How do I teach my 8-year-old son to have better personal boundaries? For two years, he has been friends with a boy who is often in trouble at school, and whose parents find him challenging at home. While the boys share some common interests and frequently want to have play dates together, the other child often treats my son in a way that makes him feel sad or unworthy. My son doesn't do a good job at standing up for himself, and just falls apart when the other boy is mean to him. I have to say that I don't have very good personal boundaries myself, so it doesn't come naturally to me to teach him not to let people mistreat him. Is there anything you would recommend I do to help my son deal with this boy?
As is often the case when we have a question, we usually know at least part of the answer, even though we may have trouble admitting it. There are many ways to help a child establish better boundaries, but the most important one is built upon what he observes in the behavior of those he watches most carefully -- his parents and primary caregivers.
Here are my thoughts:
• Change what you are modeling. Your son is mirroring your struggle in knowing that you deserve to occupy your space on earth. If he doesn't see you being appropriately assertive in your own life, it will be very difficult for him to feel good about standing up for himself. Did you learn that to be worthy of love, you had to be agreeable and "nice"? Were you shamed for asking for what you wanted, or asking someone to treat you more kindly? Even a few counseling sessions may help you get started on a path of redefining your worth. As you untangle old patterns that make it hard to establish healthy boundaries for yourself, you will be able to model for your son the behavior that you want him to adopt.
• Discover that you can Just Say No. For a short and simple word that's quite easy to pronounce, it's interesting how difficult it is for some people to say "No." Do you disregard your needs in the hopes of winning other people's approval? What feelings come up for you when someone asks you to watch their kids or cover their shift and you don't want to? Look for small changes you can make today to rewrite the rules of how people should treat you.
• Teach your son about mixed feelings. One of the things that makes human relationships so complex is the fact that we often like some things about a person while not like other things about them. The process of determining whether someone's overall character and personality are right for us involves admitting both the things we enjoy and the things that trouble us. Help your son understand that it's perfectly normal to want to play with his friend, even if he also feels unhappy about how the boy often treats him. With your help, he may come to the conclusion that despite the fun they often have, the negative impact outweighs what is good about their friendship.
• Explore your son's feelings. Before you suggest that your son let go of this friendship, help him discover what feels right to him. In other words, use the experience he is having with the other boy to teach him how to listen to his own instincts about relationships. In his excellent book, The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker describes how in nearly every interview he had with the victim of a crime like mugging, they confessed that a "little voice" inside had warned them to avoid that person or walk on the other side of the street, but they had disregarded it. Help your son tune in to what his own "little voice" is saying when this boy is unkind so he can learn to act upon his own inner wisdom.
• Share childhood stories. Children find it fascinating to imagine their parents as children, and are intrigued by the idea that mom and dad struggled with some of the same issues they are dealing with today. By sharing an anecdote about when you let a little boy or girl treat you badly because you were afraid they wouldn't be your friend, or you reveal a story about how scared you were to get help from an adult when kids were chasing you on the playground at recess, your son may be more open to talking about the child who has been mistreating him and how he feels about the behavior.
• Teach assertiveness. Many children don't know how to say, "I don't like the way you're talking to me," or "I want to have a turn now." An aggressive child will push or bully to have his way, while a more passive youngster will simply fold in on herself and allow others to run the show. Role play scenarios with your son to help him try on assertive words and body language. By practicing those behaviors, he will be better able to use them when necessary.
With your help, I hope your son learns that he is worthy of caring friendships that leave him feeling happy and good about himself. Best of luck!
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Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach, and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting. To learn more, visit her Facebook page or sign up for her free newsletter.