How to Set Boundaries and Practice Consent

Paige Schildkamp, MPH
Health Educator

The concept of setting boundaries is one that is gaining popularity in every aspect of life, from the professional to the personal. But what are boundaries, really? Why do we need them? What do they look like? And why are they such a challenge?

What are boundaries?

Boundaries are based on a person’s clarity about their values and priorities, which are then used to set limits for the people and activities in their life. The goal is to make sure that the way we spend our time, and the people we spend it with, line up as much as possible with what makes us feel fulfilled. Each person’s boundaries will, and should, look different than others, according to their individual preferences.

Why do we need them?

Healthy boundaries allow us to both say “no,” when we want or need to, but give us space to open up to intimacy and new experiences. They can help prevent us from feeling overworked or overwhelmed and allow us to spend as much time as possible with people or activities that bring us joy. Plus, it’s important to remember that you cannot fully help or enjoy someone else if you are too personally overloaded to do so. Taking care of yourself first can make you more able to fully participate in whatever the exchange/activity is later.

Why are they such a challenge?

When sticking to your boundaries means saying “no” to a request, or even “not right now,” it can be really tough. We are raised to be kind and helpful and generous to others and, innately, many of us want to avoid hurting others’ feelings. To refuse or delay your response to someone’s request may also feel opposite to what we understand as closeness and intimacy. There is also potential fear of being disliked or rejected, as well as guilt over anticipated negative responses. In a workplace environment, there is added pressure related to concerns over job security. All of these factors can make boundary-setting feel like a challenge.

What are some tips to make boundaries more successful?

  • Identify your goals and values. The clearer you are on those, the easier it will be to make sure that your boundaries line up with them, and provide you better support to fall back on when sticking to said boundaries.
  • Take your time to formulate your answers. In the moment, take a step back from the situation and decide whether it’s an emergency or something you can address later, whether it’s something you have to handle completely or if you can ask someone else to assist.
  • Make a plan for how you want to respond and practice it ahead of time. There are times when you may know a boundary-pushing situation may come up, so be prepared.
  • Communicate your boundary clearly. Use straightforward language, confident body language, and fight the need to over-explain. If possible, frame is as a positive way to move the relationship forward, for example “I can help better when I have more time/am in a better frame of mind.”
  • Compromise where appropriate, but always keep your own well-being in the forefront of your mind.
  • Replace “but” with “and” whenever you can: For example, instead of saying “I wish I could help you, but I am really busy right now.” try “I want to help you and I am really busy right now. Could we make time for it tomorrow?” This allows both wanting to help and being super busy to exist at the same time, and puts a more positive spin on communicating it.
  • Be respectful, of course. Don’t blame the other person; own your boundary because you deserve it.

CONSENT: A Very Special Kind of Boundary

Consent is a particular kind of boundary, in which one person gives permission for something to happen or agrees to do something. We often hear this word in the context of sexual consent, which can mean anything from holding hands to kissing to having sex. Situations involving sexual consent can be especially complicated to navigate. Holding strong to your boundaries in other areas of life is important, because it sets the groundwork and builds the confidence and skills needed to stick to personal values and boundaries in more complex situations.

Consent, and all boundaries, must be taught and considered from both perspectives. It is important to be able to clearly communicate whether or not you want to engage in a particular activity. It is equally important to hear and respect someone when they say “no” to something you propose. Being told “no” can be difficult, so practice accepting that response from others as you’d want them to accept it from you.

Are you a parent or someone who works with youth?

Believe it or not, there is a lot you can do to help the youth in your life navigate setting and communicating boundaries so that they will be as prepared as possible when facing a situation that goes against their morals, whether it be cheating on a school assignment, trying an illegal substance, or taking steps in a romantic relationship that they aren’t ready for yet. Here are some ideas:

  • Help your youth set goals and values. Having a clear idea of what matters to them and where they want to be in the future can help guide decision-making now. Brainstorm together and write them down to keep as reference.
  • Be a model. Set and stick with your own boundaries. Seeing you successfully navigate that will help youth learn by example. If there is a situation that was especially hard or didn’t go as well as you would have liked, debrief it with them, so you can both learn from it.
  • Do your own practice. Sometimes these conversations can be tough to start. Talk about these topics with other adults to bounce ideas and wording off each other.
  • Practice with your youth. Present them with situations that may arise and help them work through how they’d respond, so they’re ready if it ever happens.
  • Use teaching moments. If you’re watching a show or movie where someone does a good job holding a boundary or makes a decision that isn’t the safest for themselves, use it to start a conversation about how you and/or your youth might respond differently or learn from what you just saw.
  • Ask lots of questions. Knowing where your youth is coming from, what they’re thinking, can really help guide your conversations and learning moments.

Featured Poe Program: Healthy Relationships 101

Participants: 8th – 12th grades
Program Lengths: 60 minutes

The Poe Center’s Healthy Relationships 101 class is designed for students 8th grade and up to help guide in setting and communicating personal boundaries, as well as identifying warning signs of unhealthy relationships and societal influences that impact relationships. Students have a chance to discuss and reflect through activities, group work and multimedia.

Meets Essential Standards:

Schedule This Program

Featured Resources to Encourage Boundary-Setting

Want more information?

Try out this “setting boundaries” worksheet, to get some practice personally or get the conversation started.

Check out this resource guide, with materials to help adults teach and model boundaries and consent.

You can also check out this guide that breaks down consent and sexual consent, and how to talk about it, by age group.

Here’s a visual guide to help guide how to make these conversations more positive: