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Helping Girls Set and Respect Healthy Boundaries

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Throughout history, girl’s relationship with boundaries has been fascinating. For centuries, women lived with harsh, unreasonable enforced boundaries that neither reflected their ability or potential. Women literally moved mountains to be able to vote, work outside of the home, lead and contribute equally. In many cases their greatest fight has been to live a life free of abuse, violence and shame; and although some girls are still growing up under mindsets and laws that are disabling, so much progress has been made.

Rebelling against unhealthy boundaries has saved lives, won important social battles and set new moral codes for generations to follow. Woman have been “movement” creators time and time again. The power of change that is girl inspires me. Make no mistake about it, for good (or not so good), the world will be different because our girls have touched it.  Each one of them is, in some way, a voice of change.

Because I recognise the power inside of our girls they are often on my mind.  As I interact with them in schools I see a generation who have freedoms and opportunities their grandmothers could have only dreamt about. They are free to protest, speak up and voice their opinions.  They are challenged academically.  They have social media platforms to share their opinions with the world.  They can determine their own future.   

However, my concern is that our girls will not be able to fully utilise these opportunities if they don’t know how to set and respect healthy boundaries – limits which define what is acceptable, healthy and good for their lives and the lives of those around them.  I know so many parents struggle to know when to say no under the intense pressure they feel from their girls. Unhealthy boundaries harm, and healthy boundaries (those which are fair, safe and balanced) help our girls emerge as strong woman who know themselves and what they have to contribute to the world.

This generation of parents has left behind the authoritative, behaviourist approach of its forefathers. That’s a great thing.  But in the shift, let’s not lose our ability to confidently guide our girls as the bigger, stronger and wiser person in their lives with compassion and connect as our guides. I believe our girls not only need freedom but responsibility, which is always accompanied by restraint, respect and self-awareness.

Parents I speak to often question how to best to establish boundaries without squashing their daughter’s sense of self and unique identity, especially if they have strong willed girls.  They question how to manage new freedoms like technology, which their parents never dealt with. I agree, setting boundaries for this generation has become a tricky, and anything but straight forward. 

Helping our girls set clear boundaries

Below I have set out a few practical ideas which I think are key life lessons for our girls, and will help them set personal boundaries. I hope these thoughts help you understand the importance of teaching our girls to interact with healthy boundaries that keep them safe, develop their resilience and give them an understanding that their voice matters.

Thought #1:  Boundaries and Vulnerability

One thing I know about girls is that they are complex. They aren’t always easy to read or understand – just ask any dad!  You have to be prepared to de-code their behaviour!  When they are screaming “I want to go to that party!!!’ they quite often mean “I want people to like me.”  When they are crying “Get out I don’t’ want to talk to you’ they quite often mean “Show me that you are interested in me.”

Teaching our girls to be honest about, OWN and express what they REALLY need is really important but not easy. People pleasing gets in the way. Fear gets in the way.  Sometimes self-awareness can be buried under a bucket load of emotion and needs unearthing one conversation at a time.

If you think about it, setting boundaries is a very vulnerable thing. It’s about saying this is who I am, and this is what I need.  It’s about knowing what you want and expressing your needs.  It’s bringing who you are into a relationship. When you set a boundary, you say I matter. Who I am matters. What I need matters. My time matters. My resources matter. My voice matters.  That’s not always easy.

Parents need PATIENCE in bucketloads. One conversation at a time, piece by piece, our girls can usually get to a point of pure honesty. Creating an environment where they know they are safe and loved is essential, and even then honesty can be confronting and awkward so realise that it takes time.

Thought #2:  Boundaries and Confidence

When your daughter is faced with a strong negative emotion, it may be a sign that she is operating outside of her boundaries. Please teach her this! The stories girls tell me (especially about consent or lack of) reinforce how easily girls disregard their feelings. Girl’s emotions speak so clearly to them but are often dismissed or minimised or excused or justified.

