Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Teaching Kids How To Set & Protect Their Boundaries Against Toxic Behaviour


Teaching Kids How to Set Boundaries and Keep Toxic People Out

Part of helping our kids to be the best they can be, sometimes means pointing out things they can do differently. They might not always be happy to receive the information – they’re no different to the rest of us like that. There’s a difference though – a big difference – between feedback that’s given with generous intent and that which fractures the child’s self-concept or self-esteem. Anything that causes shame, humiliation or the ‘shrinking’ of a child is toxic.

We’re here to grow our kids, to help them find flight, and to help them navigate around anything that might lead them to believe those wings of theirs are broken. Their wings are never broken, but the people who touch their lives sometimes are.

It’s not always easy to withdraw a child from a toxic adult, particularly if that adult is a teacher or a parent, but there are things we can do to strengthen the shield around them and teach them the skills that will protect them for life – because let’s be honest, toxic people will come and go throughout the healthiest of lives and it’s not unusual for them to latch on to people who are kind, generous or open.

Strength of character seems to be no barrier to their poison. Sometimes we won’t see them coming and the first we’ll know is that day we wake up and the world feels a little blacker. 

Strength and courage come in at the point of closing down to the influence of somebody who’s toxic. It’s in all of us to do this, and it’s up to us to give our kids a lamplight to find theirs, permission to use it, and modelling to show them how. 

First things first – is it really toxic?

Rule out other explanations for how your child is feeling. Is your child struggling with work and misreading the teacher’s response? Is your child sensitive to an adult’s tone or volume or abrasive manner? If the adult is like this with everyone, the behaviour is not necessarily toxic. It might not be friendly, but it’s not toxic. 

Also rule out that your child is not doing anything that keeps them under the spotlight. Is is a true case of being targeted by an adult, or is your child consistently talking or interrupting the class, the lesson, the training. How does the adult respond? The response should never be shaming or humiliating. Check this out by chatting with your child and the adult. Then keep an eye on things. Remember that one of the tools of the trade for toxic people is to blame other people for their own messed up behaviour.

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Does the person involved have all the information?

Does the adult have all the information he or she needs to best look after your child? For example, are there things happening at home that might be affecting your child’s behaviour? Is your child a little bit anxious and prone to being sensitive to behaviour which would be inoffensive to most? Give the adult the benefit of the information. Most people will be pleased to receive the information as the last thing a non-toxic person would want to do is to unknowingly cause distress.

If the behaviour is toxic …

If you’ve established that it’s not an oversensitivity or anything the child is doing, here’s how to protect the little humans in your life (and you) from the people who might shrink them now, and against the toxic ones who might come later.

  1. First, withdraw support for the adult.

    We’re constantly told as parents to support the teacher, the other parent, the coach, and this is true but as with everything else, there’s a limit. When supporting the adult becomes supporting his or her toxic behaviour (the contamination of the child’s self-esteem, confidence or self-concept), it’s time to withdraw support. Let your child know that you don’t agree with the adult – whether it’s a teacher, coach or whoever, and that whatever was said or done should not have happened. 

  2. How to help them set strong boundaries between themselves and the ones who cause breakage.

    We hear the word ‘boundary’ a lot but what is it actually? A boundary is the line between what is me and what is not me; between what they think and what I think. With a strong boundary, there’s an acceptance that just because they think it/ feel it/ say it/ do it/ doesn’t mean I have to as well. Here are a few ideas for the words:

    ‘We all have a thing around us called a boundary, which is a line between ourselves and other people. You can’t see it but it’s there. It’s kind of like an invisible forcefield and it’s there to protect each of us from the people who feel bad to be around – not the ones who feel good to be around most of the time but sometimes get cranky or cross, but the ones who say mean things or do mean things that you just don’t deserve.

    You are completely in charge of that forcefield around you. You can decide when it goes up and when it comes down. You can decide what’s allowed in and what has to stay out. You’re the boss and you’ll always be the boss.

    Now, it’s still important to listen and learn from people when they remind you about things you need to do differently – it’s the secret of being awesome. Sometimes though, there might be people who do or say mean things so often that you never feel good when you’re around them. That’s when it’s okay to put your forcefield up. In fact, it’s one of the bravest things you can do. It’s important to respect other people, but it’s even more important to respect yourself first – and putting up your forcefield is one of the ways you can do this.

    We can’t control other people but we can control whether we let the mean things they say or do come close enough to hurt us. Being a kid is hard work – and you’re awesome at it.

