How to be like a llama and set good boundaries

Do you worry about your tween or teen having healthy friendships and romantic relationships?

I do – and that’s why I recently attended a free webinar on boundaries put on by OhioHealth’s Sexual Assault Response Network of Central Ohio and the Center for Family Safety and Healing.

The webinar, entitled Your Child and Healthy Relationships, was excellent. It was a primer on boundaries and boundary-setting – an important form of self-care.

We can all use a refresher about personal boundary-setting. Boundaries are the key to healthy families, friendships, school and work relationships and romantic relationships at any age.

Boundary-setting doesn’t come naturally for most people – we have to practice and work at it. Even if healthy boundaries were modeled for us by our parents or other adults growing up, we still need to continue boundary-setting to keep this important skill fresh all throughout our lives.

And, for many people, we were never taught healthy boundaries as children. If we had one parent who was dominant and one who was passive, or if we had alcoholism or other addictions in our family of origin, it’s entirely possible that we never learned how to set or hold boundaries at all.

Listening to this talk about boundaries, and refreshing my awareness and knowledge of them and how important they are, was extremely meaningful and significant for me. I want Journey to grow up with two healthy, loving parents who can set good boundaries for ourselves, with each other and with her.

So, what exactly are boundaries – and how can we teach them?

Boundaries are a way of understanding, communicating and respecting our own needs and the needs of others.

One of the best ways I’ve heard to describe boundaries is the llama example. Llamas are pack animals, but they will never carry a burden that is too heavy. If their pack is too heavy, they will simply lie down and refuse to move. That’s a great way to set a boundary!

Boundaries define how we want to be treated. They are based on our own personal comfort level about what is okay for us and how we would like others to treat us. Anytime we get an uncomfortable, off or “icky” feeling in a relationship, it’s likely that our boundaries are being crossed.

Feelings are our superpower; they tell us what we care about and what we need.

Step one when teaching young people about boundaries is to help them learn, identify and honor their feelings. Having a full emotional vocabulary will be their number one clue about their underlying needs and where their boundaries should be set.

We were encouraged to reflect back the boundaries and emotions we hear from our kids: for example, “I hear you say you don’t like X, how can we help you feel safe and comfortable?”

We were urged to start having conversations about this with kids! Talk about boundaries as a family. Then, listen to young people. Honor their boundaries.

Step two in a boundaries discussion with kids is to empower our children and young people to set boundaries of their own. We must help young people develop their own boundaries in all areas of their lives.

For example:

  • Privacy – who are you sharing your social media and phone passwords with?
  • Digital and social media – Can you describe what feels like a good balance between screen time and other activities?
  • Healthy relationships and friendship behaviors – How do you feel about your “alone time” being frequently interrupted by friends or partners? Do you like the way your friends treat you? Why or why not?
  • Identity – What names/pronouns are off limits for people to call you? What would you like to be called?
  • Consent – How do you know when something isn’t the right thing for you? What does it feel like when someone is pressuring or pushing you to do something you don’t want to do? What cues does your body give you? What does your gut feel like – do you get an uncomfortable or icky feeling? 

It’s always a good idea to remind kids that consent isn’t forever; it can be withdrawn at any time. Just because you liked something one day, doesn’t mean you will always like or want it!

We were encouraged to practice boundary discussions together with kids. All kids should have a safe, trusted adult they can talk to about boundaries. Practice what if’s – what if your friend calls you a name you don’t like? What if you ask your friend to stop doing something and they keep doing it? Help them role-play possible scenarios and solutions.

Practice setting and recognizing unclear vs. clear, specific boundaries: “Stop it!” vs. “Stop putting your hands in my hair” or “I don’t like it when you touch my back, please don’t do that again.”

Step three in a boundaries discussion with kids is to teach young people to respect others’ boundaries as well. This includes developing empathy skills.

Honoring other people’s boundaries starts with being able to recognize what other people want and need – and express what they want and need, too.

Families can use TV shows, movies, stories and real-life scenarios to discuss other people’s boundaries and explore empathy. (For example: what boundaries might have been crossed there? How do you think that would feel?)

Holding and honoring boundaries means being respectful of others and expecting them to be respectful of you!

It’s also important to distinguish between setting personal boundaries vs. trying to control others.

The difference between control and boundaries is that control is meant to make others what you want them to be, but boundaries make it safe to be ourselves. In relationships, personal boundaries can get mixed up with control over others.

