Your Child’s Pain Should Not Control Your Actions

Boundaries with KidsBoundaries with kids begins with parents having good boundaries of their own. Purposeful parents stay in control of themselves. If your child is controlling your decisions by protesting your boundaries, you are no longer parenting with purpose.

Terri was having problems with her thirteen-year-old son Josh not doing his homework. I helped her come up with a plan that would require Josh to set aside a certain time each night to do homework. During this hour Josh had to be in his study place with nothing else but his work, and he was not to do anything else but study. Terri had no control over whether or not Josh actually chose to study during that time. What she could control was that he do nothing else during that time but sit with his homework.

When I saw her the next time, Terri looked sheepish. She had not lived up to her end of the plan. “What happened?” I asked. “Well, we were all set, and then he got invited to go to a baseball game with his friend. I said no, that his hour was not up yet. But he got so upset, I could not talk him out of it. He seemed so mad and sad.”

“So,” I said, “that’s what he’s supposed to do, remember? He hates discipline. So what did you do next?”

“Well, I could see that this requirement was just making him too sad, and I could not stand it. So I let him go.” (Clue number one that a child will not develop self-control is when the parent does not have self-control in enforcing the rules.)

“What happened the next night?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“He got upset again. It was a similar situation. He had an opportunity that would have been very sad to miss.”

“So let me get this straight. The way you are deciding what is right or not is by how he feels when he is required to do something. If he is upset, then you think it is the wrong thing to do. Is that right?”

“I haven’t thought about it that way, but I guess you’re right. I just can’t stand for him to be sad.”

“Then you have got to come to grips with a few important truths. One, your values are being set by the emotional reactions of an immature thirteen-year-old. Your value system’s highest guiding principle is whether or not Josh is upset. Two, you don’t value one of the most important aspects of child rearing: Frustration is a key ingredient to growth. The child who is never frustrated never develops frustration tolerance. Three, you are teaching him that he is entitled to always be happy and that all he has to do to get others to do what he wants is to cry about it. Are these really your values?”


Click to Tweet: An important rule for setting boundaries with kids: A child’s protest does not define reality, or right from wrong.


She grew silent and began to realize what she was doing. To change, she had to commit to an important rule for setting boundaries with kids: A child’s protest does not define reality, or right from wrong. Just because your child is in pain does not mean that something bad is happening. Something good may be occurring, such as his coming to grips with reality for the first time. And this encounter with reality is never a happy experience. But if you can empathize with the pain and hold on to the limit, your child will internalize the limit and ultimately get over the protest.

This is a law of the universe. Frustration and painful moments of discipline help a child learn to delay gratification, one of the most important character traits a person can have. If you are able to hold the limit and empathize with the pain, then character will develop. But if you don’t, you will have the same battle tomorrow. If you rescue your children from their anger at your boundary, you can plan on more anger at later limits. Remember, their protest or pain does not determine what is good.


Learn how to instill the kind of character in your children that will lead to a balanced, productive, and fulfilling life in Boundaries with Kids.


  1. Candy says

    This resonates in my life as an adult because during times of trial and testing I complain to my heavenly Father of how much pain I’m in and I want to do exactly the opposite of what he has been telling me. I received comfort from your article and I realize that something painful is happening for this time period but already I see something good coming out of it that has helped me grip the reality of growing and changing and becoming more Christlike. I want to internalize and learn the lesson but at times the question to God remains “why this way?” Yet I know that his ways are higher and I trust in his faithfulness. Thank you so much for your article, I know it will stay with me for sometime.

  2. Jason Kendrick says

    Reading this information is very helpful, and for the most part I agree. However, there are some very basic needs that must be met in any familial environment that will lead to best outcome for healthy boundaries.

    For example, if there is fear about not having a place to live or a place to work going on in the parent/s obviously the expectations would be adjusted accordingly. I would think the child/children may act out due to not knowing what is next. Should we reprimand the children in those situations?

    What about abusive situations where drug/alcohol abuse is going on??? What expectations are realistic then???

    Is this only workable in Christian homes where everything is Leave it to Beaver??

