Setting Healthy Boundaries: A Guide for Parents

Mar 22, 2024

Setting Healthy Boundaries: A Guide for Parents

There are 3 elements that are essential for effective parenting: 1) a close, secure relationship between parents and children, 2) parents actively teaching their children what TO DO, and 3) holding firm boundaries and clear expectations. This comes from decades of research on parenting styles and each of these is outlined in detail and with specific strategies in our Parenting Course.

Boundaries are designed to create a harmonious and balanced home where kids feel safe and they can trust their parents are in control. Boundaries are not just rules or guidelines; they are the framework within which children can explore, learn, and grow with a sense of security and confidence. This blog explores the importance of setting boundaries for children, why consistent boundaries are crucial, and provides practical examples for parents.

But, what is a boundary? A boundary is a limit we as the parent set, but does not require our children to participate or follow-through. You as the parent are the one taking action. For example, let’s say your child has reached their daily screen limit; however, they are not turning off the television when asked or reminded. Because this is a boundary you have set in your family, you would then turn off the device to maintain that boundary (more examples below!)

Why Boundaries Are Important

Boundaries serve as guardrails in a child’s developmental journey. They help children understand their limits and the limits of others, fostering a sense of respect, self-control, and social awareness. Importantly, boundaries provide a predictable structure, reducing anxiety and confusion as children navigate the complexities of growing up. In essence, boundaries are the foundational stones for building self-esteem, empathy, and a strong moral compass.

The Benefits of Consistency

Consistency in boundaries is the key to their effectiveness. Inconsistent boundaries can lead to confusion, insecurity, and behavioral problems in children as they may exploit loopholes or become uncertain about expectations. Consistent boundaries, on the other hand, reinforce understanding and respect for rules, creating a stable environment for children to thrive. It is important to have previously thought about and decided what boundaries are important for you as a parent, your family and home, and your child. Once you set a boundary, it is incredibly important to follow-through.

Setting and maintaining boundaries is a dynamic process that requires patience, consistency, and empathy. By establishing clear boundaries, parents provide a framework within which their children can explore safely and learn the skills necessary for successful, independent living. Remember, the goal is not to restrict but to guide, and in doing so, you are not just setting boundaries; you are laying down the foundations for a well-rounded individual.

Why Boundaries Matter

  1. Safety: First and foremost, boundaries keep children safe. They learn what is safe to touch, where they can go, and what behaviors are acceptable, protecting them from harm.
  2. Social Skills: Boundaries teach children how to interact with others, sharing, taking turns, and respecting personal space, which are vital skills for social interaction.
  3. Self-Regulation: Learning limits helps children develop self-discipline and impulse control, skills important for lifelong success and well-being.
  4. Confidence: When children know the limits, they feel more secure and confident to explore within those parameters, fostering independence and learning.


Framing boundaries in a cause-and-effect style helps children understand the consequences of their actions in a clear and straightforward manner. Here are a few examples of such boundaries across different scenarios:

1. Mealtime Behavior

Boundary: Sitting at the table during meal times with appropriate manners.

Implementation: Encourage your toddler to sit at the table for the duration of meal times, even if they finish eating before others. Provide a special plate or utensil that they only get to use at the table to make meal times more enticing. Clearly explain and model expected behavior: keeping food on a plate or utensil, sitting on your bottom, etc. **Please keep in mind, toddlers are often only able to sit for short periods of time, so we need to adjust expectations based on their age and ability.

Here is what it may look like if your child continues to get out of their seat or throws food on the floor: “Your behavior is letting me know that you are done eating. I’m going to move your plate to the kitchen. If you want more food, you can ask and we can try again.”

Or, for an older child, “We don’t have devices at the dinner table. I’m going to have to take your phone and place it in the other room.”

Consistency: Making this a regular expectation for every meal time helps establish a routine, teaching your toddler the importance of shared meal times and good eating habits.

2. Respecting Belongings:

Boundary: Taking care of our toys so that we can continue to use them and enjoy them.

Implementation: Teach your child that in order to have toys we love to play with, we have to take care of them.

"If I find toys left outside overnight, it tells me those toys aren't being taken care of, so they will be put away for a week to remind you to take better care of them."

Consistency: Help establish a routine where your child knows and has a set time to clean up their belongings after they play. One possible example is to have your child clean up an activity before moving on to the next. “I see you are ready to start playing with trains, first we need to clean up the Play-Doh.” This also helps clean up seem manageable with little messes throughout the day, rather than an overwhelming mess at the end of the day.

