How to Teach a Sensitive Child to Have Healthy Boundaries — And Change Their Life Forever

A young girl balances on her mother’s legs

Boundaries help sensitive kids transform from dependent child to independent adult. 

Did you grow up in a family where people had healthy personal boundaries? Most of us have weak or absent boundaries because of the family dynamics in which we were raised. If you’ve never been taught personal boundaries, it can be a challenge to teach your children how to develop their own, especially if they’re highly sensitive. You can’t teach what you don’t know.

In her book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, Dr. Elaine N. Aron says, “Make good boundaries your goal. They are your right, your responsibility, your greatest source of dignity.” 

We all have unresolved trauma, learned behavioral responses and coping mechanisms that no longer serve us. Many of us are unaware of how these things affect us until we become parents. Once we’re faced with the overwhelming tasks of helping a child learn to name their feelings, regulate their emotions, and understand boundaries, we come to realize that our own boundaries are not well-defined.

When I raised my highly sensitive child, I thought she would be okay with no boundaries, because that’s how I grew up, and I was a good child. I followed the rules and had good grades. I was a good girl. However, my highly sensitive daughter experienced the lack of boundaries as a source of anxiety. She didn’t know what to expect from me regarding discipline or boundaries.

Establishing Clear Boundaries Will Help Your Highly Sensitive Child Develop a Positive Sense of Self

Knowing what’s expected of us doesn’t always come naturally. When a child doesn’t know what’s expected of them, they may feel anxious and unsure. Establishing clear boundaries and maintaining them consistently will help your child develop a positive sense of self. Setting boundaries and rules is an important part of effective parenting. You’ll build a stronger relationship with your sensitive child if your household environment is predictable, consistent, and clear.

If you didn’t have healthy boundaries growing up, it probably isn’t easy to say “no” when someone wants something from you, and it’s equally difficult to ask for what you need. This is even more challenging for the highly sensitive person because we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. As parents, we sometimes cross boundaries ourselves in our attempts to fix things for our children. This is when boundaries can easily get blurred.

Believe me, I understand — it’s painful to see our children struggle in life. We love them and feel responsible for them, so it’s only natural to want to “fix” things and make things better. I did this often when my highly sensitive child was young. I didn’t want her to feel the disappointment I did as a child. Instead of trusting her and giving her the chance to figure out challenges on her own, I would jump in to save the day. I didn’t realize that I was causing, or at least exacerbating, long-term issues that we are dealing with now at the age of 21: anxiety, lack of resilience, trust issues, difficulty making decisions, and fear of others’ reactions.

Boundaries Are Important for Self-Worth and Self-Love

Once I studied self-love in 2014, I learned the importance of boundaries for establishing a sense of self-worth and a sense of self-love. Learning to set boundaries as a highly sensitive person made me more uncomfortable than I expected. (I found the blog post How to Actually Set Better Boundaries as an HSP to be very helpful.) Much of my identity was unconsciously defined by the desire to be liked, so possibly upsetting someone by enforcing a boundary didn’t sit right with me. 

Looking back, I realize that this was a side effect of low self-worth and not learning the importance of boundaries as a child. Once I learned about how important boundaries are, we started to talk about them as a family and apply them to our daily lives. This helped release some of my people-pleasing traits and, as a family, we worked on focusing on our own individual needs with less enmeshing of emotions.

One way to understand boundaries is to look at them as guidelines you set with others for what you find acceptable. You can’t control the behavior of others, but you can enforce your own boundaries. Having boundaries in place and understood by everyone builds trust and safety in relationships and families. This helps everyone know their place and feel safe. It’s essential to set both personal and child-related boundaries. Good parenting involves setting clear boundaries. Children who understand the consequences of their actions will have an easier time making the right choices. Here are some ways I’d recommend teaching your sensitive child to have healthy boundaries. 

