Why boundaries are important for your child’s self-esteem

Posted on 24 December 2019

While it’s often tempting to give in to your child’s demands, an educational psychologist explains why clear boundaries will serve them better in the long run.

As Tia Roos, an educational psychologist at Mediclinic Durbanville explains, self-esteem refers to your child’s view and evaluation of themselves – and it’s an ongoing process. “Negative self-esteem can affect your child’s motivation, interpersonal relationships and learning,” she says. “But clear, consistent boundaries (limits and rules) create a safe environment for children to develop trust, independence, responsibility and ownership.”


From 0-9 months: Trust develops during the symbiotic relationship between you and your baby. This secure, nurturing, loving, caring and protective relationship nurtures the thought: “I trust you”.

From 9-18 months: As their motor skills develop, babies start to explore their world more independently. They learn to trust you to use physical boundaries (e.g. babyproofing) to make the world a safe place that they can confidently and curiously explore.

Toddler: It’s important that you explain the purpose of the rules you make with your toddler, so that they understand from a young age that the purpose is to protect them and keep them safe.

Tweens and teens: Your youngster needs boundaries and rules regarding the internet, dating, drugs and drinking. “Explain that we all need to obey rules to earn others’ trust and respect,” Roos says. “And then practise what you preach.”



From 18 months – 3 years: During your young child’s separation phase – which is very similar to adolescence – children tend to oppose and disregard parents (“No!”, “Self!”, “Me!”) to differentiate themselves from you.

During this phase they claim: “I am me”; “I can be separate”. The underlying message is: “You begin and end there.  I begin and end here”.  In other words, your child has defined the boundaries (and ended the symbiotic relationship you had during the first year).

“Autocratic (controlling and restricting) and overprotective (enmeshed interactions) parents disregard healthy personal boundaries,” Roos says. “Rather,

challenge (and trust) your child to do things on their own and express their own views. Allow them to try and learn new things, to succeed and fail, to solve problems and to be confronted with their strengths and weaknesses.”



“Use democratic parenting to teach your child about freedom, boundaries, choices, responsibility and consequences,” Roos suggests. “Parents are in control of the rules in the house, but your child is still free to choose whether they want to obey them or not. Trust your child and allow them to make their own choices and to learn from the consequences.”

Roos adds that it’s vital to be consistent. “Parents tend to extend boundaries by means of nagging or threatening instead of letting the child face the consequences,” she says. “Instead, have family meetings to discuss rules and consequences (e.g. taking away privileges). And make the point that some rules (extended curfew for special occasions) are negotiable, while others (phoning to say you are running late) are not.”



As Roos explains, children should learn they are responsible for their own thoughts, feelings and actions and that they are not responsible for other people’s thoughts, feelings and actions.

“I teach young children that “the brain is the boss of their body”,” Roos furthers. “All feelings come from thoughts (e.g. thinking “I am not good enough” and therefore feeling insecure OR thinking “I am the best me on earth” and therefore feeling confident).”

Teach your child to use “I messages” when discussing feelings (“I feel angry because you spilled paint in your room,”  instead of “You make me feel angry because you…”).

The anger is your problem and the mess is your child’s.  They can clean it.  Do not make your problem their problem (e.g. shouting, criticising).

Allow children to take responsibility for their thoughts and feelings,” Roos adds. “For example: You don’t have a choice when it comes to attending school. However, you can choose whether you are going to enjoy it or not.”

And most importantly, listen more and talk less when your child expresses their thoughts and feelings. “Acknowledging and respecting their views will demonstrate that you value their opinions and concerns.”

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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