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Boundary Setting and Non-Violent Communication

Updated: Nov 18, 2023

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.

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. But honestly, it's taken me years to figure that out completely and I'm still working on it! Here's what we'll talk about 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 and providers.

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.

I noticed _____________________ (state observation without judgment)

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, quieter voice and then I'd like to 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!", wait and repeat until they say or do something about it.

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.

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 like it! Here are my top 3 power phrases.

Be gentle.

Be safe.

That was helpful!

These phrases actually work to prevent behavior issues. Children learn by repetition so use them as often as you can before there's a problem.

If you want more information on boundary setting, check out common mistakes people make when setting boundaries and teaching empathy that can cause their best efforts to backfire and how to use natural and logical consequences effectively instead!

If you want more information on the All Together Now! course, click on the poster above!

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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