Identifying, aligning, and living your boundaries at home.

Identifying, aligning, and living your boundaries at home.

…Why it matters, and the dark arts of doing a boundary boost.

It’s interesting, I think, to reflect on what our sense of boundaries is, and where it comes from. Quite a lot of the time, I think we are, at a fundamental level, in denial about the need for boundaries – or at least not deeply committed to them. There’s an ambivalence there.

Maybe it’s because many of us are working parents, and we do this business of family life in our time off. We’re a bit too tired at the end of the day. Or too hassled at its beginning. Maybe we just want to avoid friction and in those little micro-moments of every-day life, we let some small things slide. And for sure – there’s definitely a place for that! If we all lived every moment intentionally with zero tolerance for every little thing that was misaligned, it would probably be both as joyless as it would be exhausting.

I am always amused by leisure centre parenting. You know. Pool-side. None of us wants little Johnny to crack his head open on the pool-side on our watch. But somehow we can’t quite be that bothered to stop his exuberant sprint and dive-bombing acts of derring-do… Performing ever more extravagant jumps, tumbles, somersaults that just about clear his brother / father / sister / a stranger’s head by literally millimetres. Whilst we might be scrolling through some semi-important life-admin on the phone.

The rules could hardly be clearer. They are written up there on every wall. Hells’s teeth, there are even illustrative diagrams. My personal favourite is the one saying ‘No jumping in the pool’, and it looks like the person is doing a ‘Dab’ whilst committing said crime against health and safety.

Parents who would normally go to enormous lengths to keep their precious charges safe will nonetheless buy their little angels a mermaid swim-sock and tail-fin to match their mermaid Barbie…thereby hobbling the child’s ability to move effectively…or even swim for longer than a few seconds…The Ariel fantasy is somewhat hampered by the need for them to be lifted in and out of the pool. Sometimes we allow ourselves to be sweet-talked into these things…

Or parents have taken their kids – ostensibly to swim – but everyone is on loungers on their screens. The teenage daughter and her best friend are cavorting, contorting, posing, and pouting in full war-paint in order to get the perfectly curated ‘living my best life’ / ‘sexy but shy’ image for their Snapchat / Insta / Tiktok…whatever social du jour. No water is encountered on these trips. I am guessing that none of this was quite envisioned when Mum and Dad were parting with the family membership fees.

Quite often it is true that we live our lives by habit, by default. We may have purpose, intention, values but these are often faded in the background…whilst the moments pass. It’s only when we stop and think – or when something happens that jolts us into an awakening like a near miss, or an infringement, or an accident – that we come into observant presence, and start reacting.

Maybe some of this if also linked to the modelling we experienced in our own upbringing. In my childhood, I don’t really remember boundaries being proactively discussed at all. But by Jiminy, you knew when you’d broken one…

No one said…hey guys, Dad’s the boss of the telly. So, if Dynasty clashes with the cricket coverage, tough luck. I remember having a bed-time – but somehow it was OK for me to read under the covers into the night – and even having a torch bought for me. There were pictures of us sitting around the dinner table having cigarettes after celebration meals. Those were the days of ‘Ashes-to-ashes’ 1980s / 1990s ‘fire up the Quattro, and put the Crispy Pancakes in the pan’ family life. A little less thinkable now.

Perhaps eventually, the inconsistencies and imperfections of family life are somehow educative – enabling us to work with ambiguity. Being adaptable, learning some give-and-take…Helping you have your moment as the temporarily superior teenager, spotting some or other rank hypocrisy.

My point is, that in our closest relationships, where things are going well, we tend to work on a harmonisation basis. We tend to go with the flow and default patterns emerge, and change, and habits set in. Some of them good. Some of them maybe not so much. And a lot of the lower level irritations will be there and acknowledged, it will be a little gritty. But it’s often accepted as part of the imperfection that creates the pearl of family life. Sometimes, we are human, inconsistent. Sometimes we sugar the pill of life with hedonic treats as repairs, or indulgences, rather than rigorously pursue and shape the meanings of everyday infractions.

Actually, in my long experience of working with young people on healthy relationships in school workshops, there is often a collective fantasy that so many of us have – which is that when things are great in a relationship, everything is easy. Things flow. Life is frictionless…We don’t have to stop and articulate. We don’t discuss…we just…know…It’s the myth of mind-reading…

It’s a lovely idea –represented strongly in film and music…but straining at the limits of reality of the way real life connection has to be navigated. This is especially seen in the fraught and pressing issue of consent in sexual relationships among young people where the influence of online pornography casts a long and dark shadow over what ought to be tender and tentative mutual early explorations. Disclosures of abuse and breaches of boundaries to do with bodily integrity and autonomy have proliferated – especially in the wake of Everyone’s Invited and the #MeToo movements.