5 Ways to Teach a Sensitive Child to Have Healthy Boundaries 

1. Heal your past experiences around boundaries. 

How we feel as parents is reflected in how we react to our children. The more we love ourselves, the easier it becomes to state our boundaries because we feel worthy. We also feel less guilty about doing so because we know that it’s best for all.

When we’re emotionally grounded and balanced, it’s easier to stay calm and peaceful in any given situation. The more we love ourselves, the more we can get in touch with our feelings and communicate with others from a place of openness and honesty.

2. Be an example for your child. 

The most important factor in raising children is leading by example. This is also true when teaching our children boundaries. Challenging emotions, like overwhelm, anger, and frustration, can be helpful guideposts as you work to discover when, where, and with whom to set boundaries. Naming your feelings — instead of pushing them away — sends the message that these feelings matter. 

  • Ask for alone time. Alone time is perfectly healthy, and it’s essential for maintaining your own identity and sorting through your problems (and a must for sensitive people!).
  • Communicate discomfort. If someone has crossed the line with you, let them know by using phrases like, “Please don’t do that, it makes me uncomfortable” or “I don’t like it when you (use that word, touch me there, use that tone, etc.).” As a highly sensitive person, we are in tune with the emotions of others – even just by reading their body language. Remember that others may not have the same HSP awareness and Spidey-Senses, so voicing your discomfort is necessary to make boundaries clear.

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3. Be consistent, like by supporting their independence.

As parents, we typically do what we think is best for our kids. Unfortunately, this often means overstepping boundaries or inadvertently neglecting our own needs. We end up giving ourselves to them instead of creating space for them to learn how to give to themselves. This ultimately backfires when it comes time for children to act independently.

Supporting your child’s independence — instead of doing as much as possible for them — promotes a sense of responsibility and teaches them how to navigate social situations. This approach gives them the tools they need to forge their own way in life. Helping your child acquire these skills, and fostering their independence, encourages them to embrace challenges without fear. Your child will learn responsibility when you allow them to do things for themselves. Let them interact with the world so they can learn how to handle it themselves. Don’t be wishy-washy or let things slide. Be specific in both what you expect and what actions are not tolerable.

4. Keep things in perspective. 

If you or your child are experiencing strong emotions, it’s not the end of the world. Tomorrow is a new day. Sometimes we have a hard time maintaining boundaries even though we know it’s in our children’s best interest. This can happen because we are simply worn out — and we HSPs get worn out more easily than others. We all have hard times, moments when we give in. Nobody — and no parent — is perfect. Instead of beating yourself up for this, you might have to let yourself off the hook for letting them off the hook. Simply try your best not to make it a pattern. Keep learning from your mistakes and tweaking your approach to boundary setting until things get easier and you have solid foundations in place.

Also, don’t expect kids to get it right away. You may have to give your child a few friendly reminders before it sinks in that bad or unsafe behavior will lead to a consequence they do not want. Like anything else, you may try a few times before your child remembers what they are supposed to do. Make sure you do follow through on the consequences. Don’t be afraid to discipline your child or worry that they will be upset or angry with you. That’s par for the course, and in the long run, your sensitive child will benefit from the boundaries you establish to keep them healthy and happy.

5. Ask for help (which is not easy for highly sensitive people to do).

Don’t be ashamed if things are getting to be too much. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness — on the contrary, it takes courage. Find a babysitter or a house cleaner. Seek out therapy, or support from other parents. Take breaks, enjoy a walk by yourself or with your partner (nature is such a healer for highly sensitive people), talk with others, or journal. We often give in to our children during moments of overwhelm. Taking time for yourself to get grounded and centered on being the best parent you can be is a healthy expression of setting your own boundaries.

It is critical to instill boundaries between parents and children so that they can transform from dependent children to independent adults. By taking the time to set up and enforce these boundaries, you’ll be fostering your child’s development and establishing a healthy relationship with them that will benefit you both as your child grows.

Check out my new memoir (April 2022), The Sensitive Ones. where I share my experience of raising a sensitive child.

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