Practice recognizing control over others vs. personal boundaries. For example, controlling a partner might look like “It’s a boundary to me that you don’t talk to other guys/girls while we are dating” (but that’s not really a boundary at all – it’s an attempt to control).

Remember: boundaries are about ME. Control is about YOU.

Step four: families should model setting and respecting boundaries at home. Parents should reflect on how we may be inadvertently teaching boundary behaviors in unspoken ways at home.

In past generations, women often didn’t have the option to state their own needs and boundaries. Remnants of this historical behavior may still be in place today. But women do have needs and rights, too – and should stand up for their own needs.

In families, two things are often true at once: I love you, AND the answer is no. Or, I’m in charge of this decision AND my answer is no. Kids are in charge of their own feelings, AND you’re allowed to be mad

Kids are allowed to be upset about boundaries we’re setting, but we still need to set them! Parents can make use of the word “AND” instead of the word “but.” For example, “I love you and hate for you to be disappointed, AND this is something that’s really important to me.” Or: “Screen time is over, AND I understand that ending your show is hard”

The word “but” stops our brains from believing whatever came first. So use AND instead as it has more power!

It’s important to honor the other person’s feelings but still uphold your boundaries and needs. For example, “I need a quiet weekend with no plans AND I hear that you wish tomorrow worked for an activity. Let’s make a plan for another weekend to do that together!”

Step five: It’s critical to set safe boundaries for adults who are around our young people. Be clear about the expectations you have for adults interacting with your child. For example, there should be:

  • Physical boundaries – No forced hugging, kissing, tickling, lap-sitting, touching. Support bodily autonomy and consent! Healthy adults will uphold boundaries and respect them if you explain why. 
  • Verbal boundaries – No inappropriate jokes/language; set expectations around shows, movies, music that are appropriate for our young person
  • No expectation of privacy between minors and adults – Enforce random, unannounced parental check-ins for babysitters, music teachers, etc. No one-on-one text messages with coaches, teachers, etc. Any private talks should be observable by parents. Avoid isolated, 1:1 situations between youth and adults.

The webinar did a great job of addressing how to handle boundary violations. If you see a boundary violation:

  1. Describe the behavior
  2. Set the limit
  3. Move on

It doesn’t have to be a big deal – just be clear and firm, then move on. For example, “I can see where this joke is going and it’s not appropriate for our kids – let’s drop it. By the way, did you see this week’s episode of X on TV?”

The speakers also shared resources for additional learning:

We were told to encourage self-respect instead of people-pleasing. This is a continuous journey and comes through sitting with one’s self and realizing what our needs are vs. our friends or partners. It’s okay to have different needs! If a conflict arises, we can talk through it.

We are allowed to have needs that differ from other people – and our needs matter! If you are trying to people-please – which is very common – you may be turning your back on your own needs.

Even if you assert your needs to the people around you and they don’t do what you need or want, it’s still important to stand up for yourself and state those needs. You may be providing an important guide for children who are watching and listening.

It’s okay to disappoint friends/family/partners at times – they will understand and still love us.

The power of AND helps parents set boundaries with children. It’s okay for us to put our needs first AND it’s okay for the other person to feel the way they feel.

First, we have to know what our needs/wants are, then we can set boundaries. Boundaries are a form of self-care. We need boundaries to take care of ourselves.

Boundary-setting is an ongoing skill that we have to keep learning constantly (at work, at home, in relationships, etc). Remember that your feelings matter!

At the end of the session, there was a Q&A. I asked how parents can learn to be better about boundary-setting if they did not see good boundaries modeled as children. The speakers responded with the following tips:

  1. Recognize that we need to learn these skills. Give yourself grace. 
  2. Keep talking about and learning about boundaries.
  3. Learn to be more firm when setting boundaries 
  4. Look at LoveisRespect.org
  5. Learn and grow and model alongside your young person: “I’m still working on this too! Let’s work on boundaries together.”
  6. Seek out positive parenting classes and information

Overall, this was a fantastic course and I highly recommend it if you ever have the chance to learn from these ladies. I look forward to the next training opportunity provided by these organizations.

How are you doing at setting personal boundaries in your own life? Are you like the llama – or do you tend to carry heavy burdens belonging to others? As always, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below or over on Instagram or Facebook.

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About the author

Proud and loving midlife mama. Lucky and devoted wife. Dog, cat and snake mom. Travel nut. Natural born writer. PR and social media pro by day - tattoo doula by night.
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