Boundaries: From swaddling to schooling, they find comfort in consistency

Early in the parenting journey we experience just how important structure can be to a new baby: for some infants, the act of swaddling brings a visible relaxation response. Every family has its own lore about the baby who needed the snug safety of a car seat or would only slumber while in the arms of a loving parent.

Children press into these boundaries, and by encountering a loving pressure, they find safety and ease of their surroundings. They relax enough to finally sleep.

While children eventually outgrow their need for a swaddle blanket, they maintain an inner (and even exterior) craving to know their boundaries. They push against the structures we provide to test their durability, and, perhaps, test the durability of those who put the structures in place. Children don’t make it personal, but much like testing the ice before stepping upon it and trusting it with your life, they want to know that the people, places, and rhythms in which they’re trusting themselves will be able to bear the weight. This is human nature, a wiring of the brain meant to protect individuals.\

Landon Dunn, LISW-S, LICDC, says, “all disappointment is unmet expectations.” Whether or not you’ve intentionally built rhythms into the spaces of your time and home, children naturally have expectations of consistency. When life becomes inconsistent children feel disappointed and unsure of the future, and that often comes out in their behavior.

Looking at structure through the eyes of a developing child, you see that structure is a safety mechanism, the psyche’s way of protecting the whole child. We, as parents, typically see a reaction against a boundary as negative because of the behavior children use to express their opinion.  However, we also know that when boundaries crumble, the child internally absorbs that experience as instability and will have difficulty trusting the boundary (and the parent!) in the future.

Something as simple as a bedtime routine helps build the trust associated with keeping consistent boundaries and expectations. By building a routine of bathtime, story, snuggles, and bed, a child knows what to expect each evening. This calms a child’s sense of wondering, “what’s next?” and builds a sense of trust in you.

As children grow, boundaries shift – bedtimes extend later, structure around the day gets looser.  These changes can come about with relative calm and ease as the trust that built over time through consistent and stable boundaries gives children confidence they can return to the safety of their home and family.

Boundaries are a way of teaching children: You can trust me. You can count on me. I’ll do what I say, and when you need something, you can expect me to support you.

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