How To Parent A Child Who Can’t Recognize Boundaries

Author of 5 books, podcaster, parent trainer, husband and father.

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A great majority of human life is made up of boundaries. As we grow from early childhood, into the teenage years, and eventually adulthood, we are continuously surrounded by boundaries. Boundaries to keep us safe, boundaries to preserve healthy relationships, boundaries to keep us within the law (to name a few). But what do you do when you are parenting a child who can't recognize boundaries?

It can be quite maddening.

You repeat yourself a trillion times.

You ask them to ask you before touching or “borrowing” your stuff. They don’t.

You ask them to not take things out of their sibling’s rooms, or ever go in without permission in the first place. They do anyways.

You bang your head against a wall (hopefully figuratively speaking), wondering why on earth they can’t seem to understand the simple boundaries you have put in place?

We’ve been there. Quite often actually. Years ago I remember traveling in my car with a child, who we were caring for through foster care at the time, when he suddenly noticed a bracelet in the center cup holder of my car. He picked it up, asked who it belonged to, and proceeded to put it on his wrist. I replied nicely, “That’s miss Kristin’s bracelet. She must have left it in my car the other day when she went to the store.” He smiled and continued to look at the bracelet, glistening in the summer sun beaming through the side window, as we glided down the highway. “Don’t forget to put that back where you found it when we arrive home. I don’t want her to lose it. Her sister gave that to her for Christmas.” He nodded in agreement. A few days later, take a guess where we found that bracelet. I’ll give you a hint….it wasn’t in the cupholder of my car. We later found it behind a dresser in his room…. 🙁

It was a simple request: make sure you place the bracelet back where you found it. It doesn’t belong to you. It is someone else’s. Any human being could clearly understand this boundary.

Or could they?

That day I concluded that this behavior, the lack of regard for someone else personal property, was bad behavior….defiance at its finest. But there was way more going on than just defiance. If not defiance, what was it? What caused a child to take a bracelet that wasn’t his, even after looking me in the eye and nodding “yes” when I reminded him to put it back where he found it?

The answer to this we must begin with a few crucial reminders…

First: Remember, trauma has changed EVERYTHING for your child! This is a reminder that we parents constantly need to give ourselves. I do. You do too. It’s easy, in the fast-moving pace of life, and exhaustion, to drift into a place of frustration and mundaneness (let’s just be honest….the churning, all-consuming grind of life and parenting) that we forget about the origin of our children’s behavior. Their trauma history has dictated and directed much of their present behavior. Because of this, they are in a constant jockey between their prefrontal cortex (where logic, reasoning, and self-control live) and their brain stem (where survival-living takes place). The recognition of boundaries requires executive functioning, which can be in short supply with children who have experienced chronic trauma. Your child’s brain has been altered by trauma. This doesn’t solve the issue, but it does explain the reason for certain behaviors. (For a practical explanation of how trauma has changed your child’s brain, download our new free video guide on trauma here

Second: Understand that they can’t. I’ve been doing something subtle throughout this post to this point. I’ve been using the word ‘can’t.’ Did you notice? I have not used the words “won’t” or “refuse.” I intentionally used the word can’t. I mentioned in the previous point that the recognition and comprehension of boundaries requires executive functioning. One of the primary characteristics of executive functioning is working memory. Trauma disrupts this ability. Your child may just simply forget what you told them. “Ah, but it’s not about what I told them, it’s about respecting someone else’s property!” you say. True. The inability to remember or not remember may not be the issue. It may just be a good ole case of “I want it, I got it!” (to quote Ariana Grande), although I doubt it. Here’s something I find interesting though. When your child and mine take something that doesn’t belong to them, we often find it cast aside, behind a dresser drawer, or deep in their pocket in the laundry, long forgotten, right? (Maybe not always, but sometimes) Why is that?

This brings into view another key characteristic of executive functioning which is inhibitory control. This characteristic also includes self-control. Children who have experienced chronic trauma lack inhibitory control, or inhibition, which is the trait that keeps us from doing things impulsively. Take off my shirt and run through the streets in the dead of winter (or ever)? No thanks. Pick up something that doesn’t belong to me and carry it around like it’s mine? Nope! Everything logical and in control about my make up tells me NOT to do any of this. But a person who’s pre-frontal cortex has been damaged by trauma, thus drastically impacting the executive functioning trait of inhibitory control (ie- the “keep your little hands off” reminder alarm) may not be able to stop themselves from taking a bracelet that they were clearly asked NOT to take, and make sure they place back where they found it? You get the point. The trauma they sustained has disrupted this ability or inhibition drastically. Therefore, you as a caregiver have a crucial role here. You must function as their external brain often. Expecting a child who’s executive functioning, logic, and reasoning that’s been hard hit by trauma, to start behaving logically, remembering what you said, or stop themselves from taking something that isn’t theirs, is like expecting a child who’s bound to a wheelchair to “just stand up and start walking!”

What does this look like?

