June 20, 2024
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Toddlers, Boundary Setting and Advocating for Our Needs

“No, stop that!”

Parenting a toddler is tough. It seems as if more times than not, I’m training my brain to resist the urge to simply say no, and instead I try to redirect, explore why the behavior may be unsafe, or provide an alternative. But it does feel tempting and easy to just say no and move on. I know that I’m not doing so aggressively, and want to communicate that what is about to happen or just happened, is or was not okay and that there’s a reason why this limit is being put in place.

Setting boundaries can be an extremely difficult and unnerving concept. The notion of saying no or even expressing our emotions when put in a situation that we know might lead to discomfort, feel triggering, or simply not feel ideal, can lead to anxiety and avoidance; it feels easier to simply do something that will feel uncomfortable internally or that we know does not help us, for fear of needing to set boundaries with others which may lead to discomfort with another person.

What does boundary crossing actually entail? Typically this starts with an internal awareness that something has or is about to happen that feels uncomfortable, wrong, against one’s values, emotionally triggering or upsetting. A boundary can be crossed emotionally or physically. In this article I will be focusing on emotional boundary crossing. The awareness may come in the form of a thought—the individual being cognitively aware of the situation. Or it may come as a clue from the body—tension, accelerated heartbeat, heat or cold, nausea, etc.

For some individuals, setting boundaries feels simple and straightforward. Whether this is because they grew up in or experienced an environment that felt safe to do so or because they did not and therefore needed to learn and adapt to set these boundaries for themselves, the result is knowing clearly what boundaries and lines feel appropriate and knowing when they might be crossed. For others, boundary setting may feel comfortable only with certain individuals; perhaps friends or a partner expressing boundaries can feel safer than with a parent, child or that one friend who tends to push limits.

Setting boundaries can look different to different people. I often see this discussed on online platforms with regard to expressing one’s needs in the context of mental health and discussing vs. not discussing particular topics or commenting when a joke is made at the expense of another individual or of an entire group of people. Sometimes boundary setting means asking not to discuss something now, but planning to get back to it later. Other times people may set boundaries from an entire relationship, recognizing that the relationship may not be supportive at this time, or indicate to the other individual what is needed and that ultimately the relationship may need to shift if these boundaries are not met.

The delivery of the boundary can feel incredibly important. While one has a right to state needs in whatever manner is necessary, it can be most effective to include the emotions behind the boundary and why this is important for the speaker and receiver, or at least to do so in a low-energy and straightforward manner.

So why does setting boundaries feel so hard?

For starters, it can feel incredibly vulnerable to share how we are feeling. Although as a therapist and human, I’m in full support of all the emotions and sharing the full spectrum of feelings, this does not come easily to most individuals, typically because doing so in the past was not well-received or because there is a lack of trust in the response being supportive.

But sometimes, setting a boundary does not include how we feel; as noted above, it is simply about saying, “let’s not talk about that subject.” So what makes this challenging? I think it is because we are so often made to question our own needs. I’ve set boundaries confidently and have been met with mocking, or someone telling me to “lighten up”—perhaps related to that person’s internal defense mechanism or perhaps because the person simply does not understand. We hope that we will receive what we need, but this is not always the case. So we become fearful and continue forward feeling sadness, frustration or disappointment, knowing that even though we tried, we might not be supported. We hope that sharing our feelings or needs will result in support. Sometimes, though, we might feel hurt or shame after sharing or blame ourselves.

And yet, the boundary setting can be just as much about expressing and standing up for oneself, as it is about the hope for a change in results. People may not respond well and this can feel hard, but some people will. Some people will feel grateful for knowing what might not feel okay to discuss, some people will process their own relationship with the subject at hand. And some people will simply say, “okay,” and move on. Either way, you are expressing yourself to advocate for your needs and to practice continuing to do so. This is not wrong, no matter how it is received.

It may feel easier to set boundaries with a toddler because perhaps we feel more sure, whereas when we get older, we question ourselves. Do not doubt your internal cues. Be open to hearing feedback just as you are hopeful of openness from the receiver. And for any reader, recognize that if you are met with a boundary, you may feel challenged, confused or self-conscious. Try to empathize, see if you can learn more, check in with yourself about your reactions and know that ultimately, by setting boundaries, we are all working to most effectively be able to help and communicate with one another.


Temimah Zucker, LCSW, works with individuals ages 16 and older in New York and New Jersey struggling with mental health concerns, and specializes in working with those looking to heal their relationships between their bodies and souls. Temimah is an adjunct professor at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, an advocate and public speaker surrounding eating disorder awareness, and a Metro-New York supervisor at Monte Nido. To learn more or to reach her, please visit www.temimah.com.

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