Through tears my four-year-old exclaims “but I just need space and Emma won’t leave me alone!” In fact, Jenn will regularly tell me that Emma is just not giving her space and she just wants to be left alone right now because her sister is not respecting boundaries or personal space.
And that’s hard.
Especially because Emma is still so young. But little things like creating a visual for each other by demonstrating their own “bubble” of space by holding their arms out to designate their personal space has helped, as well as a few other tactics.
So maybe you’re like us and you’re working to encourage empathy and foster a greater emotional intelligence. And it starts with discussing times when they feel their feelings were hurt or felt their boundaries were crossed with a sibling.
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How to help even young kids understand personal space and respect boundaries
It is completely normal for siblings to occasionally argue, but building better sibling relationships can help them to better navigate other relationships. Teaching children to respect each other’s boundaries helps them have a better understanding of boundaries both inside and outside of the home.
Being in touch with their feelings helps them navigate the world as they learn to be aware of how their actions may affect others. And this it paramount in positive parenting, though staying positive as a parent raising multiple kids can sometimes be tough.
Work on practicing “bubble space” as a family
As a family, practice not invading each other’s bubbles. Make a game out of avoiding each other’s bubbles and respecting each other’s boundaries.
Just like we’ve been working to do, everyone can demonstrate the concept of “space” by using their arms and providing a visual cue when it feels like personal boundaries are being impeded on.
Encourage your children to solve their sibling problems on their own
This, of course, will require your supervision and negotiation until they learn. Over time and as children get older, they understand negotiating and problem-solving situations better and can start working with each other as siblings better.
And when they get there, acknowledge and compliment them when they are able to work out their differences together without your help.
Discuss how boundaries are not just physical
Talk about how the things your children say to each other, the volume of their voice, and the way they treat their sibling’s personal property can also invade boundaries.
Teach them how to remain aware of these boundaries that they can’t see.
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Get together as a family and discuss individual boundaries.
Explain to your children that everyone has different personal boundaries and encourage them to share what theirs are. Then encourage your children to speak up when they feel like their boundaries have been violated.
For my oldest, she has boundaries like how loud an area is. So for her, she can learn to articulate her need for quite, for personal space, and anything else that helps her feel more in control of herself.
Make sure they are listening to every family member talk so they can be aware of each person’s boundaries and help articulate the youngest kids’ needs for them if needed. This can be done through prompting for preschoolers and similar aged kids like “How does it make you feel when someone walks in on you in the restroom?”
For babies and young toddlers, it’s important as parents to convey to older children exactly what babies need. Whether it’s some quiet space for sleep or physical space to be able to learn to crawl on their own, it’s possible to set boundaries with even the baby siblings.
After all is said and done, it’s important to encourage your children to speak up when they feel like their boundaries have been violated or point it out as a parent for toddlers that can’t speak for themselves.
Use their favorite TV shows and movies for further discussion on respecting boundaries
After watching a show together, ask your children if they noticed any boundary issues and discuss what they saw. You can even extend this conversation to real life by asking them about any boundaries they may have witnessed being violated in school.
Have a boundary signal word
If you see your child disrespecting someone’s boundaries, speak up immediately so they can be aware, in that moment, that they are doing something wrong.
And having a signal word just as simple as “bubble” or something else memorable to indicate both physical and emotional encroachment of someone else’s boundaries is a way to signal to your kids without embarrassing them.
Remind them of your previous conversations and give your children the opportunity to apologize and correct the situation. And when they are unable to respect each other on their own, it may be time to step in and separate them until they are able to play respectfully with each other.
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Kara is an author, wife, and mother of 3 children living in Boston, MA. She has her degree in Secondary Education & Adolescent Childhood Development and is passionate about connecting with and even helping other parents on their journey to raise awesome kids!