3. Bedtime Routine

Boundary: Following a specific bedtime routine (e.g., bath, story, bed) to help your children get the rest they need for physical and emotional growth. We set a boundary by determining a regular bedtime and putting our children to bed consistently at that time.

Implementation: Establish a consistent bedtime routine that signals the end of the day and time to wind down. This routine can be flexible to include your child's preferences (choosing a bedtime story) but should follow a predictable pattern. This routine is cueing their brain to start winding down!

Here is what it may look like if they are not cooperating with the nighttime routine in order to delay bedtime

“Bedtime is at 8:00pm. If we are not able to get done with our bath and brushing teeth, we won’t have time to read books and snuggle before bedtime.”

For an older child, “It seems like you are struggling to get to bed, looks like we need to skip technology today in order to get to bed on time.”

Consistency: Sticking to the same routine every night, even on weekends, helps your toddler adjust to and expect the sequence of bedtime activities, making bedtime smoother and reinforcing the importance of rest.

4. Morning Routine:

Boundary: Following a morning routine can also help your mornings go more smoothly when you are trying to get out of the door! Visual lists can be incredibly helpful!

Implementation: Ensure your child knows all of the steps they need to accomplish independently in order to get ready. Depending on the age of your child, this may need a great deal of teaching and practice! Here are some examples of a boundary:

"If you're not ready to leave on time in the morning, it tells me you might need an earlier bedtime or more help planning your morning, so we'll adjust our routine accordingly."

Or, “The car is leaving at 7:15am. After I have given you reminders, it will be up to you to ensure you and your backpack are ready for school.”

5. Respectful behavior

Boundary: Our children should know that our expectation is for all members of a household to treat each other with respect. This means being kind with our words, not hitting or grabbing things away from others, and listening. This means we as adults should be consistently modeling appropriate behavior and providing instruction on *how* to do this.

Implementation: Ensure your child knows what respectful behavior looks like, and what they can expect if they are unable to treat others kindly. This is particularly important if your child becomes physically aggressive. This is an example of how to state the boundary, AFTER you have already attempted to help them become regulated and offered help. If they are unable to move forward you could say:

“It is my job to keep everyone in our home safe. I will not allow you to hit (bite, kick, etc.) so I am going to step away to keep everyone safe.”

"Hitting does not help you get what you want. You can ask for help or take a break.”

For an older child, “I will not respond to disrespectful language. I am more than happy to help when you can speak kindly.”

Consistency: If this is particularly difficult for your child, you will likely need to stay nearby when your child is playing with others in order to intervene and maintain the boundary. If implementing this consistently and they learn the boundary (as well as other replacement skills), you can gradually fade away your presence.

6.Completing Chores:

Boundary: Completing chores is a research-proven way to help build confidence and perseverance! (Check out our Chores Guide for more info!) Everyone in a home makes a mess, and it takes a family as a team to help clean it up.

Implementation: Ensure your child knows their assigned chores or tasks and is able to complete them independently. If they are younger, they may not

“You need to finish cleaning your bedroom. You will be unable to have technology or play outside until you get this completed.”

“If you don’t put your clothes into the laundry basket, your clothes won’t be washed and ready to wear next week.”

Consistency: Kids benefit from helping at an early age! Check out our Deep Dive about Chores! At a very young age, such as toddlers, them completing tasks with you is the best way for them to learn. You can also start out super simple! For example, toddlers throwing trash away, restocking diapers in a drawer, putting laundry in the dryer – anytime they want to help we should take advantage of their desire to work with us.

These examples help children understand the natural consequences of their actions in a logical and respectful way, promoting self-reflection and better decision-making over time.

Children truly desire for their parent to be in control of their environment. Research shows us that kids who live in homes where there are not boundaries, or boundaries change and are never consistent, tend to be more anxious and have more behavioral difficulties.

We hope this is encouraging and does not feel overwhelming! The earlier you start setting firm boundaries, the more your child will respond to your feedback about limitations and this makes your job easier! Boundaries are something that should be clearly in place starting in early toddlerhood as this is setting expectations for years to come.

Dr. Mortimer

Want more like this? Transform your home with our Parenting 101 Course, and weekly tips from two Child Psychologists. 

Mind & Child Membership ($13)

Stay connected with news and updates!

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from Mind + Child. 
Don't worry, your information will not be shared.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.