    Everyone is responsible for how they treat other people, including grownups and you, but the person you have to treat the very best is yourself. Sometimes that means not listening to what other people might say about you.

    Sometimes you have to be your own hero and protect yourself from being hurt by people who don’t know the rules about being kind and respectful. This is important because you’re awesome – you’re clever, kind, funny brave and strong – and the world needs every bit of you.’

  3. ‘Did you know …?

    Toxic behaviour is often automatic. People do it without thinking about it or considering that there’s a better way to be. That’s not an excuse – not an all – but it can be an important way for your child to further take on the truth that the way someone is treating them actually has nothing to do with them at all.

    Kids will often tend to assume that adults know what they’re doing. Let them know that nobody is perfect – and that when it comes to how to ‘be’ with people, some adults don’t know what they’re doing at all.

    Here’s how to start the chat:

    ‘Did you know that a lot of the things we do are automatic? A lot of time, people just do things because it’s what they’ve always done. They don’t even think about it.
    What this means is that when people are mean and do things that feel bad for you, they haven’t stopped to think that there might be a better way to do it. Sometimes it’s because they haven’t had any adults in their lives to teach them when they were kids, so they grow up doing things that aren’t that great. The habit part of their brain does things before the kind part of their brain can say, ‘Hang on a second. You’ll hurt someone if you do that to them.’

    Our behaviour depends on many different parts of our brain working together and sometimes, they don’t work together that well. It’s important to know that people’s brains can change. Just because someone is mean to you now, doesn’t mean that person will always be mean to you – but you don’t have to wait for that to put your forcefield up. Nope. Not at all.’

  4. ‘No!’ It’s the best word in the universe when you use it the right way.

    ‘For such a little word, saying ‘no’ can feel really hard sometimes but the thing is, it can be the bravest, most powerful word in the universe. It can take strength and courage to say but you have plenty of that. If somebody is asking you to do something that feels bad, wrong, or embarrassing, it’s always okay to say, ‘No’. It can be a hard word to say because you might worry about what people will think of you if you say it, but if they’re asking you to do something that feels bad, then what they think of you already doesn’t matter. Listen to that little voice inside you. If it’s telling you something doesn’t feel right, then listen. I’ll always back you up on that because I trust that little voice of yours, and you need to trust it too.’

  5. Don’t let them change you.

    Help your kids to see the importance of preserving their own character and the great things about them in the face of the things that might change them.

    ‘There’s a bully and a hero in all of us and it’s important not to become a bully when you’re dealing with bullies. This isn’t always easy. You might feel sad or angry or scared and want to hurt the person who has hurt you – but you’re better than that. Respecting yourself doesn’t mean disrespecting other people. Be kind. Be caring. Be strong. But that doesn’t mean you have to like them.

    It’s completely okay to forgive people who are mean. In fact, it’s a very strong thing to do, but that doesn’t mean you have to accept these people back if you don’t think they deserve you. Just understand that there are so many reasons that people do mean things, and none of them are because of the person you are. You’re awesome. We already know that. Mean people weren’t born mean. Something happened to change them that way. Probably something pretty awful. Just don’t let that happen to you.’

  6. Your happiness doesn’t depend on what someone else thinks of you.

    ‘The truth is, nobody will ever know everything about you. If it’s someone who says mean things and who feels bad to be around, that sort of person will really never know the best of you and actually, they don’t deserve to. They’ll never know how funny you are, how kind you are, the amazing way you think about things, how brave, smart and strong you are and how crazy good you are to be around when you trust the people you’re with.’

  7. Stay calm.

    Your child needs to know that you’ve got this. The worst thing you can do is anything that will cause them to regret telling you. You’ll probably feel angry and upset – that’s completely understandable! – but just don’t get angry and upset in front of them. It’s so important not to do anything that might cause them to feel as though they need to look after you.

  8. Be their voice.

    Sometimes we have to be the voice for our children, particularly in relationships where theirs is the quieter, softer and less powerful. When it’s time to talk to the adult involved, start by being curious and open: ‘Is there something my child is doing that he or she needs to improve on?’ Then, keep emotion out of it and stick to specific data, ‘I’d like to talk to you about something you might not be aware of …’ 

    You’ll have more chance of being effective if you can limit the likelihood of a defensive reaction. That means not going on the attack. You’ll want to, but don’t. Stick to the facts. Share the information you have about how the behaviour is affecting your child or their capacity to work, train, be: ‘When you do [ … ], [ … ] happens. I understand that you might not mean anything by it and you might not even realising it’s happening, but it’s just not getting the best result.’