    • Michelle says

      Jason, the way I see it, there is no reprimand needed here. The parent can stay firm and kind, holding the boundary and still being empathetic to the child’s feelings of frustration and disappointment. For example “Yes, son, I can see how sad you are to miss the baseball game. However, we agreed that this would be your homework time.” An option for the future may be that son plans to do his homework hour earlier–like when he first gets home–so that he might be free to go to an event in the evening. Your example of a family under financial (or other) stress calls for lots of empathy for the child’s feelings, AND keeping solid boundaries will help every one in the family fell more secure.

  3. Kayla says

    These boundaries work great with my son, whom has behavior disabilities and needs consistency as well.
    But my 13 year old daughter is very much different, I am dealing with her self harming herself. We have already done hospitalization and current therapy. She suffers from severe depression and anxiety due to bullying at school.
    If I use these boundaries with her and she becomes angry or upset, then we are dealing with her possibly harming herself. Which has been cutting for the most part.
    I feel my fear of following through with these boundaries for her are a legit fear.
    I would really appreciate any input on this particular situation. Thank you

    • says

      Hi Kayla. I also have a teen age daughter who was bullied in middle school and resorted to cutting herself. It has been a challenging 2 + years since then. I have found that while we still have to set boundaries, I also have to be willing to be flexible and work situations out with her, and allow her to make decisions and have some control over her decisions; she has to deal with her consequences and learn from them, too! God is a God of grace and mercy, and I always have to go to Him in prayer and common sense to decide what is best for her in the long run. I am very watchful, but she does still need to rise up to do what is expected of her, and I endeavor to keep teaching her to control her thinking and emotions, by sharing scripture and principles with her, so she doesn’t give in to them or bad habits.
      I hope this helps, you are not alone. God is your Father and He will give you the wisdom to parent her and get her through this.

  4. Sharon says

    Many times heavy homework takes a long time with advance classes. I just went to library after band practice and studied there. I rarely got out to do much fun and still do not after getting a masters degree and caring for parents. There should be some allowance for a little fun but many kids do not have the chance with the demands colleges ask of them.

    Also, a doctor told be many kids are not getting out of bed to go to school. It is not because they do not want to but they have Potsural orthostatic tachycardia which is invisible to the eye. Heart rate goes from 80-140 when getting up. My dr sent one student home from college and got better when he rode horses to help his calf muscles got bigger and it helped. Can be related to soft tissue disease. Also, I spoke with one allergy nurse who said so many parents come in when their kids will not eat everything on their plate and they are allergic to the food. It is a delicate balance I believe enforcing the rules yet hearing the child to see if it could be a legimate concern and answer to it. You also need to empower them to stand up and question when something is may not be right
    or ask for second opinions or question a supervisor when they ask you to do something that is wrong or be willing to leave a job when it is a toxic place said by the superior with no improvement in years. I did this when I was in my 20s and in college I did not think dr was right. Got second opinion and got healed. You need to teach them to be independent thinkers and know their limits even if job is pushing them to for long period of time.

  5. abbie says

    Isn’t the parent who allows their boundaries to be shifted by the child’s mood teaching them to manipulate others according to their own whim? Won’t that lead to some kind of emotional blackmail??

  6. Brian says

    When a child is in pain and you’re the one putting them there, something bad IS happening. The bad thing happening is the lack of empathy. If we’re teaching our children to hate the things they’re responsible for doing, that’s not being effective as a parent/guardian.

    We need to be better people ourselves and to learn that all things must BALANCE. It’s not just about us in our state of frailty protecting ourselves from literally every other person around us, assuming that they’re intending to control us in some way. All everyone needs is a little empathy and the ability and willingness to communicate their truth openly in the moment without any kind of fear.

    I understand there is a lot of context that is not being disclosed here so everyone including and especially myself should keep an open mind. We don’t know if that mother spent the last 13 years catering to her son and now he’s spoiled or if that mother is unknowingly traumatizing the boy with what the boy perceives as negligence and abandonment and that she never helps him do anything, always expects the most of him and punishes any instance of dissent or ‘back talk’ when he attempts to communicate about the subject in an overly emotional tone of voice he learned from her, even if that mother herself sees it as simply having the boy set aside an hour without any other distraction simply to do homework and is simply just very busy and just perceives him as a difficult child.

