melt down with our child when we set a boundary. It is no wonder it feels tempting to say yes when we actually mean no – because the dread of dealing with a tantruming child feels far worse than the fear of raising a spoiled child. At least in the moment.

If only there was a way of saying no that didn’t lead to tears and conflict, right?

I wish I could say that this magic formula exists. It doesn’t -because how others react is never within our control. But what I want to share with you is one thing that can REALLY help you in your boundary setting.

Next time you are having to say no to your child, ask yourself:

Am I setting a boundary or am I telling off?

This is a question that can make a big difference to how your no is being received. While being given a no will most likely result in disappointment and sadness, this is a disappointment that children soon recover from in as much as we can allow them to grieve what they can’t have.

For little children, this often sounds like crying, while older children will likely want to question and bargain and maybe show disappointment through some eye rolling or other expression to say:

“So unfair”

Yet, what often happens unbeknownst to ourselves, is we season our no with words and phrases that make our boundary even more unpalatable to our child;

Child: “Play with me..”

Parent: “Come soon.. You need to learn to play by yourself. I can’t entertain you all the time”

The reason it feels tempting to sprinkle our no with some moralising and criticising is that we hope that by appealing to our child’s logic we are going to make them shape up and realise that what they are asking for us unreasonable.

Yet, the opposite happens.
In reality our criticism feels to a child like telling off. And rather than dealing with the frustration that our no has created, they now become concerned with protecting themselves by hardening themselves to our instruction. This, in turn, will make us want to tell off and so the vicious cycle in set into motion.

So how do we set a good boundary?

The secret to good boundary setting is to keep it simple and avoid pointing the finger

Child: “Please can I have that toy?”

Rather than: “I told you not to ask for toys today. You do this every time. You can’t have something every time we go to the shops”


Parent: “It IS a nice toy. No, today I don’t want to buy any toys. I’ll remember this is the one you like”

When we eliminate the shame and blame from our communication it is much easier for our children to cooperate with us and boundary setting will come to feel far less contentious. Much of how we communicate is unconscious to us because we often use phrases that were directed at ourselves as children.

Therefore, an important first step is to simply get curious;
How do I set my boundaries?

A good way to support you in doing things differently next time is to lean into my AAAA model next time you want to say no:

  • Accept: my child wants things – it’s his /her nature
  • Ask yourself: Is it a yes or no from me?
  • Answer: Without finger pointing, acknowledging their want
  • Allow: A reaction

Trust that you don’t need the last word in order for your boundary to be respected. When we create a little space for our child to react to our no without denying them an eye roll, a huff, stomping feet or feelings about us, they can much more easily move through their frustration and reach acceptance.

Boundary setting is not easy.

But we get opportunities to practice every day

Louise Brooks

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