Setting boundaries that work

Image: D Sharon Pruitt 

Children need boundaries to make them feel safe. This is as important online as offline. Here are five tips on digital boundary-setting

Children need boundaries to help them grow into respectful, confident and productive adults. However necessary your rules and boundaries may seem to you, though, children often push and fight against them because they're always interested in testing limits. It's normal and even necessary for healthy development. 

‘They’ll probably need your help to manage things like finding a reasonable balance between online and offline time’

Limits help children feel safe and contained, but young people also need freedom to try things out, make mistakes and develop their independence. The boundaries we set help children learn to set limits for themselves and develop their self-discipline.

Boundaries are equally important when it comes to technology. The digital world is so exciting for young people – and rightly so – that they’ll probably need your help to manage things like finding a reasonable balance between online and offline time.

Some boundaries will be non-negotiable, especially when it comes to the safety of your child and others. Others will be more flexible. You may, for instance, want to set different limits on screen time during exams than over school holidays. The key things to remember when setting your boundaries (and they will be personal to your family) are:

Know your child

Get to know what is normal at each age and stage of your child's development. Setting boundaries that work will be much easier if your expectations of how they should behave match where they are developmentally.

For example, don’t expect young children to be able to switch off their games at a moment’s notice – they often find it easier to disconnect if given a 10-minute warning.

Stay consistent 

Children need clear limits and boundaries. They will not thrive or survive without them, and neither will you! Rules that are clear and simple and are easier to stick to. Children’s memories aren’t that good so you may find yourself repeating them. Make sure that they know what is expected of them and what the consequences will be if the rules are broken.

Allow room for negotiation 

Children are more likely to stick to the boundaries they help create. Making sure they know the reasons behind rules will help prepare them to regulate their own behaviour as they grow up. Talk to your children about how you expect them to behave and give them the chance to voice their opinions. Let them know that some rules are non-negotiable – like being careful who you talk to online  while others can be discussed. There is no harm in being somewhat flexible. Pick your battles carefully and don't over burden your child with too many rules.

Recognise the good behaviours 

Try not to fall into the trap of always focusing on the negative. Recognising when things are good and your children are following the rules and sticking to the boundaries – especially if they’ve found this hard before – will encourage them to keep that up.

Further reading

Find more information on helping your child stay safe and build resilience online in Digital Parenting magazine


The advice published on Parent Info is provided by independent experts in their field and not necessarily the views of Parent Zone or NCA-CEOP.

First published: July 2015

Updated: May 2018



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