One of the most important things those of us raising other people’s children can do for ourselves is set clear boundaries of how we expect to be treated.  Setting boundaries within foster or blended families can be difficult, but it’s an essential part of mutual respect and a healthy relationship with our family members.  Furthermore, setting and enforcing personal boundaries can be an excellent way to model for our children the self-respect that they need in order to grow into resilient and happy adults.

           Why Set Boundaries with Our Children

           It can be hard for us to set boundaries.  We know that being a foster parent or stepparent requires much more self-sacrifice than parenting biological children.  It can feel very selfish to set boundaries on behavior, particularly if we have a child struggling with the effects of trauma.

           However, healthy boundaries are essential for any healthy relationship.  If we sacrifice too much of ourselves to our family, then we run out of the emotional resources we need to care for our families.  Being a doormat is very self-destructive.  More importantly, our family dynamics will eventually become toxic.  We start resenting the demands on our patience, and eventually the lack of resources combined with the stress of boundary violations make us burn out.  It's essential for both our emotional health and positive family relationships that we all set and respect healthy boundaries.  

           Healthy boundaries are more than a way of taking care of our own needs. They are one of the best ways to model for our children the self-respect that they need to grow into resilient and happy adults.  Learning that they have a right to be treated with self-respect is an important life lesson, particularly for children who have suffered some level of trauma.  We can tell them that they deserve respect, but they won’t learn much from simple words.  The best way to teach them is to show them how to set and enforce healthy boundaries.

           Finally, setting boundaries is important because we need to teach accountability to our children.  A lack of boundaries or consequences for overstepping house rules will leave our children without the life skills they need to deal with the world as it is.  As with most life lessons, it will be easier for our children to learn those lessons while we are there to help them pick up the pieces than when they hit a brick wall as adults.

           How to Set Boundaries with Our Children

           As with most parenting skills, it's easier to know what we need to do than to know how to do it.  As we work on making boundaries part of our parenting style, these principles may help.

           1.    Pick Your Battles

           When deciding what boundaries to set, remember that you can’t change every bad habit that your child has.  Don’t try to enforce every one of your preferences.  In fact, if it’s merely a preference, let it go.  Concentrate on behaviors that really matter.  

That rule doesn’t mean that you can’t enforce something that matters only to you.  For example, years ago I developed a boundary line that I don’t allow anyone to curse at me.  I usually ignore general profanity in discussions, but the moment that someone starts calling me vile names, I withdraw from the conversation.  I try to keep the temperature of the conversation low by simply saying, “Let’s circle back on this topic when you’re not so upset.”  At first it was hard for me, mainly because I was enforcing the boundary with employers and supervisors.  By the time I started parenting foster children, I was very comfortable enforcing that boundary in a calm and direct manner.

           That boundary is personal to me, but it’s important because I view it as a basic level of respect.  I also don’t think it’s possible to have a productive discussion when the conversation has descended to that level.  It’s a battle that I’m willing to fight.  However, I have to let go of other issues because they just can’t make it onto my list of things to worry about.  Whatever your individual beliefs and preferences, remember that your boundaries have to be part of a supportive environment for your children.  Having only a few things worth fighting about will help build that environment and resulting emotional connections.

           2.    Start Small

           If yours is a newly blended family or a new relationship with a foster child, or if your family has a lot of conflict, it’s best to start with just a few important family rules. Start with the basics, such as respectful conversation and enforcing personal space.  Younger kids may need physical boundaries, such as not going into someone else's room.  In my experience, children and teens like to have their rooms as their safe space, and having other siblings come in can be a constant source of conflict.  Consider letting kids set their own boundaries for their stuff, both to teach them how to do it and to let them have some control over their lives.  Being able to establish grounds rules for their physical things can be an important way for them to claim self-respect.  It also works better than simply imposing boundaries that only work one way.

           3.    Be Concrete

           Concepts are not easy for kids to understand and follow. I still remember my frustration when I was a child trying to understand what my mother meant about my “bad attitude.” I didn’t know what an attitude was, and I didn’t know what was bad about arguing my point of view. (Yes, some would say that I still suffer from that problem. I’m fortunate that arguing is a skill for my job.)  With your kids, particularly those who are developmentally younger (due to either age or trauma), use descriptions of concrete actions. For example, the rule can be that no one calls anyone else bad names or makes fun of them. As they mature, children will be able to figure out the concrete actions to create the right attitude.

