Boundaries and consequences are essential to our survival. A society without boundaries would be chaos and confusion. We all know almost instinctively that when we walk down a high street, there is roughly a place for everything. For example, the cars drive on the road and pedestrians walk on the pavement.
Imagine life without those boundaries. We would walk down the high street keeping a hypervigilant eye out for cars, and we would drive down the road either with fear and hesitancy or perhaps risk-taking recklessness. We would start to feel very anxious and would soon enter a survival state of mind where we erected strong defences of fight, flight or freeze.
Now think of the toddler who is allowed to repeatedly do what he wants to do. He hits out at his parents and there is no consequence. He breaks his toys and no-one tells him to stop. In his world, he would begin to feel frightened and out of control. His power to be destructive would terrify him. These are extremes but even as ‘normal’ parents we can fall into the trap of offering too much understanding and not enough boundaries. It might feel perhaps too authoritarian and strict to give boundaries. We might try to rationalise why the child is hitting or breaking things. We offer meaningful discussions with the child. The reality is that we need both – boundaries and understanding. That leads to a child who feels safe and loved.
Consequences are effective if they are either natural or logical. So, a natural consequence to an older child not putting his washing in the laundry basket is that he has no clean washing. He soon learns to put it in. If there is not such an obvious natural consequence, a logical one that is linked to the act is the next best thing. This might be a taking away of a mobile phone for a night if you found out that your child was continually texting or phoning friends instead of sleeping. A natural consequence would be that he was tired, and that might be enough, but if it isn’t the logical one follows.
When watching children play, we can see the worlds they create. Their worlds are sometimes chaotic but order accompanies the chaos. They create their own order and boundaries. In their imaginative younger worlds they create shops with a stall beyond which the buyer doesn’t go. They create houses with doors which are sometimes open and sometimes shut, depending on the boundary that is in operation at the time. As they develop, games acquire rules, boundaries and consequences. Everyone knows what they are doing and arguments are reduced because of clarity and order.
It is normal and helpful for us to have boundaries, and necessary. A civilised society is one where children and adults feel safe and valued, but one where flexibility can be applied. We need to be in control of our boundaries and consequences that we create instead of letting them control us. As children grow, they can become part of creating boundaries. They can take some control for themselves; the control they have practised in their childhood games can be applied to the adult world of which they are increasingly becoming a part.
Dr Angela Evans
Child & Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Member of the Association of Child Psychotherapists