F rom almost the first day of first grade, my daughter Mary encountered a high-maintenance friend. No doubt you have met at least one: people who apply the rules to everyone but themselves. They are possessive, rude, and abrasive, yet they easily get their own feelings hurt.
This friend was all of the above: crying when Mary wouldn’t sit by her on the bus, making rude comments when she wanted to play with another friend on the playground. Each time Mary came home in tears, my advice was the same: You will meet people like that all your life. Hold your boundary.
I learned this first-hand in high school when an extremely shy girl I befriended became possessive of me. She insisted on being my only friend, even to the point of keeping me on the phone for hours, often refusing to answer while I begged her to talk to me. Finally my youth pastor pulled me aside and gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received: Don’t be manipulated. Hold your boundary.
What does it look like to hold your boundary with pushy, abrasive people? And how can we parents pass down the skill to our children? Here are four tips to give your kids the tools they need.
Collierville mom of four Michelle Sumner encourages her kids to first search themselves when a conflict arises with a friend. “I ask them to take an honest look and consider if they may have offended,” she says, adding she then encourages action. “If my child has offended someone, I encourage an immediate apology, and then I promptly remind them that they are only responsible for their own actions — nothing further.”
Sumner adds that if her kids can’t recall any wrongdoing on their part, her approach is quite different. “I simply tell my kids that when you’re perceived as secure, funny, or talented, don’t be surprised when that offends people.” Sumner also says she encourages her kids to be as kind as possible while holding their boundary.
Role play is one effective way to help kids learn how to hold their boundary. “Kids need to know what being respectfully assertive looks like,” says David Thomas, director of counseling for men and boys at Daystar Counseling Ministries in Nashville. “Role playing is a great tool to educate about the differences between being passive, assertive, and aggressive.” Thomas adds that practicing at home equips kids to be ready when the situation arises.
Memphis mom Suzanne Appleton has had success using role play at home with her 6-year-old who has experienced being bullied. “Practicing has helped my son have the confidence to say no,” she says. What’s more, her son has found that speaking loudly in a firm voice to boundary breakers is also a great way to alert nearby adults. “It empowers him to take control of the situation without sinking to their level or becoming a tattletale,” she adds.
Sumner finds that role-playing after the fact is also helpful. “I ask them what they said and what they wish they had said,” she says, “and then I give them suggestions on what they could have said.”
Though confidence comes more easily to some kids than others, it is a main ingredient in holding boundaries. “Confidence is the key,” says Dale Bourie, head instructor of USA Karate in Cordova. “When someone wants you to do something that you don’t want to do, it is okay and even right to question their friendship.” Reminding kids of this will reinforce their confidence in their own good judgment.
Helping kids reach goals is a solid way to boost their self-assurance. “Ability brings confidence,” says Bourie, adding that though martial arts is one way to instill confidence in kids, any situation in which kids set and achieve goals is effective. “Whether it’s karate, soccer or holding your boundary, practice brings improvement.” As confidence grows, so does the ability to recognize manipulation. “Manipulation is really in the same category as bullying,” says Bourie, “in that you have someone trying to get a reaction from you.” Appleton adds that not only does confidence help her kids spot a manipulator, but it also serves as damage control when dealing with a bossy friend. “I have seen my son grow to a point where he knows he is strong mentally and physically, and that has helped others’ actions have less of a negative effect on him.”
Communication is vital in helping kids deal with controlling friends. “I keep asking questions,” says Sumner, “until I have a good understanding of the situation and can then help them through it.” Sumner also says that she often prays with her kids and reminds them that they are loved and valued despite others’ opinions.
Thomas emphasizes that the most effective way for parents to communicate how to be respectively assertive is to model it themselves. “Modeling healthy relationships is extremely important,” says Thomas. “For instance, I often have kids report overhearing a parent on the phone agreeing to a commitment he/she does not want to be a part of, then getting off the phone and saying the opposite of what was just reported.”
Media is also an excellent way to open the doors of communication, Thomas adds, suggesting movies such as The Karate Kid and Chrissa: An American Girl . “Films that provide strong visuals of kids successfully navigating these types of relationships are extremely effective in helping kids find their own voice.” Thomas suggests watching with your kids and then discussing the films afterward.
“You were right, Mom,” my now seventh-grade daughter proclaimed just last week, her long legs dangling off the bar stool. “I will meet controlling people everywhere I go.” She then proceeded to tell me about it. This time, though, no tears or even questions for me. Just a declaration at the end of her story — I’m holding my boundary.
After many years of practice, I think she has at last found her voice.