    Ask how the person plans to address things for the future. If they aren’t prepared to do anything, go to someone higher up than them or, if you can, take your child out of their hands – they don’t deserve the influence. No adult has to like your child but if they don’t, they need to keep that to themselves and not let the child know. And that’s a big ‘Don’t argue’ to the adult. No child should have to manage the feelings of an adult.

  9. And when it’s peer friendships.

    Learning that it’s okay to let go of relationships is such an important part of full living. Too often we hold on to people who don’t deserve us or who are ready to move in a different direction. Not everyone who comes into our lives is meant to stay and if we can have our children start to think about this when they’re young, they’ll be so much more empowered and deliberate in their relationships when they’re older. 

‘Sometimes people just aren’t able to be the way you would like them to be. It’s okay – really okay – to leave friendships that feel bad more than they feel good. In fact, it’s important. There are people out there who will love you so much and love being with you just the way you are, and letting go of the people who feel bad to be around will make room for the ones who feel good to be with. 

Don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that how awesome you are depends on the number of friends you have. It doesn’t. Not at all. Sometimes people with less friends are the most amazing people you could ever meet – it’s just that they’re waiting for the right people to find them. And that’s completely okay. Being on your own doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you – it certainly doesn’t mean that! It means that you know what’s right for you and you know you deserve someone who makes the effort to find out the wonderful things about you – and that is totally awesome.

There are plenty of people who will love your socks off when they get to know you and who will want to be around you. They just have to find you, and you them, which you will. But the most important things is not to stay with people who are mean because you’re scared of being on your own. Being on your own can feel lonely, but being around the wrong sort of people feels even lonelier, and completely awful.

And finally …

Kids are clever. They know what’s going on and they’re intuitive. When they say something is off, it usually is. Ask them for information. Ask them for their opinion. Ask them what they think you should do and let them know that you understand. Kids just want to be our heroes too, but more importantly, they all have it in them to be their own.

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Hello, I was looking for information to help my child cope with her narcissistic father who manipulates her, badmouths me and makes up lies to blame me for the divorce. This hurts her, and she has developed a tic. I need to learn more tools to help her manage him.. please help.

Karen Young

Mia talk to your daughter about the strategies in the article. This will have to be gentle because he is her father, and the only one she has. Children tend to be fiercely loyal to their parents, so as much as you can, give her permission to love him, but not to believe everything she hears from him. The last thing you want to do is put her in a loyalty bind where she feels that she doesn’t have permission from either parent to love the other one. This is so confusng and conflicting for kids. Let her know that she can speak to you about anything at all, and if she does, try to be a calm, solid, steady ear for her. If she gets a sense that the things she tells you upset you, she’ll stop talking to you about them. Even if you are so hurt and angry about the things you hear her father has said to her, it will always be more important to do what you can to make it feel safe for her to come to you. It’s not easy, but being able to speak with you will help to give her clarity and to work towards resolution and acceptance that she can love her father, but reject the things he says.


Hi, I have been having trouble with my friend Evelyn. She has been abusing herself and hurting her teen mind with porn and I’m really scared for her. What should I do?

Karen Young

I’m not sure what you mean by ‘abusing herself’, but if you are worried, talk to her. Try to be as nonjudgemental as you can and give her plenty of opportunity to be heard. Is she innocently experimenting? Is she trying to fit in with a group? Is she exploring her curiosity? Try to understand things from her side – this will make it more likely that she will come to you in the future if she needs someone to talk to.

Anue Nue

This is a well thought out, balanced and beautifully written article about a very important topic, boundaries, which even many adults don’t yet fully understand. My only question is why are we going along with the labeling of people as toxic rather than simply explaining how certain behaviors of people can be toxic to others? I ask this question mostly because as the author points out, kids are clever and intuitive, and if we teach them while they are young to label others as toxic because of bad behavior then what are they supposed to think about themselves if they happen to have an automatic episode of “toxic” behavior? That they are a toxic person? Or worse yet, what happens when they have to put their shields up against one of their peers toxic behaviors and they call that peer a toxic person or some other label they learned along the way? Also, it just seems to me that labeling humans is a toxic behavior to begin with, so why introduce the practice into such a sensible article on a subject as important as this?

