From 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. People who are possessive and rude, yet 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. 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 it 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 Michelle Sumner asks her four kids to first search themselves when a conflict arises with a friend. “If my child has offended someone, I encourage an immediate apology, and then promptly remind them they are only responsible for their own actions — nothing more.”
If her kids can’t recall any wrongdoing, then her approach is 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 encourages her kids to be as kind as possible while holding their boundary.
Try Role Playing
Role play is another 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 Day Star Ministries. “Role playing is a great tool to educate in 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 much success using role play at home. “Practicing has helped my son have the confidence to say no,” she says. What’s more, 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,” she adds.
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 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 and practice brings confidence,” says Bourie, “whether it’s karate, soccer, or holding your boundary.” And as your child’s confidence grows, so does his 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 mom Michelle Sumner, “until I have a good understanding of the situation and can then help them through it.”
Sumner says 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 commit-ment he or she does not want to be a part of, then getting off the phone and saying just the opposite.”
Viewing media is also an excellent way to open the doors of communication. Thomas suggests movies such as 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.”
“You were right, Mom,” my daughter proclaimed to me recently. “I will meet controlling people everywhere I go.” This time, however, there are no tears or even questions for me. Just a declaration at the end of her story: “I’m holding my boundary.”