Behaviour & Emotions Health & Well-being

How to set boundaries that actually work

Boundaries that actually work

Setting boundaries can be a tricky part of parenting. And then there’s the maintenance! Depending on parenting style, some of us find the important work of establishing and maintaining limits easier to attend to than others. But as much as we might prefer to head outside and paint the garden fence, behavioural boundaries need our attention. Dr Becky Kennedy offers a helpful reminder on this point:

“First and foremost, our job is to keep our children safe, physically and psychologically.”

The challenge can be figuring out just how to go about setting boundaries that are firm, fair and effective. So, let’s take a closer look at what boundaries for our younger children are all about, and how we can best use them for the intended purpose of keeping kids safe (and parents sane!)

Why bother with boundaries?

Boundaries are actions we take to keep our kids safe and healthy. As Dr Kennedy points out, they are part of the parenting job description because it’s our responsibility to make decisions that are good for our child’s well-being, both in the short- and long-term.

Our children may think that tablespoons of Nutella make for a nutritious dinner, but we are the adults and we have more information. Likewise, our children may not agree that carseats and seatbelts are necessary; that they always need to wear their lifejacket on Poppa’s boat; or that meeting BruisedKnuckles65, who they recently connected with online, at the skatepark is a risky idea... but as adults, we need to hold the line in the interests of safety.

Boundaries are actions we take to keep our kids safe and healthy.

What's the best approach?

Firstly, the tone of our delivery is important when we’re discussing boundaries with our kids - clear, calm and firm is the goal.

Secondly, let’s talk wording. The way we structure a boundary, i.e. the language we use to define action and responsibility, can make a big difference to our parenting interactions. In my work as a Parent Coach, I often suggest an approach that comes from the work of Dr Becky Kennedy.

Dr Becky Kennedy explains the simple trick to setting boundaries:

“Boundaries are not what we tell kids not to do; boundaries are what we tell kids we will do. Boundaries embody your authority as a parent and don’t require your child to do anything.”

We are not asking the child to be happy about, agree or comply with the boundary. We are simply telling the child what WE will do. That’s it.

Reasons - within reason!

Supply a WHY - this really helps with buy-in. And, spoiler alert, it shouldn't be “Because I said so!”

Aim to give your kids a simple reason as to why you are setting and/or maintaining a boundary. This isn’t about inviting our child into debate over our reasons or having to justify our rule. Rather, it’s about the fact that simple explanations help our kids learn.

We have a saying here at Parenting Place: Rules without Reasons = Rebellion

Simple explanations help our kids learn.

For example...

Let’s have a look at boundary setting in real life (well, in these hypothetical parenting scenarios at least). See if you can hear the difference between the following statements:

“Hey! Turn the iPad off! You know the rules - you're not allowed on the iPad before 4PM!” (Exasperated tone, annoyance that the child is not being obedient, not sure how to get the message through.. Often parents end up pleading or exploding.)


“It’s not your iPad time right now. We know screen time is quite addictive, so in our family we don’t turn the iPad on whenever we feel like it. I am going to put it away until it’s your screen time.” (Calm tone, parent is feeling in charge.)

In the initial response, the parent was telling the child what to do rather than explaining what they, the parent, were going to do. This means the boundary depends on the child’s obedience. What can then soon result is a conflict/ power struggle, and parents can also feel helpless – they are dependent on the child agreeing to comply.

In the second approach, however, the focus is on what the parent is going to do. It isn’t a command - it’s simply stating what’s going to happen. This is more empowering for the parent and communicates more clearly to your child where the line is.

Banner familycoach

Strategies and tips tailored just for you

Parent Coaching provides personalised support for your unique whānau situation. Available in-person for Auckland-based parents, and online for parents across Aotearoa.

Book a coach

Let's look at some more:

“Hey, no, no, no! You need to hold my hand when we are in the carpark/crossing the road! HEY STOP! YOU NEED TO HOLD MY HAND!” (Parent is frantically trying to get compliance, raising their voice etc.)


“In carparks and crossing roads, Mummy needs to keep you safe. I am going to hold your hand or carry you. Which one do you choose?” (If they refuse either option, say “Okay, I am going to carry you”.)

“Stop that screaming! I am DRIVING! Can’t you see its dangerous to have all this commotion going on while I’m driving?!” (Parent is getting hot under the collar, and raising their voice to be heard and to get compliance from children that are otherwise occupied.)


“I am going to pull over. I am not going to drive while this commotion is happening in the car.” (Parent is calm, sending a very clear message about how serious they are.)

“Stop fighting boys! You always end up fighting when you play on the trampoline together! For goodness sake! Cut it out!” (Parent is calling out and using their voice to try and stop the hitting/ kicking. Parent is asking the boys to regulate and have self-control at a moment when they have lost it – the brothers may well both be feeling enraged and that they are justified in continuing to hurt their sibling and are both yelling their reasons at the top of their lungs.)


“Okay, I am separating you two boys. I am not going to let you hurt each other like that. I will talk to each of you about what happened when we have all calmed down.” (Parent has joined the boys on the trampoline and is physically separating them, catching their wrists if they continue to try and hit, and getting them to go to different parts of the house/ garden for a while until they have calmed down. Parent is not trying to sort out what happened/what is fair etc. in the heat of the moment but is creating space for everyone to calm down).

“That movie doesn’t sound appropriate for a bunch of kids your age! I can’t believe they are showing that movie! Can’t you convince your friend to watch another one?” (Parent is pleading with the child to see their perspective, and to fight this battle for them with their peer.)


“I won’t let you go to that sleepover because they are watching an R16 movie and you are only twelve. I know you are feeling left out, but I am not comfortable with it. Sorry bud.” (Parent is empathetic, but firm that this is not in the child’s best interests.)

“Hey! We've already taught you how to use a pocketknife safely! Stop waving it around like that! Oh, you are obviously not old enough!" (Parent is conveying lots of exasperation, and shaming the child that they are ‘obviously not old enough’. Parent is hoping that this will spur the child on to rethinking how they are using the pocket-knife.)


“I am going to put this pocketknife away for a while because you are not using it safely.” (Parent hasn’t given confusing messages to the child and is being firm about safety.)

The power of a reframe

Sometimes it takes a bit of work to re-word how we express boundaries - it can even feel like mental gymnastics! But, give it a go. Stating what we will do, rather than what our child can’t do, is a much more confident way to set a boundary. You are not pleading with your child to comply, you are just telling them where the boundary is. Ultimately this creates security for our kids who feel more secure when they know their parents are in charge.

The lines between safe and unsafe, healthy and unhealthy aren’t always something we can tangibly see, especially if we’re a child or young person with limited life experience! As parents, we need to help our kids clearly understand where the boundaries lie. Our children may not be happy or thrilled about the boundary, but, as Dr Kennedy says, “Our kids should not dictate our boundaries, and we should not dictate their feelings.” Kids are allowed to have an emotional response to a limit. At the end of the day, setting boundaries for our kids is our job as parents, and we do this because we love them.

Kennedy, Dr Becky. Good Inside: A Practical Guide to Becoming the Parent You Want to Be. London: HarperCollins, 2022, pages 27 & 30.


Kristin Ward

Kristin Ward manages the Family Coaching team and enjoys working with tricky dynamics in families. She loves supporting parents to see how they can be on the same team as their kids, no matter what challenging behaviour they are facing. A mum-of-three, Kristin is passionate about seeing whānau thrive and strongly believes there is lots parents can do to build close and warm relationships with their children.

Recommended Content

Get relatable parenting advice and inspo for your family, direct to your inbox

Subscribe now