Boundaries! Summer lessons from cohabiting with a squirrel.

The importance and the challenges of establishing and maintaining boundaries, at home, and in life…

How are you with boundaries in the home? At work? With family? Friends? Or colleagues?

Boundaries have been on my mind a great deal in recent weeks. We had the drama / trauma of discovering unwanted guests in the loft…After the relief of knowing my worst fears were not realised (rats, or birds)…the lengthy campaign of restoring the boundary of our four walls, and roof, and peace of mind began…

Of course, it’s always a shock when a significant boundary is broken. As Mike Tyson famously once said, ‘Everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the face.’ Equally I’d say, everyone has a plan until they get squirrels in the loft. Especially after seeing a critter seem to literally fly up the walls of our house like the CGI effects of House of Flying Daggers but before my very eyes in real life. ON and  IN MY HOUSE…

The first sign was a tentative patter. Then an unmistakeable bound culminating in a thump and a scamper. In the early hours of the morning. Right above our bed. I tried to soothe myself, that it was nothing, just a fluke, or that whatever it was would just go away. I tried to rest and return to sleep. But my dreams were haunted by visualisations of a sequel to Ratatouille being played over my head, cables and pipes being gnawed for the sheer fun of it….I lay awake fretting until daylight came, and filled with dread, I climbed the ladder to investigate.

And the same shock, fear, dread, mind racing for meaning, search for certainty, incredulity, comes up when we are confronted with significant boundaries being broken in our relationships. This may be as the parent of a young child who suddenly hits and really hurts. It may be in slow-burning passive disrespect from slightly older children – simply tuning out your reasonable requests to adhere to routine…The shock will most definitely be there in the vicious verbal and physical outbursts that can come in response to failing to please and appease an entitled teenager. Or in the discovery of deceitful behaviour: lies, theft, duplicity, exploitation.

In our adult relationships, in breaches of professionalism, breaches of contract at work we experience similar. The dismay of the revelation that not all those we have by our side operate with the same core values – or even basic standards!

In the parent relationship, there can be breaches to connection arising from differing opinions, values, and working model of how we ourselves were parenting – leading to a dynamic where we end up with a good cop / bad cop dynamic, and resentment building, a feeling of being undermined because the partnership is not co-operating effectively to uphold boundaries. This can contribute to very difficult family dynamics – especially with challenging teenagers who are only too agile in learning how to play the wedge-game between their parents.

Also in extended life, with siblings and parents in adult life where the gloves can come off and the normal rules of civility can be disapplied at the drop of a hat…Or judgmental or prejudiced extended family members who operate with jaw-dropping crassness…All of these moments go way beyond a misattunement, or empathy fail, but into our red zone where our core values are in breach…these bring with them a potent cocktail of anger, outrage, and underlying hurt…as well as bitter aftertastes of worry, and the bad energy that belongs to an often thwarted urge to take action in order to overcome and protect against future incursions.

The reason why these moments pack such a punch is that they arouse a powerful sense of threat. That the people, the world around us is not as trustworthy or reliable as we thought. That as a parent or as a professional, we have somehow done or not done something well enough that contributed to this thing happening. In school life, a re-examination of policy…If only we had had the right wording in place that this would not have happened.

For young people who have not yet developed their own clear sense of their values and boundaries – or the skillset in how to work with them, a significant breach with friends or peers can be incredibly distressing and destabilizing. Especially at points in their development where they become more peer-orientated, meaning they really have to wrestle with the turbulence of ambivalence…

To fight, to flee, to freeze. The first rarely ends well if it is reactive, the flight option is avoidance which never works…and the freeze option can leave a lasting toxic legacy of shame from not taking action. It’s overwhelming – and it’s where the ability to speak to a trusted adult is a true contributor to building both resilience and skills.

The strong survival circuitry that gets activated pushes us into our red zone – to take action! To stop it! To solve it! The discomfort we have experienced is a strong call to arms.

But eliminating squirrels from the loft is every bit as tricky as resetting, restoring, and holding boundaries in our lives with humans. There can be improvements on the surface. It totally feels good to sit that pre-schooler down and tell him or her why it is wrong to hit and why they should not do it again. It feels cathartic, productive and necessary to restore order with a provocative teen and remove some privilege or other as a consequence.