    Do you see what I mean? I think this subject of boundaries is better left to full grown adults who can fend for themselves. I think when the subject is of a child we’re raising, we’re the ones in power there and the dynamic needs to be more empathetic and caring if it is going to go well in the long term. Your ‘discipline’ can work in the short term, but the kids ultimately will grow to resent you for your cruelty and they’ll find ways to rebel or get even or could develop some unhealthy habits or look for love in the wrong places because of it. This is a dangerous subject and I feel this article has dangerous advice. This subject needs to be handled on a more specific case by case basis and the way everyone involved feels DOES need to matter.

      • Brian says

        I just want to make clear at no point in the article was empathy mentioned as any relevant concern.The importance of its disregard and the pain and emotional abandonment suggested in its place was the primary encouragement of the article. I’m solely responding to the wording in the article and the ideas they suggest.

        Obviously kids do need boundaries but they need them in a different less emotionally distant manner. The emotional health of children has a lot to do with whether or not they grow into constructive citizens or tragically as some kind of criminal:
        Isn’t it interesting how her child’s actions are the fault of anything else but her? It was her son’s mental health which was the problem she says. I wonder who helps shape that and when? There’s a reason when underage minors misbehave the parents are liable.

        In America, a parent can parent however they want. Even Reasonable Corporal punishment is acceptable here, physical attack, which I find abhorrent. The parents parent how they parent but society is at the effect of their parenting; that’s why parents are liable for their children’s behavior. The only thing parents don’t directly control are their children’s collective attitudes about them and ironically studies have shown those attitudes have everything to do with how compliant a child is inclined to be.

        The only way this article can be right is if it means that in our expression of discipline, it also encourages the importance of understanding what your child is feeling and why and actually caring that they feel that way, even if we were to ultimately have to stand firm on our stance. In a healthy authority/pupil dynamic, feedback should matter and compromise should be met often, ideally. Why? Let me ask this:

        Would you be happy in a dictatorship? Aren’t you happy that you live in a Democratic Republic and that your vote matters? It’s the same concept. The people in charge always have the power. What makes the culture livable and happy is that those in power hear our needs and act in response to our concerns, isn’t that so?

        Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen, ED.D., and Kelly Gfroerer,, Ph.D. is a better example of empathetic discipline which doesn’t neglect details that might inadvertently cause the next mass shooter, which is what I honestly feel is possible in the worst case given what I read in your article. I would love to see the outcome of their findings and results about discipline pitted against your own in a debate such as Intelligence Squared and to see how people vote in terms of with whom they agree more.

        • Brian says

          Because one sentence hardly makes empathy a relevant concern. Their pain and importance of not being taken advantage of was the focus. It’s about the parent embracing their power over the emotional health of the child.

          What matters is that parents have an effective influence in a generally mutually enjoyable context, not dictatorial control.

    • RT says

      1st of all: YOU did NOT put your child in the painful situation. They need to own up to their circumstances. We need to empower our kids to overcome their failings or struggles. We must be loving, sympathic but more importantly empathetic. Let them know you understand & hurt when they hurt.

  7. Brenda S says

    Dr. Townsend, I need help! I am totally this mom. I have a busy work schedule most of the year, & because of that, I don’t properly monitor my kids behavior with regard to eating habits, screen time, game time, etc. I am really starting to feel it now, because of their protests & bad eating habits. It makes me angry, but I regularly give in because I just don’t have the energy to deal with their arguments, & I don’t have the creativity to come up with a good plan for boundaries, esp. with screen time, friend time, tidy time, homework time. I feel like a mess. I love my kids, but I am SO inconsistent. In some areas, I feel like I am failing to give my kids the strong, Christian, disciplined foundation they need to face life in the future. Do you really think just reading the “Boundaries for kids” book will be the only thing I’ll need? I’ll try that, but if you have any other suggestions, I’m all ears!

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