Responding to Boundary Violations
Our rule about boundaries is not an easy one for the kids to learn. This is not one of those lessons that you teach once and move on to the next thing. It is confusing. It seems contradictory. Figuring out the nuances takes a lot of work. Maya is having to learn that playing rough with Leo is great, but the moment she tries to play the exact same way with Cat, suddenly she may be crossing a boundary. Or, sometimes Cat and Leo are playing a splendid game of dumping sand on each other’s heads. Giggles and happiness all around. Then Leo hits a point of sensory overload. Cat dumps another bucket on him, and suddenly Leo is crying and telling Cat she crossed his boundaries. And Cat is very confused, not at all sure what went wrong. Understanding this concept is the heart and soul of socioemotional development. As far as I’m concerned, imparting these ideas is by far the most valuable thing I can help children learn.
When the kids play together, conflicts arise and boundaries get crossed. This is actually part of the reason why child-directed free play is so valuable. The only real way to understand the broad concept of boundaries is to engage with it in lots of different scenarios. The only way for kids to learn conflict management is to try their hand at resolving conflicts. Moments of conflict are invaluable opportunities for them to learn just a bit more about standing up for themselves, and being aware of the needs of those around them.
If a child’s physical safety is being threatened, we will always intervene immediately and do whatever we need to do to make sure everyone is safe. But most boundary violations do not need our immediate attention. Our goal is for the kids to resolve their own conflicts, whenever possible. The kids are expected to follow a 3-step process when they feel like another child is crossing their boundaries:
Step one: Assert your boundaries
If Leo is crossing Cat’s boundaries, we absolutely expect her to tell him to stop. When the kids remember to take this simple step, many conflicts end before they really get started.
Let’s say Leo decides he wants to play a splashing game with Cat. Technically, he’s supposed to get her permission before splashing her, but he’s three, and he forgets. He likes it, and thinks it’s funny. He doesn’t yet have the capacity to understand that her feelings might be very different. So he starts splashing water on her without really contemplating the consequences. She’s annoyed. She doesn’t like it, and she assumes that he knows this. She assumes that he must be intentionally trying to annoy her. So she silently fumes, or turns away, but doesn’t actually say anything. Not getting a response, he tries again. And again. Eventually she blows up at him, or runs to an adult. And he’s baffled, no idea why she’s so upset. At no prior point did she ever make clear to him that his behavior was unwelcome. This sort of conflict arises because of a lack of socioemotional awareness on the part of both children. This is normal. Children do not develop the capacity to habitually think outside the bounds of their own experiences and feelings until they are somewhere around 6 or 8, or even later in some cases.
Ideally, Cat’s response to Leo’s unwelcome splashing would be a clear, verbal assertion of her boundary. “Leo. Do not splash water on me, I do not like it. Or, “stop doing that. Splashing water on me crosses my boundaries.” Or, if the words aren’t coming to mind, we teach the kids to just put their hands up in front of their body and say “Stop.” Most of the time, this simple step of asserting boundaries brings the conflict to an end. Leo, seeing that his splashing was unwelcome, mumbles a quick “Oh, sorry” and tries a different method for engaging her in play.
If one of the kids comes running to us with a complaint such as “Leo splashed me”, our first response is usually “What did he do when you asked him to stop?” It’s a gentle reminder that we expect them to try to resolve things on their own before enlisting our aid. Most of the time, they take the hint, and return to play, ready to assert their boundaries next time.
Step two: walk away
So, let’s say Leo is splashing Cat. She has asserted her boundary, loudly and clearly asking him to stop. But he’s not listening. He continues to splash. At this point, Cat is expected to walk away. Physically move away from Leo to another part of the play area. Again, this action very frequently brings an end to the conflict. Leo redirects his splashing to a fence, or a plant. We expect the kids to at least attempt this step before moving on to step three – asking for adult intervention. This ‘walk away’ step is frequently effective because a lot of the time, kids engage in boundary-crossing behavior in order to elicit a response or some attention. If the other kid simply walks away, the boundary crosser decides to try a different strategy next time.
