Setting Healthy Boundaries With Kids of Any Age After Divorce

Help your children thrive after divorce by having clear expectations when co-parenting.
By:
Chelsea Williams
November 30, 2021
M

ost parents figure out that setting healthy boundaries with kids, and sticking to them, can be a huge help. For the divorced single parent, boundaries are arguably even more important — but co-parenting adds some extra challenges that can make it hard to set limits.

When I didn't know where to begin as a new co-parent, I fell into the trap of forgetting about boundaries altogether. Then I swung to the other extreme and tried to control family life for all parties involved. Not surprisingly, neither approach worked out well.

Instead, I discovered it was possible to strike a balance by defining the healthy boundaries I was comfortable with, then forming a united front with my co-parent. The result: My kids started to feel more secure in both home environments. 

The trickiest part of this process was learning the fact that family boundaries evolve as children grow. That's why we'll talk about age-appropriate boundaries and how to adapt as your kids' needs and grasp on the situation change.

I'll help you explore ways to approach boundaries with kids at every stage of development, including: 

  • Limiting what you share with toddlers and preschoolers
  • Specifying family boundaries with kids and preteens
  • Setting clear expectations for teenagers
  • Maintaining boundaries with adult children

Only Share What's Necessary With Young Children

little girl holding holding moms hand while looking back

It's common knowledge that infants and toddlers are still learning about the world around them, so most of us naturally know how to adapt our communication style with very young children. What's not as obvious is how to talk to little ones about your divorce.

That's because children change so quickly. There's a pretty big difference between the emotional capacity of a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old.

Toddlers will pick up on big changes to their routines, which are inevitable when you first start co-parenting. They may rebel or go through developmental regressions as a result. 

Most parents have been taught to interpret any behavioral changes as intentional, and attempt to set boundaries with kids by controlling the behavior — e.g., with time-outs or taking away toys. But there's another, healthier way.

When you take big behavioral changes as signs that your toddler needs extra love and reassurance, you'll respond in kind and help them calm down more quickly. Then, it'll be easier to set boundaries for next time because you know they've heard you. 

A simple process for getting toddlers into an emotional state where they can pay attention to new boundaries looks like this:

  • Start with physical safety and connection. Claire Lerner and Rebecca Parlakian of ZerotoThree.org note the importance of physical comfort for young children of divorce. Sometimes, a hug or soft hand on the back is enough.
  • Validate their feelings by noting them verbally. Positive parenting expert Kelly Bartlett says it’s important to teach your toddler the language you want them to use when they have big feelings in the future. You could use neutral phrases like: "It seems like you're feeling angry."
  • Explain the problem you saw and tell them what will happen going forward in simple terms they can comprehend. An example: "I think you got upset because you couldn't FaceTime with Daddy tonight. But remember, we only call Daddy when the sun's still up in the sky."

The best thing about a three-step method like this is that it's repeatable. You and your co-parent can easily remember it and implement it separately for different scenarios. Plus, your little one will get the structure they need during wobbly moments.

Let's say you've got a child who's already attending preschool or daycare. Another technique is to relate your home situation to something they're familiar with in that external environment. 

For example, your 3-year-old may have learned about respecting personal space at school. So when they ask why you're not hugging or kissing their other parent at a drop-off, you can explain that parents have personal space too. 

This approach is much less jarring for a young child than Mom or Dad saying they don't love the other parent anymore — or another statement that, however truthful, could be upsetting to them.

Important: Setting appropriate boundaries sometimes feels like lying to your child. But when you omit details they're not ready for, you're further establishing your role as their source of security. On the other hand, if you overshare, you can risk creating unhealthy enmeshment. 

If you struggle with how to phrase things with your toddler or preschooler, it can help to think about what you would say to them if they saw something disturbing on TV. No matter how you choose to word it, they'll pick up on your calm tone. The same goes for answering awkward questions about your divorce.

Above all, it's crucial to avoid shaming young children for being curious. 

Spell Out Healthy Boundaries With Kids as They Grow

boundaries with kids: mother sitting with son looking at a phone together

In the next phase of parenting — the elementary and middle school years — you may encounter some challenges that emerge from your kids' developing perceptiveness.

If you're newly divorced, obvious differences in parenting styles could emerge as you and your co-parent begin to manage separate households. Some of your former spouse's choices or rules could surprise you. Worse, your kids could pick up on the contrast and try to pit you against one another.

