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Boundary Setting and Non-Violent Communication

Updated: May 16, 2021

Don’t be surprised if you have trouble setting boundaries in one or more areas of your life. It’s a growing problem and a hot topic of discussion in many different circles. Uncertainty, negativity, and a world that sometimes offers too many choices all contribute to the problem.

Figuring out the best way to set boundaries doesn’t have to be that difficult. But it’s not like you can just do it and forget about it. They’ll change over time due to circumstances, age, and development. I like to think of boundaries as being like a fence around a play yard. It helps keep everyone safe and it's very clear where it begins and ends. Here's what we'll cover today:

  • We’re going to take a deeper dive into “I messages'' and learn a technique called OFNR that can be life-changing for anyone who’s ever come across conflict and differences of opinions in their lives.

  • We’re going to learn 3 of the best power phrases available to parents. Plus a link to instantly get 18 more phrases that work and a trick to make almost any phrase you use more powerful.

  • The one factor that disables button pushing and the exact words you need to make yourself immune

We talked a little bit about "I messages" last time. Today I’m going to tell you where that idea actually came from. If you haven't read the first 2 lessons, go back and do it now because each lesson builds on concepts discussed in previous lessons.

“I messages” are a part of a set of communication skills called non-violent communication. Marshall Rosenberg wrote the book and founded the movement. I wish everyone in the entire world could get a hold of this information because it really makes a difference in how we communicate and whether or not we end up getting what we want, compromising, behaving violently, or giving in.

When using I messages, you can try the following format, inserting your own observations and feelings.

When you_____________________ (state observation without judgement)

I feel_________________________ (state your feeling and own it without blame or guilt)

Because ______________________(state your need)

I want_________________________(state request)

The important thing to remember about I messages is that you have to own your feelings and completely avoid using all forms of guilt in your message. Easier said than done. That’s why a lot of parents and other educators say that "I messages" don’t work. They might not be aware of the rest of the formula, though.

It’s called OFNR and it stands for

Observation I saw you take a book from Stuart's hand. It looks like you wanted a turn!

Feelings I'm worried about Stuart because he's crying.

Needs I need you to help fix this because I want Stuart to feel happy and safe


Request I want you to go over to him with me and talk calmly. If you want a turn with the book I'll help you ask him for one.

Here are some examples of turning an ineffective message riddled with shame and guilt into an effective and clear message that's easy for anyone to comply with. The ineffective messages are in red.

I’m sorry you feel that way. So you feel _________because of _________? Oh, I see!

I feel angry because of your disrespectful voice.

I hear from your tone of voice that you might be very angry but I need you to use a calmer, more respectful tone and then we can talk about it.

I hate it when you do that!

I saw you throw your coat on the floor. I want you to hang it up now and every time you come in because I like our living room floor to look neat. (if they still don't pick it up, use a word. "Coat!")

I feel sad when you hit another child.

I see that you hit Bernadette and she’s crying. Let’s go to her together and figure out what to do about that.

Here’s the link to the non-violent communication website and the link to get the book, Non-Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg, if you want to learn more.

By now you probably get that I think language is pretty important in early childhood. Our words matter. They can diffuse or intensify any situation. They can create havoc or they can create peace.

I've spent over 40 years trying to find the right phrases and questions to help young children listen and to like it! Here are my top 3 power phrases.

Be gentle.

Be safe

That was helpful!

Over the years I've discovered a trick for making my words easy for kids to obey. I call it verb first and it goes like this. Take any direct command you give a child and make it 50% more effective by starting with a verb. Why? Because verbs are action words and kids are action-oriented people.

They hear the verb first and that's what they do. Stop! Give me that. Come here. raise your hand. Be gentle. If you make the mistake (easy to do) of starting your sentence with the word "don't", it actually confuses kids a bit and makes it harder for them to comply. That's an old childcare provider trick and I'm an old childcare provider who knows it works!

If you're interested in 18 more power phrases for kids, and the developmental reasons they work, you'll get a free copy of my slideshow, immediately when you sign up for my community of very important providers and parents. Plus you'll get the next 7 lessons in this series on Creating Empathy Through Play delivered automatically to your inbox for free.

Before I leave you today, I want to make one final point. It's about button-pushing. All kids do it and most adults do too. How would you like to become completely immune to it? Do you think it's possible?

In order to explore this, let's think about the feelings you get when your buttons are being pushed. Your anger rises quickly, why?

The first step is to be aware of it. Your buttons are being pushed or you wouldn't feel this way. The second step is to realize that they have found something that makes you feel guilty. The trick is to think rationally about what your buttons actually are.

When a situation comes up, and you realize your buttons are being pushed, it's often your own guilt that's making you angry. Don't let the button pusher use that against you. Tell them you're feeling pressured and you need a minute to decide. Say this to yourself if it helps:

My only goal is inner peace

The only moment is now

My only functions are appreciation and forgiveness

Starting with myself

Awareness is the one key factor that can keep you immune to button-pushing behavior and it works for adult button-pushers too!

Be sure to come back for lesson 4 in which we'll talk about common mistakes people make when setting boundaries that can cause their best efforts to backfire and how to use natural and logical consequences effectively instead!

Nanci J Bradley is an early childhood and family educator, author, teacher, SELF-care facilitator, family aerobics instructor, and an all-around fun-loving person. She believes in the power of sleep, healthy eating, lifelong learning, and most of all, PLAY! She studied early childhood ed at Triton College and received her BS in education in 1986 from NIU. She received her MA in human development from Pacific Oaks College in 2011. She lives and teaches in Madison WI.

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