Set Effective Boundaries With Your Gifted Child or Teen
Learning to practice healthy boundaries is an important part of feeling safe in our relationships, even with our children. It’s important because boundary setting teaches children how to communicate how they want to be treated, and how to honor the limits others set for them. When boundaries are honored, it also teaches all of us who we can trust. This is an important part of personal development, and a learning process that will effect how our children interact in future relationships.
Healthy boundary setting is important for everyone, and can be challenging for anyone. Families of gifted children may face some additional challenges unique to them. For example, gifted children can be extremely clever and great at arguing as well as have a natural desire for fairness and justice. Your gifted child or teen may outwit you and argue like a pro, not to mention many are gifted children and teens are emotionally intense and creative. Parents of gifted children are often left feeling frustrated, exhausted, and powerless as a result.
A good place to start is by learning more about different types of boundaries, and areas of our lives we need to have them. By learning more, we can more easily identify ways to best set, enforce and honor those boundaries with our gifted families.
At the most basic level, boundaries can be defined as a separation between you and me. They are limits we set within relationships. These little fences allow us to tell others what we are comfortable and uncomfortable with. Depending on your culture, upbringing and personal experiences, your awareness of appropriate boundaries may vary greatly.
Boundary setting is a very personal experience, and what feels right for one person may be completely wrong for another. In other words, there is a continuum of what we feel comfortable accepting and not accepting. This is the same for our children.
The boundary can also vary depending on the situation, environment we are in, and who we are with. Rigid, diffuse and healthy boundaries are different levels of limit setting. People usually have a combination of all three, depending on the situation. Working with our gifted children to recognize different levels of boundary setting depending on the relationship, situation and environment is an important part of their social development as well.
A person with rigid boundaries may have difficulty connecting with others, often because they fear rejection, being hurt or humiliated. Gifted children and teens may also believe they have nothing in common with same aged peers. This rigidity may be a precursor to social anxiety.
Sometimes we see gifted kids who seem detached, hard to get to know or guarded, especially if they have been bullied by peers or adults. They may also have a low tolerance for mistakes, other people and change.
People with rigid boundaries, may have difficulty recognizing and respecting the boundaries of others as well, due to their emotional detachment and low level of connection in relationships. This can create feelings of loneliness and isolation.
A person with diffuse boundaries on the other hand, may feel afraid or guilty for saying “no” or standing up for themselves, may worry excessively about what others think of them, tend to over share, trust people too quickly, be accepting of abuse, and prone to helping too much and being overly involved in other people’s problems. People with high empathy and emotional sensitivity, such as gifted people with emotional intensity, may be more likely to have diffuse boundaries. Diffuse boundaries can also be a sign of family dysfunction, to be addressed.
Diffuse boundaries can make a person vulnerable to abuse, manipulation and committing acts they would not otherwise engage in to please others or avoid conflict.
Ultimately, it is good to work toward healthy boundaries. Healthy boundaries allow a person to say “no” when needed, while remaining open to relationships and experiences. If a person has healthy boundaries, they can accept when someone tells them “no”, share information appropriately and respect the boundaries of others. They do not compromise their values for others and value their own thoughts and feelings. Healthy boundary setters also recognize their own wants and needs and can ask for what they need in an appropriate way. Ultimately, this is what we want for our children, and something important to remember when they challenge us.
Another important part of learning about boundaries is recognizing there are different types of boundaries that help us to communicate our comfort level with different people, in different situations and in different environments. These skills are key to fitting in socially, developing healthy relationships and understanding appropriate behavior in different social situations and usually need to be taught to our children as they are learning how they fit into the world. For example, you may graciously accept a hug from your best friend, but not an acquaintance you barely know. Teaching our children they have this option, is important. You might share a laugh about an embarrassing story with your sister, but not with your boss. Your gifted child will also need to learn who they can share personal information like an embarrassing story with, and who they should remain more casual.
Here are examples of some common types of boundaries to be aware of and ways to set, enforce and honor them with your gifted child:
Physical Boundaries pertain to touch and personal space. Personal boundaries may be violated when someone is standing or sitting too close, carelessly running into you, or giving unwanted hugs, kisses, caresses, etc. Physical boundaries can also be encroached upon when someone snoops through your private belongings or comes into your space uninvited.
Teaching our children their bodies belong to them, and they have a say over who touches them and is in their personal space is an important part in keeping them safe from unwanted or unsafe physical touch, as well helping them to feel comfortable in different situations.
It is also important to teach our children how to honor the personal space, bodies and belongings of others. Be gentle, firm and consistent in your teaching.
Some gifted children, have a sensory overexcitablity and may be sensory avoidant or sensory seeking with regard to touch. If the gifted person is sensory avoidant they may not like being touched by others, or experiencing unexpected touch, resulting in extreme discomfort and/or emotional outbursts. If this is your child, avoid games that involve tickling or other touching that make them feel uncomfortable, and discourage siblings from poking, touching, hitting or scaring them to get a reaction.
If your gifted child is sensory seeking, they may invade other people’s space or touch them without their permission. And, gifted children with a physical overexcitability may move excessively and be unaware when they bump into other people. Calmly, gently, firmly and consistently remind them to ask before touching, keep appropriate distances when talking, and to be aware of where their body is in relation to other people and objects. Remember to teach without shame or embarrassment. It may take time and growth before they really “get it”.
