Boundaries are talked about constantly within the counseling community as well as self-help books. So what are boundaries and why are they important? What do they look like in a family setting?
What are Boundaries?
Personal Boundaries can be defined as:
This definition can be expanded from an individual case to a family setting. For the family it would be something along these lines: boundaries are guidelines/rules or limits that parents create to identify and implement reasonable, safe and permissible ways for others to behave toward the parents and/or the family. And that those who are a part of the family know what will happen when someone crosses those limits.
Boundaries/Rules are set up to protect and provide a safe environment for each person within the family. Boundaries can also help both parents and their kids survive the teenage years and move to adulthood in a healthy manner.
Why are Boundaries Important?
The question really should be, “what does it look like when there are no boundaries?” Shouldn’t we allow our teens to have freedom and to learn from their own mistakes? Consider what message your kids are receiving – not that you’re being cool or their friend, but that you don’t care what they do. When you give the impression that it’s fine for them do whatever they want when they want, you lose any say or influence over their life. From their perspective, they have the right to make their own decisions and you shouldn’t be interfering in their life.
When you give them what you consider grace, it’s often interpreted by them as weakness. Whatever happens after that, you are coming from a place of weakness not strength or grace. In other words, the leaway that you gave your child in the past will end up being used against you later.
Teenagers need structure. They need to know where the limits are. Setting boundaries helps to create that structure and set those limits. As we mentioned in our previous blog, the Dangers of Social Media, the purpose of boundaries is not to be restrictive or imply that you don’t trust them. You are setting boundaries to help protect them and make sure that they are successful in all areas of their life.
What Do Boundaries Look Like Within a Family?
Boundaries will vary within each family. What is important for some families may not be for others and vice versa. The important thing is that parents agree on what the limits are as much as possible before something happens. Having agreement beforehand also helps everyone in the family to know what the repercussions are for going past those limits. A good way to decide whether or not a boundary needs to be set is to consider if the situation meets one of the following criteria:
- Necessity – The boundary is necessary for the child to be successful in an area of their life.
Example: “You need to be at school on time in order to pass your classes.”
- Protection – The boundary is important for the child’s safety.
Example: “Your curfew is at [fill-in-the-blank] because the chances of something bad happening to you increase if you are out after this time.”
- Edification – The boundary will encourage the child to grow or mature.
Example: “You can only watch [fill-in-the-blank] television because it is good for you to spend some time exercising or reading.”
It is very important that you never set boundaries simply for the reason that you want to show your kids that you have power over them. The attitude that thinks, “I’ll show them who the boss is,” is not going to help the situation. This is the worst reason to make a rule. It is almost guaranteed to cause resistance and resentment that will hurt your relationship with your child.
Why Are Boundaries Hard to Set and Follow Through With?
If boundaries are such good and healthy things, why is it that we have such a hard time setting them? What are some of the reasons that we don’t set boundaries? Here are some responses from actual parents:
- There is a fear of butting heads with their children
- When boundaries are set a power struggle ensues
- Hostility develops between parents and their children
- Boundary setting tends to put strain on the relationship
- Fear of hostility – what will the child do?
- Fear of not being liked by the child
- Setting boundaries can provide an added level of anxiety in the parents.
All of these are very real and valid concerns and fears, especially as many of the reasons given are founded on past interactions. Fear is very powerful when dealing with a family member whom you love and care for so much.
“Boundaries are a practical way of providing a safe haven in a pretty sick and crazy world.”
Teens oftentimes see the boundaries as confining and/or just a bunch of rules they have to follow without fully understanding the reason behind them.
Teens also don’t always appreciate or understand that boundaries are set up to help them, not just ruin their fun. In an ideal world you’d sit and discuss as a family what are reasonable limits and consequences for not sticking to the boundaries. Boundaries are a practical way of providing a safe haven in a pretty sick and crazy world.
Practical Ways to Set Boundaries
So setting boundaries is a good idea, right? Right. Here are some suggestions to take into a conversation about something you’re concerned about. These steps keep much of the emotion out and maintain a calm and even keel.
- Expect the worst – be prepared for your child to resist
- Come in with a plan – if they do this then this is what I’m going to do
- If Step 1 and 2 don’t work, and things are getting tense or hostile, end the conversation and reevaluate – don’t drag out the conversation if it’s heading in the wrong direction. It isn’t going to help anyone
- After looking at what went wrong, make the necessary changes and try again
If you’ve already had a conversation with your teen and the limit has already been set, don’t keep revisiting it. If your child keeps bringing it up, they are now trying to manipulate and get you to change your answer.
But keep in mind, there is nothing wrong with relaxing a boundary if your child has earned it. After doing well over a period of time, it can be very encouraging to reward them for their progress. This way, your child understands that their extra freedom is a result of earning your trust. Earning extra privileges will also cause them to appreciate it more, and not feel so entitled to it.
How to Respond to Hostile Reactions
Always be calm in responding. Which, of course, is easier said than done. It’s so hard to take the emotion out of a conversation when they know how to get under your skin. To make things more manageable here are some possible replies that are gracious and keep the relationship intact. Of course, make them your own so they fit how you usually speak:
- “That would make me really sad if you did that, but I can’t control what you do and you’re not going to extort me by threatening to do x. If I give in to you, where does that put our relationship?”
- “You are putting me in a hostile situation where I am being forced to be the bad guy.”
Again, end the conversation if things are getting out of control. If you don’t, you escalate them. This can allow the child to escalate and control you and ruin your day. If your child brings something up that you are not prepared for, you can say “I’m not comfortable with that right now.” Then set a time to talk – this way you are respecting them and still setting a boundary. It will also give you time to process what they brought up. This will help you to not respond emotionally.
Have a fair discussion. Truly listen to what they are telling you. Don’t drag it out – if you do, you’re setting yourself up for failure. All of this only applies to maintaining control and not when things are out of control. If you sense the conversation is spiraling out of control, suggest taking a break and finishing the conversation later.
Setting Boundaries will Make Life Easier
Earlier we talked about some of the fears that parents have when setting boundaries with their kids. And those fears are valid. Taking that initial step to set the boundaries can be difficult. But in the long-run, having good boundaries will reduce the arguments and conflicts that you have with your kids. Your child will know exactly where the line is and what the consequences will be if they cross it.
If you know how to set boundaries and enforce them correctly, there will be order in your home; you can avoid making decisions based on your emotions; and it will protect your children from getting into negative situations. In short, if you know how to make and manage your boundaries, you can be a much more consistent and loving parent than you could ever be without them.