There are exceptions, however. Let’s say Cat and Maya are both jumping on the trampoline. Cat wants the trampoline to herself. She realizes that if she intentionally starts crossing Maya’s boundaries, Maya will walk away, leaving Cat free to jump at will. We try to avoid any situation where boundary crossing results in a positive outcome. So, if walking away results in an opportunity cost to the victim, then this step can be skipped. But if the victim can keep playing the same way in a different location with no real difficulty, we expect her to at least try to relocate.
Step three: Summon the authorities
There are times where, for one reason or another, a child’s best attempts at bringing a boundary crossing behavior to an end do not work. Leo splashes Cat. She clearly asks him to stop. He splashes her again. She walks away, physically moving to another part of the yard. He follows her, continuing to splash. Her next step is to come find us. At that point, we will step in with whatever amount of protective force is required to return her sense of safety.
Generally we’ll start with a verbal warning. “Leo, we are going to protect Cat’s boundaries and help her feel safe. If you continue to splash her, you will take a break from playing with the water.” And then we follow through as needed to resolve the problem, using force if necessary.
In situations where the boundary crossing is straightforward and only going in one direction, with one child clearly the boundary-crosser and the other child clearly the victim, the above steps are usually all that are required to resolve the situation. But most of the time, things are not that straightforward. Let’s say Maya and Cat approach us, both in tears, both telling contradictory stories about how the other crossed their boundaries. We did not see the events leading to this upset, and have no idea what actually happened. It’s a common scenario. “She hit me! Well, she took my book! But I had it first!” In almost every case, both parties in a conflict are feeling victimized by the other. These situations require a different process to resolve.
Here’s what works best for us:
Step one: Both kids tell their full story
I give each of the kids, one by one, an opportunity to tell their side of the story in completion. To say whatever they need to say about the conflict. I do not make any kind of judgment about what they are saying. Sometimes, they say something that I happen to know for certain is not true. I say nothing, make no corrections. I am not the judge of their story. My only role at that point is to protect the child’s space to say whatever it is that they need to say. I prevent any attempt by the other child to interrupt, disagree or correct. They can wait for their turn to tell their side. My goal is to make sure that each child feels like her story has truly been heard.
Step two: Identify the feelings
Once both children have had their turn to tell their story, I ask the children, one at a time, to try and identify what emotion the other child is feeling. “Maya is feeling sad and scared” or “Cat is feeling angry.” Sometimes they’ll guess wrong. “I think Cat must be feeling upset.” At that point, the other child is free to correct them. “I’m not upset! I’m frustrated.” The goal of this process is for each child to correctly and verbally name what emotion the other child is feeling.
Step three: Help each other feel better
Once each child has acknowledged the feelings of the other, we ask them, in turn, to try and think of something they can do to help the other child feel better. At this point, with their own story told and their own feelings acknowledged, and resting safe in their confidence that their boundaries will be protected, they are frequently able to feel some real empathy for the other child. They are able to see for themselves the solution that was, perhaps, obvious to onlookers, but that they had been blinded to because of their own powerful emotions. Sometimes it’s a sincere apology. Other times, it’s an attempt at making amends in another way. “Oh! I should give her back the doll!” Or, “I should apologize for knocking down the block tower and help rebuild it.” Other times, they’re really not sure how they can help. At that point, we remind them they can ask the other child. Cat says, “Maya, what can I do to help you?” And perhaps Maya asks for a hug, or maybe she just wants a little space for a while. But once they’ve entered into that space of empathy for each other, they have true motivation to help one another, and the path to resolving their conflict untangles.
Of course, the first rule of conversation says that neither of the children are required to participate in this conversation. If one or both children refuse, we generally separate them until they’re ready to talk. But this usually only happens in cases of extreme emotions that need to be processed before conversation and resolution can happen anyway. The kids know that they’re not going to be shamed, punished or judged by us no matter what happened, so they’re usually pretty willing to talk about it, and return to a place of peace.