Understanding and communicating about boundaries
Episode 41 – Tessa, Age 9: Friends won’t listen to “stop” or “no”
Think About It Questions
- Describe a time when someone crossed a boundary of your. Why do you think they did that? How did you handle it?
- Dr. Friendtastic said, “Good boundaries can save friendships.” What does that mean? What could happen if you don’t talk with your friends about boundaries?
- Communicating about your communication can be difficult. How do you think your friends would react if you said, ““I’ve asked you twice to stop, but you keep doing that. What’s going on?” Why might it be a good idea to ask “What’s going on?” rather than just yelling at them? (Hint: how is your friend likely to respond to those comments?
- If a friend crosses your boundaries, does that mean the friendship has to end? What could you do instead?
- Boundaries can vary depending on the situation, our culture, and our relationship with others. Sometimes they even change over time. What are some good ways to figure out what someone else’s boundaries are?
Hi, there! I’m Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore, also known as Dr. Friendtastic. I’m an author and clinical psychologist based in Princeton, NJ.
Here’s today’s question:
Hi, Dr Friendtastic. I'm Tessa. I'm 9 years old, and I have a question. My question is, how do you set boundaries for friends who are pushy and do not take “stop” or “no” as an answer? Thank you!
Hi, Tessa! Ooh! What an interesting question! Thank you for sending it in!
Let’s back up for a moment and talk about what we mean by boundaries. A boundary is a line separating two things. For instance, the border between two countries is a boundary.
In relationships, a boundary is an imaginary line separating two people. Babies have no awareness of boundaries. So, they put their hand in your mouth to feel your teeth or stick their finger up your nose, because they have no sense that you are a separate person.
As we get older, we become more aware of boundaries, and we start to recognize that others are separate people who might have different thoughts or feelings than we do.
One thing that’s interesting about boundaries is that, just like with countries, the boundaries between people can be firm or open. They depend on the situation, our culture, and our relationship with the other person.
So with that baby trying to feel your teeth, you’d probably just laugh and gently move the baby’s hand. But if a kid you don’t know that well put their hand anywhere near your face, you’d feel very uncomfortable and even angry. You’d probably jerk back, maybe slap their hand away, and say, “Get away!” But if you were at your dentist’s office, you’d just lie there with your mouth open, and let the dentist feel your teeth.
Another thing that’s interesting about boundaries is that we often discover them only after they’ve been crossed. Maybe you’ve had the experience of letting someone do something, like maybe borrow or use your stuff, and maybe at first it was ok, but then…it wasn’t. Or maybe even as soon as it happened, you realized, “Ugh! I don’t like this! This is not comfortable for me!” That inner feeling of flinching away, or feeling uncomfortable or angry is a sign that your boundary has been crossed.
For the sake of your relationships, you need to tell your friends about your boundaries in a way they can understand. Otherwise, you’re going to end up resenting your friends, and resentment is poison in any relationship.
Other people can’t know our boundaries unless we tell them. They might be able to guess SOME of them, just based on what’s typical behavior. For example, most kids know that if someone invites them over for a play date, they shouldn’t go through that host kid’s underwear drawer. That would be crossing a very big, firm boundary! But other boundaries are more subtle or they change, so we need to explain them.
Now, in your situation, you’ve tried saying no or stop, but your friends aren’t listening. Because these are friends, I’m going to assume that they’re not trying to be mean. For whatever reason, they’re just not seeing the boundary. Maybe that’s because they wouldn’t mind that particular boundary crossing so they don’t undersand that it’s a big deal for you. Or maybe they’re confused because, in the past, you haven’t minded when they did whatever it was but now it does bother you.
So, the first thing we have to do is make sure you’re communicating about your boundaries in a calm, clear, and caring way. Start by reminding yourself that your friend probably doesn’t mean to upset you. That will help you stay calm and remind you to be caring.
Then say something using the format, “I don’t like it when you do X because Y. Please Z.”
Let’s break down that phrase. Start with the word “I,” instead of accusing them, “You always!” “You never!” That would just start an argument.
Then describe the specific action you don’t like and explain the reason why you don’t like it. And finally, ask for what you WANT them to do instead, from now on. The past passed. We can only move forward.
So, you might say, “I don’t like it when you help yourself to my lunch snack because I was looking forward to eating it myself. Please ask before taking anything.” Do you hear that? You explained what you don’t like and why and asked for what you want them to do.
Another example might be, “I don’t like it when you tell my secrets to Jessica because I didn’t want anyone else to know. Please keep what I say private, just between us, and let me decide who gets to know.”
If explaining your boundaries doesn’t work, you could try communicating about your communication. You could say, “I’ve asked you twice to stop, but you keep doing that. What’s going on?” or “I’ve told you I don’t like that, but you’re still doing it. What’s going on?”
If they still don’t listen, you could try changing the situation so it’s harder for them to cross your boundaries. That might mean putting your stuff away or avoiding telling someone things you want to keep private, or not hanging out with certain people in certain situations.
Good boundaries can save friendships.
This has been Kids Ask Dr. Friendtastic. If you have a question about making and keeping friends that you’d like me to answer, go to DrFriendtastic.com, and click on the podcast tab to see how to submit your question.
And be sure to check out my funny and practical books for kids about friendship: Growing Friendships: A Kids’ Guide to Making and Keeping Friends, and my new book, Growing Feelings: A Kids’ Guide to Dealing with Emotions About Friends and Other Kids. They’re available through your library or wherever you buy books.