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Written by Susan H. Christiansen and Jess Tyler

This article is part of a series on family boundaries. Click Setting Healthy Boundaries to Create Strong Family Relationships (Part 2)” for the next article.

People who struggle with maintaining appropriate boundaries tend to think that holding people accountable for their choices and behavior is mean. It isn’t. 

One way to think of a boundary is a painted line with you on one side and everyone else on the other side. The white line is a boundary where you end and others begin.

Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend describe boundaries as the fence around our personal yards. The fence is where we end and others begin. However, we have a gate in the yard through which we can invite others in. We can also choose to keep the gate closed and locked to keep people out. 

It’s important to learn that behaviors and choices have consequences. Parents place limits (boundaries) on children’s behaviors. When children choose behavior, they also choose the consequences. There is often a great deal of stress in the home because parents either don’t set limits on their children or don’t enforce the consequences. A fantastic book about setting limits with natural consequences is Love and Logic by Foster Cline and Jim Fay.

Parents often nag and whine about their children (I’m guilty of this) instead of letting them deal with the natural consequences of their choices. 

It’s better to let children experience pain while in our care than after they leave home and make bigger mistakes and suffer greater consequences (life-or-death situations).

What Does “Boundary” Mean?

Healthy boundaries or the lack of boundaries affect each family member every day. Often, when we are irritated, angry, or sad, it is in response to a boundary issue.

In their book, Boundaries, Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend define a problem with boundaries as:

“Any confusion of responsibility and ownership in our lives is a problem of boundaries. Just as homeowners set physical property lines around their land, we need to set mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual boundaries for our lives to help us distinguish what is our responsibility and what isn’t.”

Boundaries are necessary for health and well-being, personally and within our family unit. Parents should be careful not to lean towards one extreme or the other, complete control or total abandonment of responsibility. In fact, our boundaries may flex and change according to circumstance and our life experience.

Let’s look at two examples of boundaries in action:

A young girl standing in her messy room.

Example #1 A 6-year old daughter

#1     Picture a young child who is burdened with the task of cleaning her room. As a young 6-year old, she may accept the responsibility and be willing to clean her room, but she doesn’t yet have the ability to create and execute a plan for cleaning her room.

Example #2 A 17-year old teenage son

#2     On the other hand, picture a teenager who is a senior in high school. He will be graduating in about six months. He spends most of his time playing video games and doing the bare minimum required to pass his school classes.

His mother tries to motivate and encourage him, even going so far as to create a plan for him to follow as he completes high school and continues with college (this is the third time his mother has tried this strategy to no avail).

His mother alternates between (1) feeling loving and encouraging and (2) angry and irritated that he won’t take more initiative, especially because she is trying to be a good mother.

Analysis of our examples:

In example #1, the responsibility of cleaning her room is too great for her to do alone. Her parents or older siblings need to help her with this personal boundary assignment. As she grows older, more of the responsibility for organizing and cleaning will fall to her alone.

Example #2 clearly shows both the mother and son have problems with boundaries. The son doesn’t feel he has a problem because his mother is taking on all the stress and doing all the work to “fix” the problem while he enjoys all the benefits of being a member of the family. The mother is overwhelmed and making herself sick with stress because she can’t make her son do what she thinks he should.

Types of Boundaries

There are various states of boundaries within a family measured by two primary characteristics: permeability and flexibility. Permeability refers to the degree of openness of the boundary to allowing outside influences through. Flexibility refers to the degree of change that is allowed. The following four boundaries are high-level boundaries we encounter as families.

Societal Boundaries

Families decide how much of an outside influence to allow into homes.  Permeability refers to how much the family works to keep outside influences at bay while allowing enough openness to give and receive needed goods and services from the community. This boundary helps to protect children, establish family traditions, and instill values.

Personal Boundaries

Personal boundaries are important pieces of childhood development. Children need to understand that they are separate from others and they have possessions that belong to them.

 Shared family property – like computers or the car – have a looser, more permeable boundary. They are shared and the rules governing use are flexible (they can be changed). Toothbrushes, pillows, and personal items in bedrooms have less flexible boundaries. Another example of personal boundaries is the separation between the public space and private space in our homes.

