Nov 26, 2013

A Professional's View of Discipline and Boundaries

Category: Boundaries and Discipline
Posted By: Greg

Question: I wonder if you could let me know a child psychotherapist’s view of discipline and boundaries?  There are so many different ideas out there that it is confusing and I wondered whether a child psychotherapist goes for the strict approach or for the laid-back version of parenting?  Many thanks for your help, Greg

Answer: There are a lot of theories around about the best way to discipline children.  More than ever before our society encompasses a broad range of views on how to bring up children, ranging from strict disciplinarian to laissez faire.  And then there are the many of us who’s well-intentioned parenting falls foul of time pressures and the general chaos of busy lifestyles.  Unfortunately for us it seems that consistency and calm are two things that are more important than any one parenting style.  It is important to have some balance in children’s lives between boundaries and room for expression, but the main thing that children need is to know what the rules are and where they stand.  They need us, as parents, to be able to manage our own emotions and lives in a way which gives them enough consistency in their daily life that they feel safe.

The second most important factor in managing boundaries within a family is the relationship between yourself and your children.  It is crucial that you build trust with your children.  Again consistency is important in building this but also honesty and clarity in the way that you deal with the children.  If you have a solid way of communicating and relating then you can build empathy and ask your children to see the family as a whole and have some understanding of everyone’s needs.  They can be asked to see the family as a whole and come to understand why their wishes and needs may have to be put on hold temporarily while someone else’s needs are met.

Children have excellent instincts and they are able to understand even complex language much earlier than then can speak it and can take on board complexities of tone and subtle emotional dynamics.  If we talk about why we need them to do things, and give them the information about their own safety, or the practical reasons why they need to cooperate they are generally social beings and will participate. Unfortunately our lives are so very busy that we end up barking out orders. You can imagine it in yourself, if someone just says 'no' we are likely to react rebelliously, it is the start of an argument. Whereas if someone says, "I’m really hungry at the moment, I’m just going to make this sandwich and then I will.." or "that's Ruby's toy, it belongs to her so we can't just take it off her, she will be upset" or whatever other explanation is necessary, over time what we call 'discipline' will make much more sense to our children and we can ask them to work with us towards what is, after all, a common goal; a safe, happy family that functions well.

What I have described should not be taken as an inability to put down boundaries. There is a very strong boundary, an expectation that the family work as a unit, and the child participates in this. There is an expectation the children trust the adults to have the overall best interests of everyone in mind and that this will prove to be a fair system in which everyone's needs are taken in to account.

While this sounds a little utopian I have to put in a couple of provisos, there may be several reasons why a child or toddler who normally behaves well suddenly starts behaving badly and usually there is some reason which it would help to think about. Equally children, like their parents get tired or overwhelmed and in these instances (which every parent has experienced) they are not reachable and we need to just mediate the situation until the tiredness or the overwhelm has been remedied and we can start again to ask them to cooperate.

There can be a wide range of reasons why things go wrong.  At times the family system may slip out of balance and a pattern of difficulty can be set up.  In other cases the differences in views between parents can make it hard to form a coherent way of managing the family.  Lack of time or emotional stress are also common reason for difficulties.  What is important is that if there is a situation that is causing any family member distress over a prolonged period of time then some thought be given to how to manage the situation.   These are the times that we need to get an outside perspective either from friends and relatives or, if necessary, from professionals.

I hope that answers your question, it is by no means a comprehensive view, child psychotherapists generally deal very individually with each case and look carefully at the complexities.

There is a wonderful book written by a child psychotherapist called Asha Phillips called ‘Saying No’ which examines the role of boundaries at each stage of a child’s life.  I would thoroughly recommend it.

Best wishes


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