           It’s also important to be specific, because traumatized children often think something mysterious about them is the core problem. Other people’s children often come to us with a pre-existing narrative that garbles what we say. It is all too easy for a child to transform “you never clean up after yourself” into “you are a trashy person.” From there they leap to the conclusion that trashy people inevitably get kicked out of this house, so there is no point in trying. It takes a lot of therapy and commitment and time to help children change those narratives. In the meantime, we have to relentlessly focus on talking to them about narrow and specific actions.

           Finally, concrete descriptions help foster open communication within your family.  If we lecture kids about a concept they don’t fully understand (such as my mom and my bad attitude), we won’t establish any common ground.  We will just be venting, which only goes one way, reinforces negative feelings, and doesn’t accomplish anything.  Making sure that we are actually communicating with our kids is an important step towards establishing a positive relationship.

           4.    Be Patient.

           Once we’ve set boundaries, of course, our kids will invariably test the boundaries to see if we really mean what we say.  This dynamic has several practical effects.  First, we should set only boundaries that we are willing to enforce.  Likewise, we should threaten only consequences that we are willing to impose.  If we aren’t willing to follow through, we’ll just be communicating that our kids can ignore us as they please.

           Second, if we are stepparents, we need to let the child’s biological parent be the main authority figure.  One of the biggest challenges for me was recognizing that the role of a stepparent is a support role.  Yes, we can and should set our own boundaries for how people treat us, but we really can’t impose more consequences than withdrawing from the situation.  Proactive consequences have to come from the parent with whom our children have an emotional attachment.  So, we have to be on the same page with our spouses.  If you feel like your spouse is letting a stepchild treat you with disrespect, you need to hash out the matter as a couple, maybe with a counselor.  There is simply no substitute for presenting a united front to your children.

           Furthermore, when our kids test boundaries, we can’t take it personally.  Wise stepparents and foster parents know that we are not the people who are supposed to be in our kids' lives, and they are often simply acting out their confusion about their world being out of kilter.  Furthermore, testing boundaries is just what kids do.  Humans are wired to learn from experience, and our kids won’t believe what we say until they prove it to themselves.  So pushing boundaries isn’t a lack of respect; it’s just how kids test whether we are going to provide the nurturing structure that they crave.

           Finally, we have to be very patient in how we enforce boundaries.  If we just take the opportunity to vent to (or more likely, at) our kids, we’ll just make the problem worse.  Ditto if we say anything that sounds close to (or as we discussed in the last principle, that they can misinterpret as) commenting on their value as a person.  We have to learn and practice how to be calm and clear in our discussions about boundary violations.  Learning how to respect boundaries is a gradual process for both us and our kids.  We have to give each other grace as we adjust to each other’s expectations.

           5.    Be Consistent.

           Of course, the most challenging part of having boundaries is enforcing them. When possible, all the adults in a child’s life need to agree on the boundaries.  If you can't get your child's other parent to agree, then at least be sure that you and your spouse present a united front. Then you can agree on what happens when the kids test the boundaries, as they almost always do.

           The best consequences, in my experience, flow logically from the boundary violation. I once saw a family friend admonish his teenage son at a restaurant when the son called his stepmother “that woman.” When the son persisted, his father didn’t argue. Instead, when the server brought the check, the father calmly handed it over to the son with the comment, “Only adults can choose for themselves what to call people in my family. If you want to be an independent adult, you can start with paying for your meal. Or you can apologize for your lack of respect.” The son glared at his father, but backed down and, I’m told, never crossed that boundary again.

            I was fortunate to have stepchildren who were always respectful and a husband who always supported me. But when I had foster children who received conflicting signals from their biological parents, the situation was more complicated. I never wanted to disrupt a child’s placement for being disrespectful to me, but I needed to establish basic ground rules of respect. I found that logical consequences helped immensely. For example, a younger child once responded rudely to me. I pointed it out and, when she gave another rude response, I simply said, “Remember that I don’t favors for people who are rude to me.” Then, shortly thereafter when she asked for something out of the ordinary, I said, “No, I told you that I don’t do favors for people who are rude to me. You’ll have to work this out on your own.” I only had to apply the rule a few times before she stopped the behavior.

           Whatever your boundaries, enforce them consistently.  As a lawyer, I jokingly say, “If there’s no penalty, there’s no rule.” It’s not a joke when it comes to parenting, however.  If you want your kids to pay attention to your boundaries, you have to be consistent.


            Never feel guilty about setting boundaries in your family. Healthy boundaries are essential to healthy relationships. It will not help your kids if you are uncaring, but neither will it help if you are a doormat. They need to know that you are committed to them; they need just as badly to know that you will protect that commitment with strong boundaries.


Debbie Ausburn

Helping foster parents and stepparents learn how to be the person who is not supposed to be there.