Respectful Parenting: Noticing and adhering to personal boundaries in children

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Awhile ago I started working with a young mother named Georgia. She came from a family where her personal boundaries and needs were not noticed, and even worse, when they were noticed, they were not respected. We had been unpacking these types of stories and integrating them so that the sharp edges that come with not being understood or noticed, were smoothed out. During these weeks she came to my office quite shaken. She explained that her young son, Mike, had come to her for an unsolicitated hug. She had responded, squeezing him tighter than he liked. Then really feeling the moment, squeezed him again, told him how much she loved him, and then, to add sprinkles to the icing on top of her cupcake, squeezed and loved on him again. She didn’t notice that he pulled away as soon as her intensity of love ratcheted up. She kept on squeezing. After the interaction was complete, she went on making lunch. It wasn’t until Georgia's husband approached her and gently showed her that she hadn’t respected Mike's signals and boundaries, that she understood what she had done. Georgia couldn’t believe that she, a seemingly self aware person, had not noticed herself doing to her child, the very thing she hated as a child.

“How could this be” she sobbed to me. We waited until she had released her feelings. I wondered aloud whether it was because she hadn’t been taught to notice these types of boundaries in children. She had been taught that they didn’t matter because the child is 'less than’ the adult. But the truth is, every child is a person worthy of respect. Respectful parenting, indeed respectful living requires us to notice personal boundaries and adhere to them. The only exception occurs when a child is unsafe.

Georgia was feeling the physical pain of her blindspot. She was exhibiting behaviours handed down to her from her parents and beyond, and she really didn’t like them. She and I took some time to notice where her pain lay. It was a pit in her stomach. A weight on her shoulders. A lump in her throat. We noticed that she was quelling some emotions attached to it, as though letting the emotions finish their cycle would be too overwhelming. Her defenses were on high alert, lest she be hurt. The emotions needed to be released before we could talk strategies and tools for her toolkit. We noticed all her feelings and she cried and cried.

The thing is, once you have a jolt of recognition for a behaviour you want to change, the individual change is practically complete. The only thing to add is to substitute a new, more constructive behaviour for the old, destructive one.

For Georgia, when her son Mike approaches her for a cuddle next time, her job is to consciously notice him. To bring her attention to his connection to her, and to mirror it. Releasing the embrace just after he indicates he has finished connecting and matching his level of connection/strength. This allows the connection to be child led. It respects the innate knowledge that a child has for what they need.

Georgia has had to learn many variations of this lesson over the time we have been working together. This is common when a person’s baseline for a skill or attribute is low. I’ll share more of these stories with you over the coming weeks, with full permissions of course.

How do you respect other people’s boundaries?