It feels such a relief to ensure the difficult conversation at work or with family is had so that resentment does not build, and fuses shorten. To prevent everyone operating on the egg-shells of the unsaid…. Why it matters so much to you while you’re working from home, that your well-meaning parents who you also rely on for childcare (for instance) don’t just drop by unannounced…It’s much much harder to hold to those boundaries and effect lasting and meaningful change when you find yourself in a groundhog-day situation. Or when – like with my squirrel – they simply adapt around your boundary assertion temporarily, and continue to trespass…

Having boundaries in relationships – ALL our relationships – is foundational to our safety and wellbeing. At its most simple and fundamental level our boundaries are like our skin. A barrier against external elements encroaching or infecting our system. However, it is both simple, and nuanced. Because our boundaries, like our skin, need to also have porous elements and flexibility. Our skin has holes in it to allow our system to breathe and cool. At times our skin needs to be able to absorb moisture in order to retain its suppleness and prevent it cracking or breaking. And it needs to be protected from abrasions and sharp objects so that it remains an effective barrier, holding us together.

Boundary basics

Similarly our boundaries should be simple fundamentals about what’s OK with us, and what’s not OK with us. They should connect with our core values: kindness, respect, dignity, honesty, safety, do no harm…for starters. These boundaries need to be articulated and reinforced. But like our skin, they can’t be too rigid, or inflexible otherwise they will lead to all-or-nothing thinking, and all-or-nothing operations in relationships. People who serially end relationships without navigating boundaries are not doing boundaries well – they are unable to hold and build secure relationships where vulnerabilities and imperfections can be worked with. It’s brittle, constantly breakable and collapses the space for honesty and openness.

Boundaries – too rigid

Ironically the same is true of the squirrel-in-the-loft situation. A totally sealed unit would be prone to condensation, damp, mould, a whole host of other problems. It’s nuanced. Buildings, people, relationships need room to breathe whilst being able to shelter effectively from external intrusions, harm and damage. And when we think of boundaries in the sphere of bringing up children, we can clearly see that these need to change organically and adapt as our children grow. We can’t expect a 20 year-old to adhere to the same rules as a 16 year-old, a 13 year-old, when they were 10, 8, 6…etc. Boundaries in any long-term relationship need to be actively valued, and subject to renegotiations and renewals. It helps to be on the front foot, to nurture your relationship to secure cooperation, and to manage inevitable changes to curfews, independent travel and social activity, screen use etc without surprises, and in alignment with clearly understood family values.

Boundaries – too porous, too flexible

Neither should our boundaries be too porous – an unable to prevent physical, emotional or psychological damage. As with people-pleasing tendencies. That inability to say no leads to emotional inauthenticity – saying yes, when you really mean no…and an inevitable unreliability because it’s unsustainable…Ever over-helped your child when they interrupt you a thousand times, asking you to intervene with finding X, Y, Z, setting up A, B, C, rather than use their eyes or their own capabilities first…only to later in the day, blow your stack over the smallest thing?

Reflective questions and next steps…

  • How has this introduction sparked your thinking on boundaries?
  • What resonates for you here with the way boundaries tend to operate in your home life?
  • What would you like to work on when it comes to setting boundaries in your life, in your home, with your relationships?
  • As a parent, how does reading this impact on your observations about how you ‘do’ boundaries with the kids?
  • What would you like to work on? What areas of boundary setting are your biggest challenges? Feel free to drop me a line so that I might incorporate your enquiry in a future article.
  • Do you find boundary setting problematic, stressful? Are the relationship dynamics you are in with a partner and / or with the children making setting and maintaining boundaries creating constant tension? If this is the case, consider contacting me for either a one-off consultation, or some coaching to get under the hood of what’s going on and create some opportunities for change.

Key points:

  • Breaches of our boundaries activate us and can make us incredibly reactive.
  • They can cause a great deal of wear and tear on our nervous system and our relationships if we don’t take action.
  • They are vital to healthy relationships.
  • They keep us safe, physically, emotionally, psychologically.
  • They need identifying, articulating and maintaining.
  • They need reviewing and where necessary renegotiating.
  • It’s like Goldilocks and the Three Bears – boundaries shouldn’t be too rigid, or too flexible – they need to be ‘just right’.
  • Long term successful relationships with our children require a renegotiation of boundaries as they grow and in adolescence, push at boundaries and rules in their quest for independence and autonomy.
  • Effective modelling of boundaries at home is core to helping our children stay safe physically, emotionally, and psychologically.

So begins an introduction to a series of linked articles I’m planning for parents on boundaries…

Next up:

Identifying, articulating, and aligning your boundaries with your values and parenting partners.

And now it’s time for me to hold my 2000 word boundary for this newsletter and close.

With love and gratitude,


Great companion reads:

Terri Cole – Boundary Boss: The Essential Guide to Talk True, Be Seen, and (Finally) Live Free.

Nedra Glover Tawaab: Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself.

More to explore