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  • Writer's picturePersephone Protouli

Children & Boundaries

A clear limit setting that is age appropriate and in accordance to the situation is essential when working with children. When a boundary is not available the child feels anxious because there is no clear situation to which they can creatively adjust. By setting boundaries we provide a healthy example for the child on how to set their own boundaries thus defining themselves.

Setting boundaries provides the child with a frame of reference on what can and cannot be done, which in turn makes the child feel safe. In a safe environment the child can slowly start to test the boundaries; in that stretch zone, learning is now feasible.  

But what is OK and what is not? It is not easy to define right and wrong, and it can prove difficult to be consistent. There are three kind of boundaries to use as a compass(van den Heuvel & Haest, 2015). 

Factual Boundaries These boundaries “are the same for everybody, and are not depended on our perception.

They apply in situations where crossing them has a clear consequence which is potentially life threatening, and has not been decided by another person but is like this by nature.” (van den Heuvel & Haest, 2015)

For example, putting on your seat-belt when you are in a car, drinking water after a long time running outside, not running with scissors in your hands, not eating sand, not touching the stove when it is warm.   

All these are explainable but non-negotiable. The key here is to explain the consequence (i.e. If you run with scissors you might hurt yourself or somebody else), without scaring the child.

​Normative Boundaries  These refer to “written and unwritten rules within a society; boundaries that are set by other people and are the norm, meaning that they are accepted and respected by the general population. They can depend on one’s culture or family and are there to ensure mutual respect and prosperity among people living in a society. Discovering them is a social process.” (van den Heuvel & Haest, 2015)

The normative boundaries in children primarily derive from their family.

However, for expatriate children that live with two cultures at home, and come across a different culture at school and outside school (i.e. French school in The Hague), these are not so clearly defined; what the parents do is not always what is done outside the family, which can be confronting and confusing for the child.

It is important that the child understands that the boundary is concerning a specific behavior and is not a reflection on what he/she is as a person.

Long suggests that “imaginative abilities are developed and a strong interest for experience and exploration occurs. If [parental] support for these areas of growth is experienced as punitive by the child, feelings of guilt and anxiety occur.” (Long, 2010)

To avoid punitive behavior, one must repeatedly define the situation within which these boundaries apply.  

Relational boundaries

 In van den Heuvel & Haest (2015) relational boundaries are set

“because I don’t want, because I am scared, because I am not in the mood”.

​Current belief tends to regard the above as something that should not be included in the relationship; it is the stereotype of the all-knowing, almighty adult.

However, by avoiding this children will not learn to create a relationship between equals since they never get acquainted with the other person’s needs.

They will later not be able to imagine a world where there are other needs besides theirs.

On the other pole, making a child feel responsible for your feelings will create guilt and shame, leaving the child uncertain. Actions have reactions, but nobody is responsible for somebody else’s feelings.


​In education ever more so than in a family setting, teachers are very hesitant with working on relational boundaries, because they want to maintain their professional status. They then resort to masking them into factual or normative boundaries. The problem is here that children intuitively know that there is something not right, and they keep insisting; we now have a situation of a child “not listening to the teacher”, because the child is not convinced by the teacher’s explanation.

​When working with children however, there should be no consequences on the relational boundary: It should never be implied that “I will not like you/ love you/ take care for you” if you do something that is not ok. The key here is again to ensure that the child does not take the consequence as a comment on his/her personality, but rather as an outcome of one behavior and a learning point. ​

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