Friends, I have been hearing from a lot of you recently via email and many of you are struggling with boundaries in your lives. I am not a counselor, and I am not a psychologist, but I wanted to tell you a few things I have learned about boundaries along the way in the experience of my life and I hope it will be helpful to you. I encourage you if you are having challenges with this to go and talk to a qualified counselor. This can be so helpful in getting your life, your family and your parenting going the way you want it to! What a wonderful way to start the New Year!
Boundaries, to me, are a skill that many of us have to learn. Perhaps our ability to set boundaries was damaged in childhood or early adulthood. Perhaps we are not even sure what a boundary is or why we would want boundaries. Or perhaps we have too many boundaries and have erected relentless walls in order to keep the world out.
Yet, healthy boundaries are so necessary. A boundary is something we set in order to separate ourselves from other people; it tells us how far a person can go with us and how far we can go with another person. It keeps us from becoming enmeshed with another person: enmeshment is a complete state of feeling so empathetically with that person that we take on the other person’s feelings, responsibilities,challenges and problems completely and wholly as our own. As parents, we are separate from our children; we are different people. And, boundaries not only separate us from our children, but it also shows how we are linked together in familial roles. We are linked together, but we are not the same. We are the adult. The relationship is not an equal one. We have more experience and more guidance, more logic and reasoning to bring to any situation. We also have a duty to honor the developmental stage of our child and we can do this with boundaries.
Relationships without boundaries cause dependency and stunted emotional growth for both ourselves and the other party involved. If we have too many boundaries, no one can get close to us at all and we end up isolated and alone. With good boundaries, we learn to develop an appropriate sense of roles amongst family members and the other people in our lives. We learn to respect ourselves and others. We can trust and listen not only to ourselves, but to others.
Specifically in parenting, boundaries allow children to feel safe and secure. Boundaries helps children learn self-control and how to function with people outside of their immediate family. Parents who set good boundaries for themselves and for their children are modeling for the children, how, in turn, to set emotional and physical boundaries for themselves. If we can be calm as a child tests out what the boundary and line in the sand actually is, then we are modeling for our child how to handle this in their own lives. We help them learn how to function in the world.
For parents who have trouble setting any boundaries for their children, out of “respect” for the child, I often will ask the parent:
Would you let someone in and start hitting your child?
Would you let someone come in and scream at your child?
Would you want someone to constantly interrupt your child when they speak?
Would you want someone to stand on your dining room table and yell at your children whilst they ate?
Would you want someone to get in your child’s face and demand that your child immediately stop what they are doing and go do something they requested? This minute, this very minute…and scream until this happened?
Would you want a person to come into your home and jump all over your counters, your furniture, stand on your computer, etc?
Okay, if the answer is no, of course not…then why are you letting your children do this to you and your home ? This seems common sense, but yet so many parents get hung up in treating their children with respect that they are missing basic boundaries for their children to have in treating them. If we have no expectations, then we offer nothing for a child to rise up and meet. It doesn’t mean that a tiny, tiny three year old isn’t going to yell at the dinner table, but it does mean that offering a boundary on this (“we use our inside voice at the table”) and helping our child means that they will eventually get it. It also means that you will not be starting from scratch with a seven or nine year old…Friends, you can do this. Setting boundaries is not mean; it is how we live together in peace. It is how all needs of all members of the family are met, not just the needs of one child.
If boundaries seem difficult and foreign to you,and the above examples don’t seem too bad to you in terms of your own children…. then again, I really think counseling could help you sort this out.
Love and connection is what every child needs…along with boundaries. Here is a post ,with some very specific examples by age, of how to hold authority in a good and loving way in your home: https://theparentingpassageway.com/2012/06/07/the-rant-of-the-day-parenting-with-boundaries/ and here is a whole page of boundary posts from the search engine on this blog: https://theparentingpassageway.com/?s=boundaries
Are you helping your children grow up into being kind, compassionate, flexible, adjusted children who can step into life and not have everything revolve around their needs? Boundaries are your friend.
Thank you so so so much for this post Carrie. It resonates with me on every level. I am a very big believer that boundaries are a foundation for building a healthy life in children, in the words of my spiritual teacher, “outer constriction will lead to inner expansion”. I also think that boundaries go hand in hand with discipline particularly with acceptability of behaviour, and ultimatly this forms the basis of their relationship with God, their family, their friends etc… However, I feel like a lone voice in the wilderness, with the vast majority of my friends raising the children with little or no boundaries and thus often feeling like a “strict” mother!! But as you say our children need us to hold them together and guide them and that can only be done through having boundaries. So I thank you for your wise words. The one final thing that I would say about myself personally is that I know that I can sometimes create boundaries to the extent of being overly controlling and thereafter becoming uptight when something doesn’t happen the way I think it should. I know that this is my personal issue which I must deal with but I would be grateful if you could let me know if you have any ideas about how I can avoid reflecting this on my children. Warmest greetings, Bara
It takes time to balance boundaries, those lines between what boundaries really need to be drawn in the sand and what really can be let go…I think in general if you feel like you are holding too tightly onto some things, is it because there are other things for you that need attention? Your health, your sleep, some time alone? Sometimes when our own needs are met we can feel happy in setting boundaries on the big things and letting the small things be met with a great sense of humor. 🙂
Thank you. Great post; great examples. My oldest child, 5, needs boundaries enfourced so often that I often wonder if her difficulties are caused by my mistakes. My self esteem is not very high; and though Ive never verbally exhibited that to her, I’m afraid it may have made me not able to believe I was an authority. I recall many many “time outs” for misbehavior when she was younger, before I learned there was another, a better way.