One of the areas in which you'll probably notice the need for clear boundaries with kids after divorce is technology use — if you fall into the 80% of parents whose 5- to 11-year-olds use tablets, or the 63% whose kids the same age use smartphones. 

Your 8-year-old son could insist that his other parent allows him to play multiplayer games on Roblox, yet you're concerned about him talking to strangers online. Or, your 11-year-old daughter might let it slip that she was allowed to create an Instagram account at her other house.

This is a clear indication that it's time to communicate with your co-parent. The Humphrey Clinic for Individual, Couple and Family Therapy at the University of Connecticut recommends suspending your natural reaction and going into the conversation assuming the other person wants to resolve the problem with you.

Rather than "telling on" your child, I recommend leading the email, text, or phone call with an open-ended question like: "Have you noticed Jamie wanting to play on Roblox a lot lately? What are your thoughts on that game?" or "I'm curious. When do you think Brianna will be ready to use social media?"

Your co-parent could have no idea what's been going on and be quite appreciative that you brought it up. The gentle, question-first approach gets you one step closer to the united front. Believe it or not, it's possible for you and your co-parent to set similar boundaries with kids without having identical household rules or routines.

When the kids take issue with one or both of you over something associated with a shared expense (like not having enough supplies for art class), you don't even have to worry about composing a whole email. The Onward App can help — simply open it up and create or edit a proposed expense, then place your non-threatening question in the Notes section. 

Set Limits With Independent Teens

boundaries with kids: father having a deep conversation with son

As they evolve into free-thinking teenagers, your kids could have quite a different experience of the divorce. They might start resisting having to go to either household, and might be able to drive themselves back and forth as they please. 

You may get into some power struggles when you try setting limits about what they can and can't do — especially if there's any disparity between how you and your co-parent handle things like curfew violations or direct disregard for rules. 

Of course, it's ideal to work out clear boundaries you both agree on before your kids reach this age, but there are lots of situations in which that may not have been possible. If your kids were already teenagers when you got divorced, you could feel a bit behind in the boundary-coordination realm.

No matter what's happened up to this point, it's important to establish a system for communicating about your teen's choices and consequences. Be upfront with your son or daughter: Your teen will feel supported knowing that you and their other parent talk, and that your intentions are to keep things as stable as possible for them. 

If your teenager asks you to keep something from the other parent — especially something that would get them in trouble — it's best to hold strong to your role as a parent, not a friend. Use the system you and your co-parent have agreed upon consistently, or your teen might find ways to take advantage of disparities.

Instead of assuming that setting boundaries with teenagers has to be difficult, remember that this is just a new stage. You've already made it this far. Despite what they say, teens still need you just as much as they did when they were little.

If you keep feeling a bit hurt or shut out, try to accommodate for the fact that adolescents tend to display less self-control in highly emotionally charged situations and try to be as patient as possible. The only way to accomplish this is to stay in check with your emotions and be honest with yourself about why your teen is triggering you. 

The truth is, older kids can really hurt our feelings. They're testing their independence, yet they need you to hold space and enforce clear consequences — even if that's the last thing they would request.

Understand That Adult Children Need Boundaries Too

mother and adult daughter hugging behind the car

Our discussion of boundaries has gone beyond simple parenting tips because setting boundaries with kids is a lifelong practice — not a thing that ends when they leave home.

When I went to college, my parents had just gotten a divorce. I had formed some pretty strong opinions about why it happened, and essentially demanded that my parents deal with being in the same room for holidays and other family occasions.

While I felt a sense of entitlement to my parents' cooperation because of the grief I was experiencing, they each made it clear that they now had their own lives. They would both continue to be there for me for graduations and other big moments, but they expressed to me that we wouldn't be spending holidays all together anymore.

I didn't like that answer, but it helped me grow. 

As your kids transition into adults, they still need you to hold space for their difficult emotions. And they still need the structure that can only come from your clearly stated limits. (Maybe even more so than they did as young children.)

Boundaries = Love

If I've learned anything from raising children so far, it's that being a loving parent doesn't mean letting them walk all over you. The greatest parents I know would qualify as award-winning boundary setters.

Whether you notice it now or don't see it until your kids are in healthy relationships in the future, you're building a rock-solid foundation when you gift them an understanding of appropriate boundaries at every stage.

Download the Onward App today!

Chelsea Williams

Chelsea is a twice-divorced mom of two boys. She is happily single parenting and doing her best to balance two simultaneous co-parenting relationships. Despite the complications, Chelsea can see the beauty in her story and believes healing is possible for the whole family.