Teaching your children about boundaries and empathy

Young boy sitting and moving closer to the sweets on a desk

For many mums and dads, setting boundaries for their young child’s behaviour is just a normal part of bringing up the child. No hitting. No swearing. Don’t interrupt when mummy is talking. We don’t snatch things from other children. However, as the child gets older, and social interaction gets more complicated, it’s not enough to just learn the rules. They have to learn to set boundaries for themselves and respect other people’s rules and regulations, otherwise they are going to have a very difficult life. 

What are boundaries?

They are about understanding and respecting other peoples needs, wishes and rules, and for that to happen, the child or teen has to understand what empathy and respect are, first. For many parents, the idea of teaching children who haven’t quite mastered the art of getting ready for school yet, to have more empathy, might seem crazy, but you can help them slowly build an awareness of others. Kids may not grasp the complete meaning of empathy, but as long as they are being taught kindness from an early age, the empathy will follow.

OK so you are not going to sit a five year- old down and say: “Sweetheart I’m going to teach you all about empathy today” but what you will do is, step by step, as the child develops his little personality, is teach him as you go along all about being kind to people, playing nicely with his little friends, respecting adults and knowing that it’s not nice to be rude to them or to constantly answer back.  And at the same time, we want to help kids get comfortable with talking about their own feelings and setting their own boundaries among their peers on how they should be treating them.

How can children become empathic?

A young child even at only 3 or 4 years old will show empathy for a little friend at nursery if she is crying. If she sees someone crying – she may go up to her and ask her if she is ok and “what’s wrong? – why are you crying?” she may even start to get upset herself. That’s being empathic. Another child may just ignore his crying friend. That doesn’t mean he’s not empathic – it just means that he hasn’t been taught!

Fortunately, most children give us loads of opportunities to practice intervening in the moment. For example, “How do you think little Johnny felt when you broke his toy?” If your child grabs another child, you could encourage him to think about how his friend might be feeling, and why asking before touching someone is important.

A good way to help your child understand why it’s important to follow rules is to ask the child how they would feel…

  • “Sometimes things that seem fun to you are not fun for the other boy/girl. A child might want to jump on his friend’s back because it feels like good fun, but if he doesn’t ask if the friend is okay with that, and doesn’t make sure he’s ready, someone is likely to end up getting hurt, and that person could be you, too.”
  • “If a little boy at school wanted to play with you at break time and you told him that you didn’t want him to join in with you and your friends – how do you think he will feel? What if he did that to you one day? You wouldn’t like it would you?”
  • “Listening when people are talking, especially when they’re giving instructions or asking us to do something, or not do something, is how we stay safe and make sure other people are safe, too. If people aren’t listening to you, they won’t know what you need or want, either, so it’s always really important, and its good manners, to listen!”

Practice setting boundaries so the child learns from YOU!

Helping your child to understand and to make a plan for what to do when someone isn’t respecting his feelings or boundaries will give your child the chance to practice standing up for himself, and you MUST let him stand up for himself, he needs to sometimes fight his own battles to learn!

We need to be letting our child follow by example. If the child sees mummy and daddy being kind to each other and respecting each other, they will soon learn that that’s what is expected of them too!

You can use their favourite TV characters or TV programmes as examples such as

 “How do you think the little boy felt when his friend wouldn’t let him join in the game?” or… “How would you have felt if your best friend had treated YOU like that?”

You see, all you have to do is watch out for any little way you can point things out which will affect the child’s feelings, there are endless opportunities every single day.

Jane Beddows and her husband Mike started doing this early on with their two children, Johnny (4) and Ciara (6). Jane says her family often relies on examples from books, movies, or TV to help get a conversation going. “The other night Mike was reading an old story book to the children,” she says.”  The story was about a family of monkeys.  In the book, the monkey family was trying to decide how to spend the day together. Halfway through, Mike stopped and asked the kids, “Hey, has the mummy monkey said one word so far?” The children both said that she hadn’t. When they’d finished reading, he noted that at no point in the story had anyone asked the mummy monkey what she’d like to do, or if she was having fun.

“Do you think your mummy would like that?” he asked Johnny and Ciara. The children shook their heads.

“Would you?”  he asked them. Again, the answer was no.

“The whole idea of this”, Jane says,” isn’t necessarily to start a big conversation, but rather to help her children develop an interest about how others are thinking and to be aware of other peoples’ feelings.”

 This is a brilliant way of helping children to become empathic and kind.

Parents should avoid pushing kids to be affectionate when they’re not feeling comfortable. But forgoing grandma’s big huge hugs and sloppy kisses doesn’t have to mean being impolite. However, we mustn’t dismiss our own child’s boundaries. If he or she is not comfortable with hugging maybe you can suggest he just shakes hands! (Kids love to pretend to be grown up don’t they!)

At my two clinics I am always being asked to “please make my child empathic and kind” – Naturally, I can help them to understand what empathy is and I can teach them some techniques with role play etc… However, the very best way is if it comes from you the parents, teaching them by a) your own behaviour towards others and b) just pointing little examples out to the child every single day! 

Just be consistent, persistent and patient and you will have a lovely caring and empathic child or teen!


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