The primary key to managing behavior is setting and holding boundaries. This is not easy. I am bad at it even with all the work I have done in this arena. However, it is so important, I continue to give it daily effort despite how uncomfortable it makes me feel. I feel uncomfortable setting boundaries because I am a helper, a people-pleaser, by nature. Helpers tend to not like it when other people are struggling especially because of a boundary they are setting. Helpers like me need to realize that the healthy path is one of setting loving, strong boundaries, not making everyone’s lives around them “easy.” The cost to the helper is enormous and, in reality, the helper isn’t really helping anyone in the long run.

We all need to set boundaries with other people–friends, family, coworkers, bosses, neighbors, spouses, children, even ourselves. Setting boundaries is not the hard part, it’s holding them.

Think of setting and holding a boundary as a two step process. First, I draw a line (I actually visualize drawing a line around myself) regarding a certain issue or topic. For example, I draw a line about 5 feet around my body and set the intention that my children will not take me for granted. They will say please and thank you (and mean it). They will be kind in their requests. They will consider the impacts of their behavior to me. They will speak in warm and loving tones. You get the idea. We all would agree that this is a healthy boundary to set with all people, especially our children.

We will get to the second step in a minute, because the moment that the children cross this boundary (which occurs more often than many of us would like), that’s when we fall apart. We become angry, we yell, we punish, we are hurt, we internally collapse or shrink, or we lose it. We don’t get to the second step. Honestly, for the longest time, I misunderstood the second step. I thought that the second step, which is what to do when someone crosses the boundary, was what I should do to that person. I would yell at them, punish them, retaliate in some way, seek revenge. That is a kind of war mentality. If someone crosses your line in war, you shoot them. This does not apply to daily life very well. Many of us try this tactic only to find that we end up continually angry at and frustrated with people. While taking on a fight mentality when it comes to setting boundaries might appear to work, we will find ourselves very lonely after a while because no one wants to be around us. Our children might start avoiding us completely in fear of us. Having people fear us is not the objective of setting healthy, loving boundaries.

The second step to holding a crossed boundary is what do I do with myself, not what do I do to the person who crossed it. This was baffling to me at first. What would I do if someone yelled at me unnecessarily that would make any difference if I didn’t yell back. Well, I could choose to walk away. I could ask the person to refrain from yelling at me. I could no longer engage in conversation with that person. I could take a personal time out to deal with my own hurt emotions before I responded. I could not respond to the person until they stopped yelling (this works really well with teenagers). Simply, holding a boundary is about controlling the only thing within my power to control — myself. I cannot get a crazy person to stop being crazy or an angry person to stop being angry or even a sad person to stop being sad. I cannot control another person’s behavior or their response to me. I can only control my reactions and my own behavior.

If I consistently respond to my children with inattention when they are disrespectful, they will soon learn that their tactic does not get them what they want. (I do coach them on how to make kind, clear requests. I am clear with them why I am not responding to their disrespectful approach.) The key is consistency. If I am inconsistent in holding a boundary, the person will not respect the boundary at all. This is where most parents get into trouble. They sometimes hold certain boundaries. Sometimes the kids can eat chocolate cake for breakfast, and in other moments, the parents say no. If you understand the dopamine reward circuit in the brain you know that you are creating a sort of gambling addict. Inconsistent reinforcement of behavior cements it like glue. It is like going to Vegas and pulling the slot machine arm 500 times and winning on the 501st pull. Your brain will get lots of dopamine hits as you pull the level in anticipation of winning. You only have to win once in a while for you to continue the gambling behavior. The same goes for children. They will badger you until they get their way if you give in even once. You have to be a rock, a stone wall. Eventually the children will give up their dopamine fueled behavior and move on to some other tactic.

It’s our job to set and hold boundaries like it was the front line in WWII. This will save you as a parent when the teen years come around. If the children learn at a young age that you will not cave on a boundary, they will challenge them less and less. Plus you are modeling one of the most important life lessons that will help your child lead a happy more fulfilled life.