Karen Young

Thank you for your considered and thoughtful response. We are all capable of bad behaviour, which is very different to those who systematically, deliberately and consistently engage in behaviour that hurts. We need to give our children permission to steer clear of people who cause breakage, and to trust their judgement on that. Bad behaviour doesn’t mean toxic people. There is a big difference between bad behaviour and toxic behaviour. Toxic people engage in behaviour that consistently shows a gross lack of empathy, and is persistently damaging. They also show an unwillingness to change their hurtful behaviour. We can argue the semantics but in the end, it is about empowering our children to protect themselves against people who show a level of toxicity that is destructive and damaging to others, and who are persistently emotionally reckless with the hearts, minds and spirits of our children. Here is an article that further discusses this https://www.heysigmund.com/toxic-people/


I have had almost zero contact with my narcissistic ex over the last six years due to his extreme lack of boundaries and manipulation tactics. He’d yell at me day and night, never uttering so much as a swear word, he was cunning and would read my diaries, gain info from outside sources, friends and family, listen to me with interest and unknowing intent and then when the moment was right he staged his attack. All the intel he’d gathered was put forth in his unprovoked attacks, all the truths he’d learned became twisted and soiled with his filthy fantasy version of who he thought i was, I started despising myself, had no idea what was real, I had to write every detail of my life down, from what I said to what I ate and within a few short months, i nearly miscarried our baby, lost my job and became suicidal which all only added fuel to his fire. This is a tactic he has used on everyone in his life to some extent, including his dog, no one is safe.

Our six year old son began visits at 3. He sees him every second weekend and since unsupervised visits began my son is constantly being quizzed, told lies and nasty things about me and my family. Dad is always the victim and our son is told hes daddys only friend. Our son has come home distant and even extremely upset at me for all Ive done to poor dad (put him in jail, lied in court, kidnapped him, etc….) Then the next thing I know hes telling me how much daddy loves me though, and we’re going to be together cause daddy says so. My ex is a flip flop narcissist.

His dad has caused so much strain within our son relationships with everyone that cares about him but dads relationship is stronger than ever.

My son wants to spend more time with dad but all professionals say limited contact. Ive put up my boundary of extremely limited contact because of this mans extreme lack of respect for boundaries. My son however believes its me being mean as thats what hes told by dad.

Our son is with his dad this week of school, (dad gets one week a year on top of every second weekend). Anyway, I was sitting in traffic and my ex who unbeknownst to me happened to be a few cars behind came running up to my car window panicked saying our son got in BIG trouble at school and asked if we could talk. Worried, I broke my no contact rule and pulled over. He was naming off all these bad behaviours, calling our son a bully, spoiled brat a liar and blaming me in a “kind” way. I dont see this child this way AT ALL and I said as much but he then proceeded to try and convince me he acts this way ONLY when I am not around. I listened and learned that my ex had spent almost two hours in front of the school brow beating our 6 year old about this incident at school. Then while with me, spent another 45 mins talking about it, he said he had plans to talk about it somemore at supper and later, while our son looked on, convinced me to dinner with the two of them in a few days to talk even more about it. Beside being tormented for hours my son was beaming! All he wants is for us to be friends and hang out because thats what daddy always says needs to happen and what will make our son and daddy happy.

I never really did get a straight answer about what happened at school so I called the teacher the next morning. It was just a few normal incidences of not listening that the teacher asked if we could talk to our son about!!!!!!!!!! Nothing earth shattering that requires hours and days of brow beating.

Ive made a big mistake letting my guard down. Now im receiving messages from my ex about my lack of discipline with our son, hes done a complete analysis of all contact and conversation I had with our son from the day he stopped me in traffic and has concluded, using detailed examples, how inadequate as a parent I am but luckily he has my back and hes stepping up to help and teach me the correct way to teach our son and help save me from myself!

A side note, a few weeks ago I told my son and his dad that I might allow more time if all the negative talk about myself and my family stops for a long period of time, its been so detrimental to our sons relationships. Well now the ex is saying if I continue to be nice (talk to him and submit) like I did the other day he’ll be sure to have only kind things to say to our son about me.

Im cancelling dinner, im going to say I am not feeling well to spare our son the backlash. I want to re establish the no contact with his dad and speak to my son about my decision. My long awaited questions are :

1. How do I explain my boundaries with his dad when he so clearly sees them as hurting his father and how do i explain the reasons.

2. How do I help my son establish boundaries with a person like this when he may not even recognize he needs them and with a dad who just flat out does NOT allow him to have them.

