9 Minutes of Neuroscience: Setting Boundaries

The following is an excerpt from Episode 5 of the “Raising Girl Shaped Flames” podcast. If you’d like to hear the full episode, you can catch it here and subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasting goodness!

9 Minutes of Neuroscience with Dr Diane Harner
"Setting Boundaries"

Definition of Setting Boundaries:

A simple way of thinking about what boundaries are, is when we ask our girls to decide what is okay for them and what is not okay. What is acceptable behaviour or an acceptable way of of being versus what is not accepteable to them. So from our brain’s perspective, it really is the decision of what is safe for me and what is unsafe for me, what represents a reward and what represents a threat. So there’s a really strong connection between boundaries and social acceptance or rejection. And we know in the teenage years in particular that social acceptance is incredibly important. So we feel more okay about enforcing our boundaries when we feel secure and accepted by the people that we are with. So for instance, you might find that your girls enforce their boundaries more strongly with you than they do with their friends because they feel more safe and secure in their relationship with you.

So what is it, how do some girls have a better or stronger ability for enforcing their boundaries and other girls don’t? 

What happens is that we’re more likely to drop our boundaries and not enforce our boundaries when we feel like there might be some kind of negative judgment or rejection or a lack of acceptance with our social group. We know that it’s very closely linked to self esteem. And in particular where the girls are deriving their self esteem from. So what I mean by that is that you can build self esteem intrinsically, which means that it comes from a place of you knowing what it means to be a good person and noticing when you are a good person, which then builds your self esteem and your sense of value and worth and confidence in yourself.

Now the other way that we can build our self esteem is externally. So what that means is when we seek validation for who we are from external sources like our friendship groups, what it means is that we only know that we are good when somebody else tells us we are good and we know that the girls who are drawing their self esteem externally are more sensitive to that social rejection and judgment from others and will also be the girls who will be more likely to relax their boundaries in those social situations. The wonderful thing about having intrinsic validation is that it’s determined by you. You are the one who decides who is a good person and how you want to be to live your life in alignment with that. So you can always rely on yourself for that self-esteem.

And even loved ones and relationships that we have, they all have the ability to come and go. But so too do the things that put us into positions where we might feel as though we need to compromise our values and our boundaries is that those people in our life, they also can be temporary as well. Friendship groups change, high school ends. So really the only thing that is consistent is you for the important work that should be put into developing yourself and your own beliefs.

So we can’t have this conversation without talking about our good friend dopamine. So we know that dopamine is involved in the anticipation or prediction of reward. And there is nothing more rewarding to the human brain than a positive social interaction. So when we are talking with somebody, we predict that it will be a positive interaction and we look forward to the dopamine that we get as a result of having that interaction. But where things go a little bit awry is when the response or the social interaction that we have doesn’t go as we predicted it. So when we predict a positive social interaction, but for one or another reason we have a negative social interaction instead, it’s what’s called a social prediction era. And that feels really horrible to the brain because our brain loves to be able to predict everything. And when we don’t predict properly, it goes, hang on a minute, that wasn’t right. And also we don’t get any dopamine. So then what happens is the next time we’re having a social interaction and somebody offers a cigarette, we remember the last time we enforced our boundaries around cigarettes and that it didn’t go well. So your brain goes, you know what? That didn’t work out last time, let’s just back off on that. Accept the cigarette. Because if we do that, there’s going to be a positive social interaction and we’ll get that shot of dopamine.


If we have our self esteem driven intrinsically where we know that even if we enforce our boundary and there’s a negative response that we are still a good person, we are going to be more likely to enforce that boundary. And you know, we learn from these experiences as well. So as much as we learned from the negative experience, from setting boundaries, we also learned from the positive experience of setting boundaries. So if we set a boundary and then it works out, we remember that as well. So this is why it’s really important to give your daughter the opportunity for successfully enforcing boundaries whenever she can and you know, celebrate that with her.

How can parents help their daughter identify and establish these boundaries?And then how can they help them enforce them in a really supportive way?

The first thing is to open up that conversation and explore with your daughter about what is okay for her and what is not okay for her. And one thing that I did with my eldest child was we ran scenarios. We said, you know, pretend that we are in this situation, what would you do? And by getting them to think through how things might go and what their response might be and, and what the positive and negative outcomes of that might be. It’s like your practicing for the game. So when they’re in that situation, they won’t have to come up with their response on the spot. It will have been well thought through and they’ll be more prepared for that. The second thing is really focusing on building that intrinsic self esteem, helping them to notice when they do behaviours and when they act in a way that is in alignment with what they believe is good rather than what somebody else believes is good.

Once you’ve identified those boundaries, it is great to be able to allow your daughter to test enforcing those boundaries.And it can be something very, very simple. So for my daughter, she has a boundary around eating steamed zucchini. She will not do it. Or even though she will eat zucchini in all its other forms, so she refuses to, she says, no, I’m not going to eat that. I questioned her about why, because I want her to be thoughtful about it, not just to set a boundary for the sake of setting it. She explained to me why, that she doesn’t like the texture, the wife fields and that’s why she doesn’t want to eat it. And as a result, I respect that. I understand why you have that boundary and thank you for putting that in place. And the last one is when they tell you stories of times where they have enforced a boundary, even when there has been a negative outcome, celebrate the fact that they did it and then co-regulate with them through the negative feelings they’re having, if there are any, as a result of enforcing that boundary.

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