Then sometimes I wonder if she is just challenging and part of being this child’s parent means frequent boundary setting (which I find gets me in an unpleasant state; almost like being firm means I have to actually become upset with the behavior I am setting a boundary on). I do recall that when she was an infant I did not even offer or show any boundaries because I thought she wasn’t capable. With my third child I have taught him gentle touches and he’s just 1, so now I see a young child can benefit by the boundary simply being offered.
Your post has made me realize that my empathy for her may be getting in my way! I understood guilt played that kind of role, but not empathy! This is a new idea for me. I hope being aware of it will help me. – another thing that really has always confused me is this: when she exhibits behavior I myself have exhibited (I.e. loss of patience, anger, negativity) I feel like a hipocret enforcing boundaries there.
Will read the other posts you suggested.
I don’t know if this helps any, but five can just be a very challenging age with girls…It may be less about the frequency of boundary setting and just more of a need to look at outside time, rhythms of sleep and meals, and also to know most children are really ramped up around the holidays!
Keep believing in yourself as a loving, kind and wonderful leader for your children. Your boundaries make them feel secure. Your compassion is necessary, your empathy to a point, but not so as to wallow with them in their feeling of the moment, but to help lift them up and give them wings as they venture out into a small and trusted community at this tiny age.
Many blessings, you are doing a great job!
I wanted to add some personal experience: As a child of divorced parents, I had my time split between two households. My mother’s household was quite simply a sanctuary – calm and happy with appropriate expectations for a child. I know my father loved/loves me, but his household was chaotic and more often than not was filled with guilt trips, anger and upheaval. It took me until high school to finally learn how to put up an appropriate boundary – my father’s emotions did not need to have such a strong influence on mine (which mainly manifested in my feeling guilt that I preferred my mother’s calm household to my father’s chaotic one.) I’m 26 years old now and it still takes considerable effort for me to interact with my father while maintaining my sense of self as my own individual. Sadly, over the years this had led to less personal contact (email instead of face to face visits or much shorter structured visits like dinner out when I do see him.) Appropriate boundaries are so important. Learn to use them for your own happiness as well as your children’s.
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I found this very thought-provoking.
After reading this I began thinking of the families I grew up with who were strict with boundaries, and those who were not, and how their children turned out.
Two families I thought of were definitely “free-spirit” type families. The first one was a couple with two wild boys. They have both grown up to have addiction and drug issues. The oldest has overcome that, and is now in the Coast Guard and doesn’t mind shooting people occasionally. The younger has been in and out of jail for violence and drugs. Their mother told me she blames herself and the lack of boundaries when they were growing up. BUT the second family’s children, who were so awful to have over because they would break our toys and even killed our pet fish and their mother would never say no, ever–and didn’t even let us tell her kids no–they have turned out to be the nicest, most polite teenagers who confident and doing great in college now. I was so surprised to see them again after many years–I would never have imagined that they would turn out so well.
On the other hand, I know two families that stand out in my mind for strict boundaries–the first family had two girls who have grown up to be really selfish and rude adults that are hard to be around. The other family was my husband’s family, and I think he turned out pretty good!
The only similar thing between the two families of the unfortunate children is that their parents got divorced. I thought perhaps that could explain it, since limit-setting and boundaries don’t in these cases seem to really guarantee anything. Is it better to have a stable family rather than a boundary-setting parenting style?
But then I remembered my mother’s friend who was divorced and never set any boundaries–no bed time, nap time, etc. Her kid did whatever she wanted. Her daughter is now a very talented actress/singer who is happily married and very successfully and confidently living her ambitions. On the other hand, a very Christian family who were very, very strict about family values had their children turn out to be the most dishonest and amoral people I’ve ever met!
And also, I think so often “different boundaries” are confused with “no boundaries.”
I discovered that about a year ago when I was letting my children play in a clump of palmettos at the local park. It was the only “nature” in sight, and I was marveling at how they were so naturally attracted to it when another mother came over and began yelling at them. The problem was, my children having fun in the palmettos made her kid want to ditch the plastic play equipment and play in the bushes, too. I told her to stop yelling at my children, and she yelled at me that I didn’t set boundaries for them. It clicked for me when I later saw her feeding her child chemical-and-trans-fat-laden cookies out of a package. I would never let MY kids eat vending machine cookies!!! That is a very strict boundary for us.
i love your observations and you will see more writing about this issue for the meantime. Maybe, too, looking at such things as did these families have fun together, did the parents and children seem connected, will also provide clues…In the end, as we all know, there are no guarantees. Our children also come to us and into the world and we cannot do it all for them. We can try to be the balancer, we can try to do the things that we think we help them grow up into adults who will be wonderful leaders in the their own homes, wonderful and meaningful members of society, but there are no guarantees..
Uh oh I feel a post coming on..
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