Given the fact that these behaviors are trauma-related and they may not be able to legit stop themselves, how do we parent a child who can’t recognize boundaries? You may be thinking, “This kinda feels like we’re excusing the behavior!” We’re not. Remember…we’re working on a bigger picture. Here are some ways to parent a child who just can’t seem to recognize or adhere to boundaries…

  1. Respond calmly and firmly. Very VERY hard to do…I know! Trust me. This is actually a tension you and I will have to continually manage with ourselves. It’s not a problem we can solve. After all, we’re human and one of our emotions is pissedoffness! Especially when we feel violated or disrespected. And that’s exactly how you and I feel when our stuff goes missing, or a clear guideline we set up get’s bypassed. I don’t like it when people touch my stuff…EVER! I hate it when I pass down a boundary with my child and they do the freaking opposite [insert angry cussing emoji here] In this instance, it’s important to remember that the lack of regard for a boundary is not necessarily defiance. It may be, but I believe it’s a disruption in executive functioning, particularly what I just shared above…inhibitory control. Given this fact, our response is crucial. “Honey, remember I asked you not to take the bracelet and make sure you put it back? You need to make this right and take care of this right now.” Calm and firm. My tone is regulated and conversational, no volume is heightened, I’m not demanding, I’m not threatening or handing down a consequence (yet), I’m simply stating what the child did, and asking he or she to make it right. You will see a world of difference when you respond to your child like this.
  2. Repeat, repeat, repeat. My good friend, Dr. Ira Chasnoff, in explaining to parents a crucial step in helping a child with an FASD who’s pre-frontal cortex (and executive functioning abilities) has been damaged by drug and alcohol exposure, says it like this- “Repeat, repeat, repeat!” As a caregiver you will find yourself repeating yourself A LOT. To this point, you may have been frustrated over this, or wondered when in the world you will get to stop repeating yourself five bazillion times. The answer may be…never. It can take up to 5 prompts to get a child impacted by trauma to follow through on a task. Equally, you may have to continue to repeat the boundary. “Remember to put your seatbelt on.” “Remember, you need to wait until your friend calls or texts you back before you send another text, or call them.” “Remember, other’s rooms are off limits unless you receive permission from us to go in there.” “Remember, you need to put the bracelet back where you found it.” “Remember, just because it’s laying out on the table, and it doesn’t have a name on it, doesn’t mean it’s free for the taking.” Over and over and over and over again. Couple this with the next point (they go hand-in-hand)…
  3. Walk with, not over. Even though you are ripe with frustration, you may need to walk with your child as he or she puts something they took without permission back, or makes a crossed boundary right. Because of the disruption in executive functioning, they may simply not be able to do it on their own, As much as we want them to suddenly recognize the social miscue, or violation of someone’s personal property, or disrespect, they may not have the ability. As I mentioned above, our role as a caregiver is to function as our child’s external brain, guiding them and doing much of the thinking and processing for them, and with them. Our tendency is to hand down orders (understandable…we’re busy busy people) and expect they get done. That has the feel of walking over a child. We need to walk with them. This not only repairs boundaries, but you have the opportunity to build trust and connection with your child in the process. Win-win!

Carry on, dear parent! I am right there with you. I’m in your corner because I understand what you go through on a daily basis. Hang in there.

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Mike and Kristin Berry are the Co-Founders of The Honestly Adoption Company and have been parents for nearly two decades. They are the authors of six books, and the host of The Honestly Adoption Podcast.

Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray is the executive assistant to Mike and Kristin Berry. And she is the best in the land. In addition to providing a warm and friendly response to the many emails our company receives on a weekly basis, she also manages Mike and Kristin’s speaking and meeting schedules, and makes sure that team events go off without a hitch.

Nicole Goerges

Nicole Goerges is a Content Contributor & Special Consultant for The Honestly Adoption Company. She works with Mike and Kristin as a recurring co-host for the Honestly Adoption Podcast, and co-host of Kitchen Table Talks, exclusive video content for Oasis Community, along with Kristin. She is a fellow adoptive mom, and former foster parent.

Matt McCarrick

Matt McCarrick is the Content Production Specialist for The Honestly Adoption Company. If you’ve loved listening to our podcast, or enjoyed any of the videos trainings we’ve published, you have Matt to thank. He oversees all of our content production, from video edits, to making sure the tags are correct on YouTube, to uploading new videos to Oasis, to hitting publish on a podcast episode, he’s a content wonder!

Karen Anderson

Karen Anderson is the Community Engagement Specialist for The Honestly Adoption Company. She spends the bulk of her time interacting with, and helping, people through our various social media channels, as well as providing support for Oasis Community members through chat support or Zoom calls. In the same spirit as Beaver, Karen is also passionate about connecting with parents and making them feel loved and supported. Karen is also an FASD trainer and travels often, equipping and encouraging parents.

Beaver Trumble

Beaver Trumble is the Customer Care Specialist for The Honestly Adoption Company. Chances are, if you have been in need of technical support, or forgotten your password to one of our courses, you have interacted with Beaver. He is an absolute pro at customer care. In fact, he single-handedly revolutionized our customer care department last year. Beaver is passionate about connecting with parents and making them feel loved and encouraged.

Kristin Berry

Kristin Berry is the co-founder of, and Chief Content Specialist for, The Honestly Adoption Company. She spends most of her time researching and connecting with guests for our podcast, as well as direction, designing and publishing a lot of the content for our social media channels, blog and podcast. She loves to connect with fellow parents around the world, and share the message of hope with them.

Mike Berry

Mike Berry is the co-founder of, and Chief Marketing Specialist for, The Honestly Adoption Company. He spends the bulk of his time and energy designing and building many of the resources you see within our company, as well as social media and email campaigns. His goal is to use media as a means to encourage and equip parents around the world. He is also the co-host of The Honestly Adoption Podcast.