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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 1)” for the previous article. 

Creating healthy boundaries can’t happen without first understanding what a lack of boundaries looks like in a family. The concept of boundaries deals with the relationship between ourselves and others.

In Part 1 of this article, we mentioned that Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend likened a boundary to a fence around our house that demonstrates where we end and others begin. Along that fence, we can choose to open a gate that allows others to join in a relationship with us. We may also choose to keep the gate closed and locked to keep certain people or situations out.

We are affected by these relationships whether we do or do not express or acknowledge our feelings. Sometimes people with poor boundaries will stew in resentment for years and then explode in defiance.

See if you relate to any of the following situations. The first set of symptoms relate to parents and their families of origin. The second set of symptoms relate to the interactions between parents and their immediate family (themselves and their kids).

An image of parents lack of boundaries arguing in front of children.

Symptoms of a Mom or Dad Having Unresolved Boundary Issues From Their Family of Origin

  • Speaking to your family of origin causes you to feel depressed, anxious, critical, and argumentative to your immediate family. 
  • Your spouse and children feel like they get the leftovers of your time, attention, and love because your allegiance is to your parents first and family second.
  • Do either of your parents 1) give you cash or pay for your lifestyles like vacations or extras, or 2) regularly bail you out financially? 
  • Are you able to calmly tell your spouse or children why you are angry or do you stew and talk to other people about the problem?
  • Do you feel like you have to do things you don’t want to do because it is for “family”? Do you feel selfish or ungrateful if you’re going to say “no”?
  • Do you feel guilty for having negative emotions like anger, sadness, or fear?
  • Do you feel that conflict or having a different opinion means a loss of love?
  • Do you fear what others will think of you if you don’t behave just right?
  • Do you get angry when other people don’t seem to appreciate all the work you do for the family?
  • Do you feel selfish for wanting time alone to relax or do something you enjoy?
A teenager is upset at the boundaries her parent's have established.

Symptoms of Parents and Children Lacking Boundaries in the Immediate Family 

  • Do you say things like, “You’ll do what I say or else . . .”?
  • Does your child eat treats that are not theirs?
  • Does your child take things that don’t belong to them?
  • Does your child barge into a private room or bathroom without knocking?
  • Is your child content to be lazy or seems to have no ambition or self-motivation?
  • Does your child not pick up after themselves?
  • Does your child continue to throw a tantrum about the same things repeatedly?
  • Does your child do what she is supposed to only after you take action?
  • Do you tell your child, “look at what I’ve done for you” or “you should be grateful for how hard your father and I work to give you a better life?” (guilt messages)
  • Do your children have trouble making decisions?
  • Do you frequently step in and save your child from a consequence of their actions?
  • Do you continually nag your children to do their chores, their school, etc.?
  • Do you withdraw your love from your child if you disagree with something they have said or done? Withdrawing love may look like a change in your tone of voice, a long silence, crying, hiding in your room, or yelling.
  • Do your children continually sneak and use electronics outside of the family boundaries? 
  • Do you honor the boundaries they are learning to set, such as my son who put a sign on his door telling people they couldn’t come into his room without his permission?

What Are Healthy Boundaries?

Setting healthy boundaries is a crucial piece of your mental health and well-being. Taking responsibility for how we treat others and how we allow others to treat us significantly impacts our happiness and confidence.

Setting boundaries can be challenging for many of us. Women and mothers are very used to doing for others and often take on responsibilities for success or failure as if they were their own. 

As parents, we often neglect ourselves and forget boundaries. Sometimes, we may not know how to set them. We may not be confident in expressing our needs or understanding the needs of others. Just start. Set one boundary and practice it until it feels familiar and you can see the benefits of having a border.

By setting boundaries in the home, family members know the expected standards and behaviors.

Author Stephen Bavolek teaches:

Setting boundaries and expectations for children can assist in building life skills that include: patience, problem solving, resourcefulness, responsibility and self-discipline.

The most successful way to implement boundaries is to have a family meeting explaining the family guidelines and why parents feel like they should be in place.

It’s okay to start with something simple like, “Everyone in our family needs to pick up after themselves in the common areas of the house.”

Each day you will remind your children of this new boundary by establishing “quick-clean” times throughout the day. Perhaps one right before lunch, one before dinner, and once before bedtime. Imagine how much better life would be if everyone did pick up after themselves throughout the day.