Emotional Boundaries are related to our feelings. When someone ignores or invalidates another person’s feelings, is critical, shares personal information about someone without their permission, or humiliates others they are violating emotional boundaries. A person demonstrating healthy emotional boundaries has an awareness of when and with whom to share or not share different personal information, respects the feelings of others even if they are not in agreement, and avoids being unkind.
It is important to be aware of appropriate emotional boundaries pertaining to our children.
Avoid relying on your bright and sensitive child for emotional support, or as a supportive ear after a conflict with your spouse.
Avoid taking out frustration on your children. If needed, remove yourself from the situation, take a few deep breaths and think before acting or speaking.
Validate their emotional experience. This doesn’t mean you agree, it simply shows them you understand and are listening. Show empathy, and help them to feel and move through their feelings. Avoid dismissing their emotions. It’s important for them to feel, and know they have your support. This is also a great opportunity to teach them productive, and appropriate ways to express their emotions and healthy ways to help themselves to feel better.
Be aware of what is emotionally and developmentally appropriate for your gifted child. While they may be able to comprehend complex ideas, they may not be emotionally ready to be exposed to all information, and may be highly sensitive.
Another breach of emotional, and physical boundaries many parents are unknowingly guilty of is posting on social media about their children on social media without their knowledge or permission. Kids can feel violated and embarrassed when they find out their lives have been publicly documented without their knowing. Consider what you are posting before you do it, and if your children are old enough to care, ask their permission before posting pictures of them.
Mental or Intellectual Boundaries are associated with thoughts and ideas. If someone dismisses or disparages our thoughts or ideas they may be infringing upon our intellectual boundaries. People exhibit healthy intellectual boundaries when they respect the thoughts and ideas of others, and have an awareness of appropriate conversation, e.g. should we discuss flowers or world views?
This can be challenging for parents and children. As parents of gifted children we often want to help them to "reach their full potential". It is important to avoid pushing them too hard or forcing them to participate in activities they are not interested in, or that are not developmentally appropriate for them despite their intellectual capacity. It may also be necessary for parents to help gifted children and teens to set boundaries with themselves to prevent them from pushing themselves too hard, over committing to activities, or being paralyzed by a fear of failure.
Gifted children may need to be taught strategies for talking with people who have different interests, and how to share their interests with people who may not understand them.
Mental boundary setting can become an issue with gifted families, is when we need our children to obey and they have intense intellectual arguments against our requests. While this can be extremely frustrating, it is important to remain calm. Allowing your gifted child to negotiate some of the time, allows them to gain independence, confidence and hones their negotiation skills which will serve them well as they get older.
There are times it isn’t appropriate for a negotiation to take place. These are times to be calm, yet firm and tell them, “This isn’t negotiable, I need you to do as I ask.” Repeat yourself as needed, without wavering. After all, you are the parent, no matter how intelligent your child is.
If your gifted child is arguing to avoid taking responsibility for bad behavior, or breaking clearly established rules, this is a time to remind them negotiation is not an option, and they must be held accountable for their actions and choices.
When you aren’t in the heat of an argument, a discussion about your role as a parent and their role as a child may be helpful. In this conversation, explain, it is your job to teach and prepare them to be independent in the world, be responsible people, and help them to be safe. Therefore, some of the time, your requests will not be open for discussion or negotiation and you will tell them this and expect them to do as they are asked even if they are frustrated. You may need to remind them of this from time to time.
If you find you feel angry whenever your child disagrees, questions or negotiates, you may want to look deeper into yourself and explore why it is you are feeling this way. It may be that you have not set and enforced appropriate boundaries with your gifted child and need to start.
Material Boundaries pertain to money and possessions. When a person pressures someone to lend money or loan something, or damages or steals someone’s property they may be overstepping a boundary. Having personal rules about when and to whom you lend your money or property to is a good example of setting material boundaries.
For example, you may choose loan your saw to your child’s engineering teacher, but you would not lend your child’s tool set without his permission if you are exercising good material boundaries.
Time Boundaries regard how a person uses their time, and the time of others. Time boundaries are disregarded when someone demands excessive amounts of someone else ’s time, or shows a dismissive attitude to the time of others by being chronically late or missing scheduled time together without prior or adequate cancellation.
Maintaining healthy time boundaries requires prior planning to allow people to set enough time aside for different areas of their lives such as relationships, hobbies, school and work.
Be aware of your gifted child's need for rest, time to do homework, socialize and play. It is easy to over schedule a child who is excited to learn, pursue their talents or strive for perfection.
It may also be necessary to teach children how to set appropriate limits for themselves. Gifted children and teens with intellectual and creative overexcitabilities may easily lose track of time reading, doing experiments or creating things. They may be unaware hours have passed, and may need your guidance to track how long they are doing these activities to enable them to stop , complete other tasks and tend to other areas of their lives. Your assistance will help them to create a sense of balance and ultimately reduce stress over time.
If you are having difficulty teaching and setting boundaries with your gifted child, I encourage you to enlist the support of a trained professional in your area. It’s always easier when you don’t have to do it alone.
About the Author: Christy, is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist and Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, practicing in San Diego, California. She has nearly 10 years of experience working with children, teens, parents, families, couples and individual adults with complex psychological and relationship problems. She specializes in the needs of gifted, bright and high achieving people, as well as those who have suffered past trauma. Christy uses an eclectic approach, meeting the needs of whomever she is working with. Her work addresses the needs of the whole person, incorporating mind and body.