Intuition is a safeguard against danger. I want to encourage them to channel their internal nudge into actions.  That means they need to turn feelings in statements, not a conversation. For example, intuition says, “I wasn’t expecting drugs at this party. I feel unsafe.”  It’s time to state, “I’m heading home now.”  Intuition says, “I feel this conversation might backfire and start rumours.” It’s time to state, “I’m done talking about this.”

I always tell girls that if they say “no” in the same way they say “no” to their mum, things will turn out just fine.  Think about it. Mum asks, “Can you clean your room today?” Girl says, “NO mum, I’m busy.”   They don’t offer us further explanation. It’s a statement, not a conversation.  When girls set boundaries using statements it is amazing how peers respect them.

Thought #3:  Boundaries and Self-care

Females are relational beings, and friendships are at the centre of their world. What many girls fail to understand is that relationships go better when healthy limits are set and respected. That’s why I often talk to girls about the 50/50 principle. The idea is to meet 50% of your own needs and rely on healthy relationships to meet the other 50%. Too often our girls approach friendships either meeting 100% of their friend’s needs or expecting their friends to meet 100% of theirs. It’s unrealistic. It implodes.

One example that comes to mind is girl’s mobile phone use at night. So many girls leave their phone on just in case their friend needs to “talk” through the night. Their sleep suffers, and their relationship is usually none the stronger for it.  

But helping our girls know how to set limits in friendships is easier said than done. What we are trying to do is help them turn their nurturing instinct inwards. Questions like these might be interpreted as self-centred but they are critical for our girls to see the world through a 50/50 lens.  They might ask themselves –

·         How can I look after myself today? 

·         What does the world have to offer me?

·         Is this what I really want? Have I clearly asked for what I need?

When they can’t set boundaries themselves

When our girls can’t set healthy boundaries for themselves, we step in as loving guides in their lives. We step in with compassion and explanation, but we step none the less! That step is not always welcomed when a teen wants independence., but there are several important reasons why our kids needs us to set and hold boundaries.

When we set and hold firm boundaries it helps our girls trust us, feel safe and ultimately learn to set and hold their own boundaries. No one can make it over the bridge to adulthood without guardrails along the way.  

However, it’s a lack of clarity around who sets the boundary which I find creates problems. Words like maybe, sometimes, occasionally imply options, when we often don’t really want to extend those options. These three sectors have helped me communicate with girls, often. Seeing them black and white, leaves nothing unsaid. 

This is an example. A parent recently talked to me about her daughter wanting to drop out of dance.  She was desperately trying to convince her to stay till the end of the year. I asked, “Is this your daughter’s decision or yours as a parent, or is this a negotiated decision? “After talking some more, she admitted to wanting it to be a HER decision, with some flexibility for negotiation. If her daughter dropped dance, she would have to choose something else to replace it. If she couldn’t choose another option, she would stay in dance. Clarity – enough trying to sugar coat it – girls need clarity.

Things like sleep, homework and social activities all require parents to ask themselves what is fair, reasonable and age appropriate; AND who makes the final decision. Take some comfort in knowing that there are no formular to working that out. To a certain degree, I really do think it depends on the child themselves, their maturity and their stage of development at the time. Obviously, as our girls mature (and can better handle consequences of their own choices) they will spend more and more time in the “negotiated” and “their decision” sector. PS. Negotiated decisions are the most difficult to master, and often come with conditions or requirements.

Respecting boundaries is a girl’s doorway to freedom. The doorway teaches them the value of heathy relationship (the 50/50 principle in action). When our girls respect boundaries willingly, it’s a real grown-up moment. If they aren’t quite there yet, don’t stress. Just know that each time you set (and hold it) you are teaching her to do so also. 

RECOMMENDED READING:  Parenting Teenage Girls in the Age of a New Normal

You might also like:

In-charge Energy: Staying One Step Ahead of Tweens and Teens

Gut Centred Parenting: The Only Path to Whole-hearted Parenting

Something Bad Might Happen: 5 Things Parents Tell Themselves When Making Decisions About First

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