Healthy boundaries allow many opportunities to say “yes” to our children. Children learn by exercising agency within the prescribed bounds of family rules. If possible, say “yes” to your child. If not, then offer an alternative or “if-then” statement.

  • “I’m sorry, honey, we can’t go to the park right now, but we can play a game together instead.”
  • “Yes, you can go to your friend’s house as soon as your schoolwork and house jobs are done.”

Children will need to make lots of choices as adults, so we want them to start practicing now.

What Are My Boundaries?

Setting boundaries can be challenging. Throw in a pandemic, a time when our physical boundaries are moved aside, and it can feel impossible. Families all over the world are spending more time together than ever before. We’re in survival mode, and our normal – including healthy boundaries – has gone out the window.

As a parent, part of our role is teaching our children how to set healthy boundaries by exhibiting our own. While now may be a tough time to practice setting limits, it’s a great time to start.

Self-Care Boundaries

Setting boundaries is a piece of self-care. Boundaries give us time to focus on ourselves and be better equipped to take care of others. As parents, this is crucial to our well-being and that of our families. We are trying to raise children, work, and maintain relationships. Healthy boundaries provide limits and support to do these things.

A teen mail saying no to drugs.

Boundaries for Kids

Some of the most challenging boundaries we set will be with our family and especially kids. However, it’s easier than we think, and we can start early.

Parents can introduce the idea of boundaries to children from a young age. When they are young, it’s good to set boundaries to keep kids safe. As they grow older, boundaries help them set limits within their relationships and time spent.

Boundaries also help children learn to be responsible, set priorities, and plan for the future. Children without limits can grow up to be selfish and entitled.

They live for today, only doing what is fun and exciting while expecting others to care for them. This behavior and attitude doesn’t help children prepare for adulthood, where they will need to live within legal boundaries, employment boundaries, and relationship boundaries. 

In a study published in Couple and Family Psychology, appropriate boundaries between parents and teens can determine whether aggression increases during the teenage years.

A Quote from a study about the teen years being a time of reorganization of relationships.

The goal of boundaries is to establish who is responsible for certain things in our homes and lives. Boundaries also teach children that they have the personal power to create change and limitations that will be respected. They are separate and allowed to think, see, and act differently while still accepted and loved.

When you establish where you end and where your child begins, you can start to cede authority for specific responsibilities to your child. Having responsibilities and learning new skills increases self-confidence and motivates learning.

They will also have an easier time understanding what their responsibility is and what belongs to others.

Boundaries With Your Spouse

Make sure that you and your spouse are on the same page when setting boundaries for your child. It makes all the difference!

You may find that you need to establish appropriate boundaries with your spouse first. That’s okay. 

How Can You Set Healthy Boundaries in Your Family?

Setting healthy boundaries can take time and practice. But taking the time matters as poor boundaries can lead to anger, resentment, fearfulness, low self-esteem, and burnout. Boundary development is teaching your child to be disciplined. Setting boundaries is the second most crucial thing parents do after loving and bonding with their child.

The work of boundary development in children is the work of learning responsibility. As we teach them the merits and limits of responsibility, we teach them autonomy – we prepare them to take on the tasks of adulthood.”

I recently told my teenage son that he does not live in a vacation home. Our home is a training ground. Our job is to love and support him while he learns the skills and develops the character to be successful in the world independently.

It takes consistent awareness to recognize, establish, and maintain appropriate boundaries. Setting healthy boundaries may take a little practice before you feel comfortable.

6 Steps to Begin Setting Healthy Boundaries

1)     Help your child to understand the concept.

A young child may not understand the idea of a boundary, so help them envision a solid line. By doing certain things or behaving negatively, they cross that line. Note that doing positive things can also help the child cross a line with positive rewards.

Our goal is to set outside limits to teach our children to develop internal limits on themselves. Point out and encourage your child when he is using his boundary or needs to establish a boundary. 

2)     Be ok with the word “no.”

This one should already feel familiar as a parent! Joking aside, setting a boundary is telling someone where your limits are. The word “no” is a keyword there. The term “no” does not have to be punitive. There are many acceptable reasons for saying “no.”

