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It feels like we’re in a weird transition in the pandemic right now. It’s like the world wants to go back to normal again. Officials are lifting some of the quarantine regulations, but we are definitely not out of the woods yet with the COVID-19 virus. 

I see people out in public and it seems like they are acting on two ends of a spectrum. Some people are continuing to be very cautious, donning masks everywhere they go. They’re following the arrows, standing on X’s in the store aisles and maintaining a hard “no” to people coming over for a visit. At the opposite end of the spectrum, folks are throwing caution completely to the wind, acting as if things are back to normal and ignoring any kind of preventative guidelines. 

Mix all this with what we’ve been going through the last two months, and what comes out is a lot of people on edge. It’s an emotionally-charged environment. Social media is fraught with all kinds of opinions and conspiracy theories and hostile exchanges about who’s-behind-what with the pandemic. It’s enough to make a person question their sanity.  

My kids see all of this. They take notice when other families are doing something different than us. They talk to their friends who are inviting others over for sleepovers and those whose parents are saying absolutely not. And they can sense the tension in each store line between those who wear masks and those who aren’t. 

So, how do we use this time to teach our children about emotional boundaries? 

What is an emotional boundary? 

When you see the lion exhibit at the zoo, there’s a boundary between you and the lions. And for good reason! The boundary is there to guard and protect you from the lions. It’s also there to protect the lions from you and all the other spectators. The boundary puts a healthy space between you and the danger. It defines which space belongs to you and which space belongs to the lions. Both lions and spectators benefit from this boundary. But if the lion makes its way to the spectator’s space (or, if a spectator shimmies his way into the lion’s space), well, bad things can happen. 

Emotional boundaries do the same thing. They serve to guard and protect us from threats to our emotional well-being. They also put a healthy space between you and other people. Sometimes people can cross the boundary. This happens in lots of different ways: bullying, shaming, name-calling, manipulation. If boundaries aren’t held, our emotional health and sense of self suffers. This can cause anxiety, depression or a sense of depleted self-worth. 

As we think about all that’s happening with the pandemic and the emotionally-charged opinions flying around like crossfire, emotional boundaries are compromised.

As parents, this is the opportunity to teach our children how to build and maintain appropriate emotional boundaries during this pandemic

How We Teach Our Kids Emotional Boundaries 

1. Model. Our kids watch us. Children take cues from their parents, especially when they aren’t sure how to respond to a situation. 

I was talking with a neighbor one day with my daughter present, and they began to explain to me their conspiracy theory on where the virus came from and what certain leaders were or were not doing about it. I completely disagreed, and normally would have made it known. But out of respect for my neighbor and because my daughter was watching, I kept calm and l listened. I validated his opinion without giving in to his hype and politely ended our conversation. Shortly after, of course, I got the chance to explain to my daughter that I didn’t agree with him and why, but that we must also be careful to respect other people’s opinions. 

How do you react in front of your kids when you see someone practicing a different habit of mask-wearing than you? Do you ridicule them? 

If you learn that another parent is allowing (or not allowing) their kids’ friends to come over and that’s not what you would do, do you allow your emotions to get the best of you and put labels on that parent? 

These negative reactions add fuel to the breakdown of emotional boundaries, and our kids sense this. Modeling appropriate emotional boundaries is essential to helping our children have appropriate emotional boundaries

2. Explain the importance of respecting others even when they do things differently. Modeling is one thing. But it’s so important to follow this up with a good conversation with your children about why you still show respect to others, despite the differences in the way they do things. 

After being in a store where some are wearing masks and others aren’t, take the opportunity to say something like, “Did you notice that some people were/were not wearing masks? Our family doesn’t do that, and this is why… However, that doesn’t give us permission to speak mean or disrespect people who don’t do what we do. They have their reasons for doing that, just like we have our reasons for doing this.

3. Be confident in who you are, even when others are disrespectful. Your kids are in situations where they see the glares between mask-wearers and non-mask-wearers in the stores. Or, one kid in the neighborhood might make fun of another for not being allowed to play outside with others. I’ve even heard some rather rude comments between strangers when it comes to social distancing. 

Help your children understand that people don’t always understand that it’s okay for others to do things differently and that they may react in ways that are disrespectful and make you feel bad. These kinds of reactions from others encroach on their emotional well-being. 

Say something like, we can’t help what other people say or think about us. But we have to be okay with who we are. We wear masks/don’t wear masks… play/don’t play outside with others… go to/don’t go to other people’s houses, because this is what our family thinks is best. It won’t always be like this, but right now we are making the best decisions for our family that we know how to. 

Lessons That Go Beyond the Pandemic

Resilience, self-confidence, security, respect of others and self-respect—these are all characteristics that come out of teaching our children about emotional boundaries. And there is no doubt we all need these to keep ourselves from going bonkers during this time in the pandemic. 

However, what you need to remember is that these lessons go way beyond the here and now. And perhaps there is no greater opportunity than during this crazy, emotional situation. You have the chance to instill in your children how to have strong emotional boundaries in the face of adversity. Your kids will need these skills for the rest of their lives. Don’t waste this opportunity to teach them.

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Popular artist Taylor Swift is aware of her critics and the harshness of their comments, especially after the time she sang off key with Stevie Nicks. One critic said it was the beginning of the end of her career.

These comments definitely affected Swift. So, what was her response? She wrote a song: Mean. 

You, with your words like knives and swords and weapons that you use against me,

You have knocked me off my feet again, got me feeling like I’m nothing…

While there have always been mean people, many would agree that there seems to be more mean behavior than even a decade ago.

“I believe as a society we are seeing more meanness and we have become more tolerant of it,” says Dr. Gary J. Oliver, emotional intelligence expert. “While bullying has always been around, we have seen an escalation of inhospitable, hurtful and demeaning behavior – and not just in adults who have lived a rough life. We are seeing this behavior in children as well.”

So, as Swift asks in her lyrics, why do people have to be so mean?

“I think there are a number of reasons,” Oliver says. “People seem to be more accepting of mean behavior instead of stopping it. And we have a lot of hurting people out there. When a wounded person feels threatened, they lash out in an effort to protect themselves. These people are almost always unhappy, insecure and frustrated. Their effort to make themselves feel better and safer comes at a great cost to those who become the target of their anger.”

Oliver also believes mean behavior has increased because of humans’ natural instinct to fight, run away or freeze when they feel threatened. People who don’t how to handle a mean situation often resort to fighting back or attacking someone out of anger.

“Most people do not realize that when they feel threatened, the emotion portion of their brain gets hijacked. If they have never learned emotional self-awareness, they resort to instinctive responses,” Oliver says. “Parents can teach their children how to handle their emotions in a way that is assertive yet not mean and disrespectful.”

Dr. Oliver shares these tips to teach children emotional intelligence:

  • Love your children.
  • Keep expectations realistic. No child can be number one at everything.
  • Help your child to recognize his/her strengths.
  • Teach them healthy boundaries.
  • Model how to treat others with kindness and compassion even when treated disrespectfully.
  • When someone makes a mean statement to your child, teach them to ask themselves if it is true. If not, they can dismiss it. If it is, they can do something about it.

“Nobody likes being treated mean – not even the bully,” Oliver says. “Teaching your children that they don’t have to react to every stimulus and that they can remain calm will serve them well on into adulthood. How far your child goes in life depends more on emotional intelligence than having a degree from an Ivy League school.”

Who would you prefer your child to hang around, someone who is mean, disrespectful and rude or someone who is compassionate, kind and respectful?

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