3 Steps for Setting Boundaries

Many of us struggle to set boundaries with others. Even if someone else’s behavior is genuinely obnoxious or hurtful to us, we often prefer to keep our feelings to ourselves, rather than risk hurting someone or making things awkward. Then again, maybe you feel the opposite of this! Maybe for you, it’s perfectly easy to lay down the law and set a firm boundary, but you’re worried that your message come across as too harsh.

No matter which end of the spectrum you’re coming from, most of us can probably agree that it’s tough to set a boundary in a way that is both a) kind enough to respect the other person’s feelings, and b) firm enough to make your message clear.

Garry Landreth, a pioneer of play therapy and parenting techniques, created a genius 3-step “formula” for setting limits with young children. As an avid user and facilitator of Landreth’s Child-Parent Relationship Therapy, I’ve observed how these steps not only smoothly navigate tricky moments with kids, they also can be applied to problem-solving and boundary-setting with just about… anyone. With the proper adjustments, of course.

That may sound too good to be true, but when you look at each step, you see that it makes a lot of sense.

First Step: Acknowledge the Feeling

 When you have a problem with someone else, start by expressing understanding for the other person’s viewpoint. Why? Because when we feel understood by someone, when we feel like they really GET us, we’re all more likely to cooperate. Skipping this step and jumping straight to the problem is quick way to get the other person feeling defensive.

Second Step: Communicate the Limit/Boundary/Problem

 Whether you tend to be too harsh or too polite with this step, it’s important to keep this statement short and sweet. Try to use passive language, rather than placing blame, which again may cause the other person (particularly children) to not hear the rest of your message. This step usually starts with a “but.”

Third Step: Target an Alternative/Solution

 Suggest a solution to whatever problem you’re trying to confront, and be open-minded to “counter offers” or attempts to compromise from the other person. If you’re dealing with a stubborn child, this step may be focused on offering an alternative to something you’re trying to limit.

Let me show you some examples of how ACT Limit-Setting might work across a number of situations…

Scenario 1: Angry, argumentative teen or adult

Acknowledge the feeling: I understand you’re frustrated…
Communicate the problem: …but yelling at me is not going to help.
Target a solution: Let me know when you’re feeling calmer, and we’ll talk about it.

Scenario 2: Your parent calls too often

A: I know that you care…
C: But twice-daily phone calls feel overwhelming for me.
T: Why don’t we agree to talk every other day?

Scenario 3: Angry, aggressive child   

A: I know you’re mad…
C: But I’m not for hitting.
T: You can hit the pillow or your stuffed bear instead.

Scenario 4: Asking roommate to clean up more

A: I can see that you’ve been busy lately…
C: But I’ve noticed that there are a lot of dishes piling up in the sink.
T: Why don’t we both devote Thursday afternoon to tidying up?

Scenario 5: Child wants a cookie before dinner

A: I understand you’re hungry…
C: But cookies are not for eating right before dinner.
T: You may have carrot sticks or grapes if you want a snack.
(Or, you can have the cookie after dinner.)

When you get really practiced at this technique, you may find yourself using it in all sorts of ways, even with pets! No, I’m mostly kidding, but those furry friends really can be tough to set boundaries with…

“I know you want to go on a walk, but we’re not for walking in the rain. We can play with your ball instead.” 😊


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