In fact, “no” is a one-word boundary. Children need to be able to separate from things they do not like. According to the book, Boundaries, parents have two tasks associated with the word “no.” 

  • Help their child feel safe enough to say “no,” which encourages boundary development; and 
  • Help your child respect the boundaries of others.

3)     Lead with “I” statements.

An “I” statement versus a “You” statement used at the beginning of a tense conversation can yield very different results. 

A “you” statement is perceived as being hostile and blaming, such as, “You need to change.”

An “I” statement acknowledges that the person is stating their own opinions and feelings, such as, “I feel frustrated when the dishes aren’t washed by the time I need to start making dinner.”

According to research, the best results come from discussions in which both parties are willing to negotiate for a beneficial solution. When the first party begins with an “I” statement, the second party is more likely to mirror their behavior by also stating what they think and feel. As a result, both parties are more willing to seek a beneficial solution.

Another essential part of collaborative communication is verbally telling the other party that you hear and understand their perspective. One way to do this is by saying, “What I hear you saying is ________, so you feel ________.” People are not able to read our minds, so we must express ourselves using words.

By starting with these statements, you show assertiveness, but not aggressiveness. It feels firm but pleasant.  Using an “I” statement reduces hostility and communicates that you are open to discussion and negotiation.

You may hear your kids say things like, “I don’t like when it’s time to put the toys away,” or, “I get so frustrated when you keep asking me about whether my homework is done.” Try to remember this is a good thing.

We want our kids to practice stating how they feel and what they think. Then it’s our turn to teach some critical principles in communication negotiation and relationship acceptance.

4)     Allow practice.

From the time your child is young, listen to and respect their limits. If your child doesn’t want to be hugged for a long time, respect that boundary and give a quick hug. When big brother is wrestling with his younger brother and the child yells out, “Stop!” then stop immediately. 

Children can be given opportunities to develop boundaries and discipline in everyday life. Give them a vote on what kind of pizza and movie to watch on Friday night. If your child disagrees with you, listen to their reasoning and change your mind if it is reasonable. 

 Show your child by word and deed that you will stay connected emotionally with them even when they disagree with you. Demonstrating your love and acceptance allows your child the safety and freedom to develop healthy boundaries. When they are faced with peer pressure as teens, they will have the skills and strength to say “no.” 

A young girl washing clothes

5)     Help your child take ownership of their own needs.

 Everyone needs to know when they are tired or hungry, angry or sad, overwhelmed or scared. We want to help our children recognize their own needs and take steps to meet that need. Developing firm boundaries allows us to feel separate and determine how we are feeling and what we need. Help your child to articulate their needs:

  • Ask about your child’s feelings and listen to your child as they express anger, frustration, and hurt. Don’t try to solve their problem; listen and provide support.
  • Encourage your child to search for quality answers from reputable sources, whether online or other trustworthy people.
  • Help your child identify what steps they can take to feel better or how they can begin to solve their problem – only after you have listened to them and expressed empathy.

6) Allow your children to experience “safe suffering” (age-appropriate consequences).     

Help your child practice learning boundaries by giving them opportunities to set limits. 

  • Do not do your child’s homework when they fail to plan ahead or complete a school project on time.
  • Provide a teen with one semester’s worth of money for clothes, lunches, gas, etc. Have them learn to use a budget through trial and error. Don’t give them more money until the next semester. They will learn how to budget before leaving home for college or work.

The following comic comes from a parenting book by James J. Jones, PhD, titled, “Are Your Kids Driving You Nuts?” How many times have our kids reacted like this to us?

An comic image from the book "Are Your Kids Driving You Nuts?" by James J. Jones, PhD

How Long Does It Take for Family Members to Respect Boundaries?

Setting healthy boundaries won’t happen overnight, especially if they’re new to your family. Have an open conversation and ease into it with your children. You will need to have patience, teach, and model, then train and model again. Over time, your children will follow your example and begin to understand where a boundary is needed and how to implement a healthy boundary.

And remember to take care of yourself. Self-care is always important, but even more so when establishing a new skill during the middle of a pandemic! Take time to check out – do some yoga, take a walk, read a book, or take a bath while listening to relaxing music.

Come back fresh and ready for those tough conversations. 

This article is part of a series on family boundaries. Click “Setting Healthy Boundaries to Create Strong Family Relationships (Part 1)” for the previous article.