Relationship Boundaries

Boundaries also exist between different family members. The parents monitor and determine the level of social interaction occurring within the family. How much together time does the family experience? How much alone time is permitted? Are family members satisfied with the arrangement?

Are there procedures in place for family members to talk about what is going well, what needs to change, and what they would like to improve. Children may act out trying to bring the family dynamics back into a recognized balance.

Media Boundaries

nMedia includes outside influences such as social media, movies, TV, video games, books, and podcasts. These influences are wide-ranging in topics and appropriateness for different family members. Many families establish boundaries around media in three groupings according to age and maturity:

1) boundaries and rules – Parents should have family rules for computer use, social media, and any media use. There will be stress and tension around these house rules. Kids often do not have the experience, wisdom, or maturity to choose correctly.

Explain the reasons for the media rules with your kids. Be willing to listen to their points of view, but remember that you are not their friends, you are their parent and have an obligation to raise them and protect them. Parents and children may negotiate social media boundaries because older children are often more familiar with and teach parents how to use technology and social media.

2) monitoring – Parents can monitor technology use physically by having children in the same room or virtually through a surveillance program.  These programs can monitor when your children are on their devices, what websites they go to, how much time they spend at each website, and block inappropriate websites and purchases. One study published in Frontiers in Psychology noted:

Parents also followed their children on social media accounts, so that they could monitor what they were posting online. Parents referred to such strategies as a way of unobtrusively ensuring the physical and emotional safety of their children when interacting online.

Parents can also be notified if their children type in selected words, such as self-harm descriptions or threatening language. We recently wrote an article titled “Determine What Teen Slang Is and Why Your Teen Uses It” with more information.

3) communication and education – Every parent should communicate with their child to explain the proper use of the internet. Potential dangers such as stranger danger, cyber-bullying, pornography, and a lifetime digital footprint should be talked about several times. Talk about internet use in different ways and create or highlight examples of positive and negative use. 

Learning Boundary Skills

Learning to set boundaries is a skill. That means that it must be learned and practiced. Don’t feel bad if you don’t understand what boundaries are or how to set them. Many people grew up in families with poor communication skills and poor boundaries. The good news is that you can learn and create a better functioning family for your children.

Here are four steps from the Boundaries book for resolving boundary problems. 

  • Identify the Symptom. Make a list of where the problems are in your family. Between which family members? How often? Is there a repeated argument played out over and over again?
  • Identify the Conflict. What dynamic is being played out? Do family members team up against each other? Does someone take responsibility for someone else’s behavior? Does everyone know and understand the rules of the family? Are the consequences carried out?
  • Identify the Need That Drives the Conflict. Are family members acting out because they are lonely, feel unloved, or scared? Does your child feel unapproved or not accepted?
  • Take In and Receive the Good. Be open to learning new ways of doing things and seek out a good support group. This may be someone at your church, a counselor, or a good friend. 

Truths You Need to Set Boundaries

In Part 2 of this blog post, we’ll talk more about creating healthy boundaries in the family and for yourself. This section ends with some truths you’ll need to recognize to build appropriate boundaries.

Respond, Don’t React

When we react emotionally to a situation, the other person has control and our boundaries are knocked over. When we take a moment before we respond and choose how we are responding, we maintain control of our boundaries.

Poor Boundaries Are Learned Patterns of Behavior

Be willing to accept the facts of your family of origin. You learned to get your needs met or meet the needs of your family by behaving in certain ways when you were a child. These actions became automatic through practice. Being around family triggers these behaviors.

Realize that there will be tension, some anger, and pain around establishing new boundaries in you and your current family.

We Must Own Our Own Behavior

We must be willing to see ourselves clearly before we try to change our family. Are we behaving in childish, irresponsible ways? Do we struggle with boundaries and blame others? Are we making the problems in the family worse by gossiping about another family member?

Perhaps we triangulate our families by convincing one of the children to be on our side in an argument against another child or our spouse. We might feel better at the moment but it will destroy relationships.

Thank you for reading Part 1 of our series on family boundaries. Click “Setting Healthy Boundaries to Create Strong Family Relationships (Part 2)” for the next article. 

We discuss: 

  • signs of a lack of boundaries
  • what healthy boundaries are
  • how you can begin to establish healthy boundaries in your family