I want to add that during the 12 days Im with our son, he has hypervigilent boundaries. No one can look at him, get cross with him, bully him, call him a name, hes quick to let everyone know when he feels hes been wronged or he’ll say when ive done or said something thats hurt him. He doesnt always respect others physical boundaries but he demands his boundaries are always intact.

When i seen his dad with him, i was shocked when his dad was calling him a liar. Our son said nothing. However he did use body language and pushed his dads hands away but his dad just held our sons arms to his sides and picked him up stiff as a corpse and began saying “youre not mad, you know im not mad”. Ive never seen this side of my son. Hes always verbal in telling people when he feels hurt. And being called a liar would have been a huge deal. This concerns me.

3. Do you suppose his hypervigilent boundaries are caused by an inability to sustain boundaries with his dad.

I really dont know what goes on between their relationship but i do know this mans history with everyone else. My little guy has said hes punched his dad, hit him with his hat, fallen asleep, yelled and kicked him to try and get him to shut up, usually regarding me or our life and it doesnt work. The other day he just looked defeated. I used to try and defend myself as well and the moment i stopped i began losing myself. Six years later I still struggle. No one can handle it that ive met so far. How do I help this child?

Karen Young

Eve there are no easy answers to your questions. I wish there were but there aren’t. There are many issues at play here and to ensure you son is getting what he needs it’s important these issues are given the consideration they deserve. All kids want to feel safe and loved by both parents. Sadly, some parents fall short on this but it’s important to manage this in a way that ensures the child isn’t left feeling unheard, dismissed or abandoned. It’s hard. It sounds as though you have a number of professionals involved. Be guided by them. They will (hopefully) be in a much better position to guide you as they will have more information and more awareness of the dynamics and processes at play.

Having said this, something all children need is to feel heard and validated. Let him talk to you, and help him to feel safe doing this by acknowledging what he feels without getting upset yourself. I completely understand how difficult this can be. If children have a loving, supportive adult in their lives it helps to buffer and protect them and move through stress and trauma. Keep reinforcing that he is loved, and that his feelings are valid, ‘I can hear how angry you are. I understand that. It sounds like a pretty awful thing that happened.’ ‘I want you to know that whatever happens, you’re always safe here, no matter what. You can say what you want and you’re safe.’ Then, talk to him about healthier ways to express his feelings. It’s always okay to feel what he feels. All feelings are valid and deserve to be there. They’re important because they give us a clue about what we need more of/ less of/ how brave and resilient we are. The problem isn’t the feelings but what we do with them. Let his feelings be okay, and then guide him to a better way of responding. Also help him realise that the way his dad treats him or the things he says aren’t personal. It’s the way his dad is, and he would be like it with anyone. It feels personal, but it’s not. If he feels let down, validate that. ‘It hurts when the people who are important to you hurt you isn’t it … or whatever it is he’s feeling’. I hope that makes sense. Here are a couple of articles that might help. https://www.heysigmund.com/empathetic-listening/ and https://www.heysigmund.com/raising-kids-emotionally-intelligent-kids-teens-anger-how-to-be-the-boss-of-your-brain/.


Thank you for a great article. I believe boundaries are so key in a child’s life and your article explains it beautifully. My 14 year old daughter has a friend at school who’s mother bullies her. She confides in my daughter often and my daughter tells me. Would it be advisable for me to approach her mother? And if so, what would be the best approach? Should I approach the school? Thank you

Karen Young

These situations have to be handled so carefully because you want to keep everyone safe, and avoid putting your daughter in a position where she might feel as though she has been betrayed. For this reason, I wouldn’t speak to the mother. The risk is that it may put the other girl in a more vulnerable position, it might cause trouble for your daughter if her friend feels betrayed by her, and it might cause trouble between you and your daughter if your daughter feels as though you have used information she has given you in a way that has hurt her (or her friend). It’s a tough one. First, it’s important to gauge the risks involved. Is there a genuine risk to the welfare or safety of your daughter’s friend? Is it normal mother-daughter conflict? Does your daughter’s friend feel as though she needs support? Speak with your daughter to get a clear idea of the risk. Also ask your daughter what she would like to see happen, what her friend would like to see happen, and what she thinks should happen. If you feel there is a need to intervene, speak with your daughter about this. If she is concerned for her friend’s safety, work out a plan with her to keep her friend safe. This might be the time to speak with a counsellor at the school for guidance. These are always difficult situations, but the most important thing is to do what you can to ensure everyone is safe and, as much as you can without putting your daughter’s friend’s safety and welfare at risk, that important relationships are also protected.


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