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This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Good Inside" by Becky Kennedy. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why doesn’t it always work when you tell your child to stop doing something? What should you do instead?

Dr. Becky Kennedy, a clinical psychologist and a mother of three, shares her approach to parenting in her book Good Inside. We’ll take a look at what she has to say about boundaries along with some supplementary advice from No-Drama Discipline.

Read more to learn how boundaries in parenting can help you meet four parenting challenges head-on.

Boundaries in Parenting

When a child is experiencing stronger emotions than they’re able to control, it results in dysregulated behavior—challenging behavior resulting from a kid losing control of their emotional responses. This is developmentally normal. Children’s brains are more developed in their sensing than their regulating. For example, if your child is feeling antsy during lunchtime, she might run around and scream even though it’s not the right time or place to do so and despite the fact that running while eating is a choking hazard. Although children will eventually learn to close the gap between what they can feel and what they can regulate, they still need their caregivers to step in to keep them and others safe. This is where boundaries in parenting come in.

The way you keep everyone safe is by enforcing boundaries, which involves taking action when a child crosses a line instead of just asking them to stop. For example, the boundary you set might be “If you start running around, lunchtime is over. I will put the food away and you’ll have to wait until the next snack time to eat.”

Asking your child to stop running makes them responsible for regulating themselves when they’re unable. Not only is this not going to make your child stop (because they can’t), but it will make them feel like you’ve also lost control of the situation and that you’re unable to keep them safe from themselves. If they continue running around, you must take the action you announced, enforcing the boundary and keeping your child and everyone around them safe.

Effective Boundaries Start From Realistic Expectations

In No-Drama Discipline, parenting experts Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson explain that, although boundaries are important, parents also need to keep brain development in mind when they set boundaries for their children.

According to Siegel and Bryson, different parts of the brain are responsible for different functions, and they develop at different times. The lower part of the brain controls basic functions, like breathing, hunger, and strong primary emotions such as fear. This part of the brain is fully developed even in young children. In contrast, the upper part of the brain controls more complex functions like empathy, impulse control, emotional regulation, and critical thinking. Unlike the lower part of the brain, the upper part is not fully developed in children; in fact, the upper brain doesn’t completely mature until around age 25.

According to Siegel and Bryson, the fact that kids’ upper brains aren’t developed yet means they’re not yet capable of higher-level executive functions. For example, a four-year-old genuinely isn’t capable of sitting quietly in church for an hour without something to distract her—she hasn’t developed impulse control (an upper brain function) yet, which means her brain hasn’t yet learned to control her urges to talk, play, and move around. Her parents should set boundaries for her, like not letting her yell in church, but also should have realistic expectations about how long she will stay within those boundaries.

Challenge #1: Aggressive Tantrums

Sometimes, Kennedy says, tantrums become aggressive if the feelings are so intense that the child becomes frightened at her own loss of control. The stress hormone cortisol floods her body and sets off aggressive behavior like kicking or biting. Aggressive tantrums are also developmentally normal, but they need a different approach.

When your child’s tantrum takes an aggressive turn, Kennedy recommends using two tools: 1) boundaries and 2) validation and empathy. Let’s look at how boundaries in particular can help you meet this parenting challenge.

Enforce the necessary boundaries to keep everyone safe. Tell your child that you won’t let her continue the aggressive behavior, and, if necessary, Kennedy explains you might have to use your body to stop her without hurting her. Give her a safe and acceptable outlet for her urges. If the tantrum continues, take your child to a small room and sit there with her. Model calm behavior through deep breathing and a soothing voice. Stay there with your child until the tantrum subsides.

(Shortform note: Kennedy isn’t alone in advocating for boundaries applied with love and connection. For example, instead of time-outs, Montessori-influenced educators recommend “time-ins,” similar to Kennedy’s suggestion to take your child to a small room. However, once your child is regulated, they suggest letting her choose whether or not to go back into the situation that triggered her. As a parent, you should decide whether giving that option violates the boundaries you’ve set.)

