One of the most important things we can give our kids is unconditional love. They need to know that, whatever mistakes they make, we still love and care about them. At the same time, we have to establish clear boundaries for them. Knowing how to offer unconditional acceptance while enforcing boundaries for acceptable behavior is one of the most difficult balancing acts in parenting children who have suffered trauma.
First, we have to understand what “unconditional acceptance” means. One young teen in a study of the subject explained that it means, “Whatever I say, whatever I do, whatever I ask, they will always accept me.” Our kids often come to us with a lifetime of negative feedback. They may have taken on unfair responsibility for their parents’ divorce, or they may have developed counterproductive coping skills because of their trauma. They need us to look beyond their surface behaviors and love them just as they are.“Unconditional” means that our caring and acceptance do not depend on what they say or do, or what mistakes they make.
This level of caring is an essential foundation to a strong relationship. It also is essential to helping our kids recover from their bad experiences. The study I mentioned above found that young teens who felt that others accept them unconditionally were better able to bounce back from painful setbacks. Knowing that they are loved for who they are, not just how they act, gives our kids a powerful boost toward handling whatever life throws at them.
Unconditional caring is hard for us because it makes us vulnerable. Loving someone unconditionally gives them the ability to hurt us, and it’s a natural tendency to pull back behind protective barriers. We have to find ways to work through that tendency, and to be willing to love our kids regardless of how much it hurts.
At the same time, we need to set clear boundaries on their behavior. Unconditional acceptance of our kids as people is not the same as unconditional acceptance of their behavior. For both our sake and theirs, we have to be very clear about the boundaries of acceptable behavior.
We have to set boundaries as part of the respect and self care that we need. We can’t simply put up with whatever our kids do in the name of accepting them. Being a doormat is very self-destructive.
More important, we have to set boundaries so our children will learn accountability. If they don’t ever have any boundaries, or any consequences for overstepping boundaries, they will never learn the life skills they need to deal with the world as it is.
It’s very hard to find this balance in many situations. Yet, we can learn principles from situations that are clear. For example, some of us are parenting kids who hate school. We need to empathize and understand why they have those reactions, but none of those reasons will excuse them from actually attending school. Until they reach the legal age in your state, dropping out is not an option. So, we have to impose consequences if they start skipping school. Their school struggles don’t set conditions on how much we love them, but we have to set conditions on their behavior.
It’s the same principle in other situations. We can love a child who is struggling with substance abuse, but we shouldn’t treat them as though using illegal substances doesn’t matter. If a child steals from us, we should still love them and can still allow them in our home, but we shouldn’t trust them with money, credit cards, or valuables. In these situations, the issue is not whether we love them as people, but whether they still have access to our resources.
The principle is the same for emotional boundaries. We have the right to be treated with respect, for example, and we should set that boundary with our children. We can remind them gently or impose consequences. I once explained to one of my foster kids that “I don’t do favors for people who are rude to me. So the answer today is no, but we can try again tomorrow.”Once again, it’s not an issue of whether we care about our kids, but whether we respect ourselves enough to set conditions on their access to our emotional and other resources.
Often the problem is not that our kids overstep the boundaries, but that the boundaries are invisible. They don’t know they’ve crossed it until after the fact. Especially with kids who have internalized more responsibility for their situation than they should, we need to be proactive and set clear boundaries.
Once we’ve set boundaries, of course, we shouldn’t be surprised if our kids test the boundaries to see if we really meant what we said. That’s just part of being a kid. So we have to set only boundaries that we are willing to enforce and only consequences that we are willing to impose.
Finally, the more often we set and enforce reasonable boundaries, the more likely our kids are to respect them. Certainly, how we enforce the boundaries matters immensely. If we just take the opportunity to vent, we’ll just make the problem worse. Ditto if we say anything that sounds close to (or that they can misinterpret into) commenting on their value as a person. We have to be calm and clear in our discussions about boundary violations.
The main thing, though, is to find ways to let our kids know that we care about them, and that our caring is not conditioned on what they do. At the same time, we have to set strong and clear boundaries, and be willing to limit their access to our resources if they cross those boundaries. It’s a tough balance to find, but it’s an essential foundation to having a strong relationship with our children.