In psychology, personal or social boundaries are the imaginary lines that separate one person from another. When someone crosses our boundaries, we feel uncomfortably intruded upon—and we’re very motivated to get that person back on their side of the line!
With children in my practice, I often explain the idea of boundaries by asking, “How would you feel if I suddenly reached over and started feeling your teeth?” They usually laugh or look appalled. “That would be weird!” they say, and they would not like it at all. They would probably push my hands away and tell me to stop.
Specific personal boundaries can vary, depending on the individual, relationship, culture, or situation. (For instance, a dentist touching my clients’ teeth wouldn’t seem intrusive.) But the reaction to having our boundaries crossed is very clear and very negative.
Some children struggle socially because they frequently overstep personal boundaries. These kids are often excitable, energetic, or impulsive. They don’t even see the social line they’ve crossed, so they feel mystified and hurt when their peers push back, respond angrily, or tell them to go away.
If this sounds like your child, you may want to discuss these common examples of boundary violations:
1. Intruding on someone’s personal space.
The most basic boundary violation involves getting too close physically or touching people in a way that they don’t like. Some children have a lot of trouble keeping their hands to themselves. They may be sensory seeking, exploring the world with their hands. They may think they’re being funny. They may just be exuberant and affectionate. But if the person they’re touching or crowding doesn’t like it, they need to back off.
Some general guidelines might help: Standing face-to-face, your child should be about one arm’s distance from a conversation partner. Standing in line, back-to-front, about half an arm’s distance is usually comfortable. Tell your child to avoid touching or even getting very close to a peer’s face because literally “getting in someone’s face” comes across as very aggressive and intrusive.
If your child tends to crowd a sibling, it may be helpful to teach your children to say, “I need some space” and have both kids take a big step back.
2. Using someone’s things without asking.
Our possessions can feel like an extension of ourselves, so using someone else’s things without first asking permission definitely counts as a boundary violation. Tell your child not to assume that the other person won’t mind. You may be able to bring up an example of a time your child felt annoyed when someone borrowed something without asking.
You may also need to remind your child that even when we ask nicely, other people may choose not to share. That’s their right. If that happens, your child should accept it, without begging or arguing.
3. Texting repeatedly.
Phones, tablets, and laptops mean kids can instantly communicate with their friends at any time. That doesn’t mean their friends will or should respond instantly. For children who have trouble waiting, this can be frustrating. They may bombard their peers with multiple messages, trying to push for a response.
With kids in my practice, I explain this by saying, “Imagine that you and I were playing a game of catch. What if, instead of waiting for you to toss the ball back to me, I threw fifty balls at you, as fast as I could, one right after the other. How would that feel?” Being pelted with multiple messages doesn’t make people more likely to respond. It makes them feel annoyed.
You might also help your child brainstorm some reasons why friends might not respond to a text or other electronic message right away. Maybe they’re doing homework. Maybe they’re doing something with their family. Maybe they’re not feeling well. Maybe they’re tired. Maybe they don’t have their phone with them.
A good rule of thumb, if there’s no response to a message, is to wait 24 hours before sending another message. If three messages go unanswered, maybe that person can’t or doesn’t want to communicate. Your child should do something else or find someone else to chat with.
What to Do When Your Child Crosses a Boundary
Being aware of these common boundary violations can help children avoid them. But what if your child forgets or accidentally crosses someone’s boundary? It will be obvious when this happens because the other child will respond with strong annoyance. Your child should quickly apologize, without arguing or making excuses, and give the person space. This might mean moving over, immediately returning a possession, or not messaging for a while.
If your child continues to push when a peer feels intruded upon, this is sure to make that peer angry. Stepping back can be difficult, but it may be necessary to give the other person room to move toward your child.