Challenge #2: Sibling Rivalry

Sibling relationships can be challenging for children and elicit unwanted behavior, such as fighting or whining. Kennedy argues this is because siblings can feel threatening to a child’s attachment needs since they can see your attention going to someone else. The difference in abilities and in the parental involvement other siblings require can also be frustrating to children. 

To help your children manage the emotions that sibling relationships generate, Kennedy suggests using the following tools: 1) empathy, 2) confidence-building, and 3) a combination of validation and boundaries. Let’s look at how validation and boundaries in particular can help you meet this parenting challenge.

When an argument is brewing, Kennedy says you should be an objective narrator. Describe what you’re seeing and how each must be feeling, and pose questions to prompt them to problem solve without you. If a situation turns physically or verbally aggressive, step in decisively: Announce that you won’t let them hurt each other, then separate them. Decide which sibling needs you most urgently and tell the other sibling that you’ll be with them soon and that you know they need you, too. Then help each one regulate their emotions using the strategies for tantrums.

(Shortform note: When you act as an objective narrator, you can treat sibling arguments as opportunities to coach your kids in the kinds of social skills that the authors of The Whole-Brain Child say you must teach your children. For example, you can help your kids practice seeing another person’s perspective by asking questions about how their sibling may have reacted in a certain way. Similarly, if the disagreement went so far that you had to separate your children, you might teach them the value of making amends after an argument rather than just apologizing.)

Challenge #3: Defiance, Whining, & Lying

Parents often see defiance, whining, and lying as signs of lack of respect, but Kennedy argues instead that they’re symptoms of an underlying emotional discomfort. When your child engages in these behaviors, use empathy and connection to validate what they’re feeling, and to foster a relationship in which they don’t need to resort to those behaviors. Kennedy recommends three tools for addressing each behavior: 1) boundaries, 2) validation, and 3) connection. Let’s look at how boundaries in particular can help you meet this parenting challenge.

Kennedy argues that a child who’s being defiant is feeling an urge she can’t express in a healthy way. If your child is being defiant, calmly enforce the boundary and then see if there’s an alternative, acceptable way for her to express the urge.

(Shortform note: Another way to give your child some space to express her urges is by giving her the opportunity to practice decision-making. The authors of The Whole-Brain Child suggest giving children simple decisions to make from a young age, such as choosing which shirt to wear. This helps your child assert her independence while building decision-making skills.)

Challenge #4: Raising Deeply Feeling Kids

Kennedy warns that some kids—those she calls “deeply feeling” kids—might not respond well to her strategies. Some kids feel their emotions more intensely than others, and as a result have more intense reactions: their tantrums, for example, are more frequent, challenging, and easier to spark than other children’s. This is compounded by the fact that these children also notice the comparative intensity of their feelings and reactions, and they fear that they’re unloveable and that their parents won’t be able to deal with them. This fills them with shame and fear, which only serves to make their reactions harsher and make it harder for parents to find ways to approach them.

Kennedy suggests using the tools of boundaries and playfulness to deal with a child who has very intense emotions and reactions. Let’s look at how boundaries in particular can help you meet this parenting challenge.

Kennedy argues that a child with intense emotions and reactions fears that her outbursts will be too much for others to deal with. By calmly enforcing boundaries, you’re showing her that her reactions aren’t too much for you to deal with and that you’re still able to be her caring leader and keep her safe. What if her reactions are too much for you to deal with? Take her to a safe place where she won’t hurt herself or anyone else, then let her know that you need to take some calming breaths but that you’ll stay close by and come back soon. Step away, collect yourself, and come back when you’re ready.

How Boundaries in Parenting Help You Meet 4 Challenges

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Becky Kennedy's "Good Inside" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Good Inside summary:

  • A parenting manual to help you build a positive relationship with your child
  • Why time-outs, rewards, and serious conversations don't "fix" kids
  • Strategies to deal with ten common parenting challenges

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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