Radical Acceptance and Boundaries in Parenting

boundaries parenting practical tips radical acceptance Mar 05, 2024
Radical Acceptance and Boundaries in Parenting

 “Boundaries give us the space to do the work of loving ourselves. They might be, actually, the first and fundamental expression of self-love. They also give us the space to love and witness others as they are, even those that have hurt us.”

Prentis Hemphill


"Changing your behavior and not forcing others to change can be a significant part of setting boundaries.”

- Nedra Glover Tawwab


"Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously," wisely stated by Prentis Hemphill, encapsulates the essence of parenting boundaries—an intricate dance of compassionate love for ourselves and for our child.

Boundaries are often confused with “limits,” which are bound up in the act of using power and control over another. This is the way the word “boundaries” is commonly defined in the parent-child relationship. So let’s talk about limits. Even with limits, they can be used, but mindfully, and under certain conditions. With our children, we only use limits or control-over when it is truly a matter of life or death— We must ask every time, “does this really really, really matter?” And then as a follow-up, “Is a limit the best tool to move us closer to my real goal?” And finally, “Is implementing a limit or exerting control worth the cost to me, to my child, and to the relationship?” 


If it truly matters, if it is the right tool, and if it is worth the cost, then we use control, and we bravely face the results.

In the realm of healthy boundaries, radical acceptance serves as a foundational compass. Before delving into this crucial territory, we must intimately understand where we and the other person stand. This radical acceptance forms the bedrock upon which we can define the necessary space for our core needs. Contrary to common belief, boundaries emerge not from the actions, feelings, or words of others but from our own actions and acceptance of others as they are. Respect for the autonomy and agency of the person on the other side of the boundary becomes paramount.


The journey into healthy boundaries begins with radical acceptance. Shaking off the illusion that we can “fix” ourselves or others, we enter the realm of true boundary setting. It involves acknowledging our real and valid needs and taking actions in alignment with our values. The phrase, "In light of who I am and where I am in my journey... I am going to take X action," becomes our guiding mantra.


Boundaries depend on knowing the answer to the question, “What is it that I need?”. If I don’t know what I need, I cannot even begin to move into the boundary conversation.


Central to this process is the pivotal question: "What is it that I need?" Boundaries hinge on this self-awareness of needs; without it, the boundary conversation remains elusive. Once I know this answer, boundaries are my action to create enough space in our relationship to ensure I can access my core needs. These actions are rooted in values, not driven by emotions. By discerning between emotion-driven and values-driven behavior, we ensure that our actions emerge from a regulated mental space


Boundaries are based in action


They are not a statement of my expectations of others. They do not depend on others’ to respect my actions or to act in any certain way. My boundaries are all about what I do. Before I take an action, if I want to be sure it is an aligned action, I ask, “Is this an emotion driven behavior or values driven behavior?” Emotions are great, and very helpful. But I honor them and their potency by stepping back and giving them time to integrate. 


Boundary-actions come out of my values, not my emotions.


When we take actions out of our emotions, we are often acting in a stressed state, using our amygdala, which is a more primitive part of our brain. Stating boundaries can easily lead others into stress and activation. When our stress meets their stress, it is particularly difficult to access our values and to act in radical acceptance. Taking the time to slow down, to create genuine, values-aligned actions and to communicate them from a regulated brain space enables us to show up for our children’s stress with love, trust, and acceptance.


Which is essential because boundary-actions come out of our values, but they create loads of emotions. I leave space in my boundary setting with my children for them to have all the feelings they need to. I do not control their emotions or condescend to them by attempting to manage or minimize their valid emotional reactions. They get to feel all that they feel. And I get to listen to all they express. I get to shift my actions accordingly, by my process of listening, if what I hear gives me needed information to take even more values-aligned actions.


Boundaries do not have to stay where we set them initially. In fact, they become stronger and more vibrant as we go— as we are better able to discern our needs, accept others’ realities, and enact values-aligned actions, both proactively and in the moment.


Key questions before we take an action:

Is this action in my control? 

Am I attempting to control or change another person by what I am doing?

Is it aligned with my real values?

Is it aligned with what matters most right now?

Have I left room for me and for others to have all our feelings about it and to move through those feelings in our own time, space, and manner?

Am I able to show up for all of those feelings with compassion?


When stating a boundary, I keep it short and simple. I typical use the phrase, “I need ____, so I am going to ____ so that need can be met.” I do not give a whole lot of background information. I do not speak about their behaviors or struggles that are leading to this need or to this action. I am soft and compassionate toward myself and toward them. I do not share a lot of detail. I do not say it over and over.


Sometimes, I don’t even need to say anything. If my boundary is that I will not leave X and Y child alone together, then I process the situations where this may need to happen, and I anticipate what actions I will take to maintain this values-aligned action. In an extreme circumstance, where I felt I could not walk away but also could not guarantee that a child would come with me, I chose to wear adult absorbent underwear so that I did not have to walk away to go to the bathroom. All of these actions are within my control. I do not decide, “I can’t leave you alone together, so one of you has to come to the bathroom with me.” I can decide, “I can’t leave you alone together, so I will go to the bathroom every time one of you needs to pee, when I know you are ok to separate.”


In addition to making room for my children’s feelings, and listening as they express those feelings, I also listen for my children’s core need. Expressing our boundaries is incredibly important. But equally so is supporting our children as they stumble their way through learning to express theirs.


This is often the rub. We were not trusted or given genuine agency and control as children. We were not taught how to listen to our core needs and to take values-aligned actions to ensure our needs were met. We were raised to be pleasers, to be “good,” to put others first. We were raised with parents who simmered with resentment and then exploded in anger. Or who used control over children to get their core needs met. And now we are those adults, seeking to learn a whole new skillset at the same time as we attempt to teach it to our kids. 


Our kids need to learn to access their core needs and take values-aligned actions too. They need to know that there is space between us, and that they have autonomy and control to take actions that ensure their core needs get met. Like all people trying to learn a new skill, they will struggle. 


Just as we do. 


They will require patience, compassion, and understanding.


Just as we will. 


Stumbling forward, learning, trusting, connecting, and loving, while honoring the needed space between us. 


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