It takes us back to an idealised memory of the dyad – us in our mothers’ arms…nestling, nurtured, emerged but merged, heartbeat to heartbeat – our needs, met…And so when our kids reach the stage where their friendships become more meaningful, closer, there is an entanglement and a sameness, a sense of joy and safety that emerges. And that’s wonderful. Someone to go to break with, the loo with, to lunch with, to have lunch in the loo with…

And it’s all great when it’s good. But when it’s not…when things happen, jokes made, misalignments, casual misdemeanours occurring, unreliability, promises or confidences broken…then again…it’s hard and heart-breaking. Sometimes it’s too unbearable to face – like looking at the Medusa – to actually see and accept your friend is not behaving in a friendly way. That the unspoken code between you is broken…

These are points at which boundaries matter, and often we ask our children to step into a world and a way of being for which they have no schema – no conception at all – apart from it being really BIG and SERIOUS, like a massive TELLING OFF…

So if we only have to assert when things are going wrong, then…yes…speaking up, being on our own side, advocating for ourselves will definitely feel more scary.

In my work as a parent coach, I am often approached by families where the issue of boundaries has become particularly fraught. It might be to do with sleep and bed-time…where the parent relationship is under strain because one partner has their evening and maybe even the whole night monopolised by being the child’s sleep-support. It might be to do with screens, where parents have different views or feel things have slowly skidded out of control, and now their relationship with their child has been sabotaged by screen addiction and screen friction.

Like DNA, we all have our own unique set of boundaries. What might be an issue for one parent, might genuinely not be for another. However, there are times when these points of difference can be manipulated and exploited…The one that is fairly obvious is by tweens or teens who play ‘The Wedge Game’ – a concept coined and described by Isca Salzburger-Wittenberg -one of our greatest Child and Adolescent Psychotherapists – in her ground-breaking book ‘The Emotional Aspects of Learning and Teaching’.

In her concept of ‘The Wedge Game’ she described what I would see time and again in my office as Pastoral Deputy and Safeguarding lead – young people routinely setting one parent against the other, ‘Mum said I could…’ ‘But Dad said it was OK…’ Creating drama and dysfunction within the family system that redirected conflict away from the teenager’s accountability. She described this dynamic as being ‘Unhelpful’ – and it’s profoundly true -and unhelpful on so many levels.

In this boundary dynamic, the teen wriggles off the hook, the parents divided. The values get lost in diversionary red mist. It’s a dynamic which is anti-collaborative, untransparent, and obstructive of clarity. It effectively dismantles what should be the healthy, functioning hierarchy in a family. One parent basks, temporarily, in the ‘good cop’ role whilst the other languishes, unsupported in ‘bad cop’. Until, that is, the tables turn, and the focus of the conflict shifts and the teen switches parental alliance to that serves their immediate gain, rather than in genuine, real, dependent, secure attachment.

Sometimes, parents come to me because they’ve really reached the end of the line – no consequences are working any more. Or their child is AWOL, out in parks, unreachable, peer-orientated, risk-taking, regarding their parents as irrelevances, even bullying their parents or holding them to ransom with demands and threats. How to unpick it all? Where to begin with repairing harmony, give-and-take? Basic cooperation?

And here is where an immense amount of compassion is needed. Not one of us sets out to turn our children into monsters – or to make our children overly needy and helpless or precociously, dangerously, precariously independent.

Examining this dynamic through a Family Systems therapy lens. I draw on the work of Elaine Carney Gibson, author of ‘Your Family Revealed’…the role of the parents – whether together or separated as a couple, needs to be in charge as a functioning executive system for the children and teens. She speaks if it being a duty parents have, to take control, set limit and boundaries, and provide a safe place. If not, then the child – or teen – will ultimately be anxious and insecure…Even though they may have some short term gains, ultimately, it is no good for even the most oppositional, gladiatorial young person, to be adrift, in flight from boundaries.

To prevent this, and to row back from this, coming to a shared, triaged vision of fundamental values, and acting with more intention and collaboration is only secondary to the task of reconnecting to the young person who is somewhat lost…somehow at the top of a dysfunctional family pyramid with nowhere to go.

Another way in which boundaries can be exploited and eroded, to the detriment of a young person’s growth and wellbeing is where differences in boundaries get out of hand in the context of acrimonious separation and divorce, where anything might go in one parent’s house…or certain boundaries are strategically and pointedly undermined as part of a power struggle between the parents. This creates fertile ground for discord, and particularly with the issue of screen addiction, can be incredibly detrimental to emotional safety, and wellbeing of the child. Not to mention creating a covert requirement for the child or children to take sides.

Boundaries are one of our 3 core emotional needs; together with safety, and love.

Handy Boundary Reset Ideas for Parents…

Identifying your values.

Just doing this puts you ahead of the game! And helps you walk your whys better in home-life. As discussed, we tend to be reactive about boundaries. We get that ‘Oh no’ or ‘Uh oh’ feeling when something happens that breaches our boundaries. But being able to know them, identify them, and speak to them, is vital if you’re going to be proactive about them. More than that – it helps you be more emotionally authentic and communicative about your needs in your relationships with core others – like partners, children, extended family, educators, employers, house guests…

  1. Visualise what it is you really want for your children. What are your dreams of how you would like them to be when they are established as adults. When you really dive into that sense of yearning on their behalf – the things that you admire in them now, and hope they will continue to grow into…the things that maybe they are not yet…What are the values that are represented in that loving, aspirational parental reverie…
  2. Now visualise the things you definitely DON’T want – the things that you might see or hear in your won family life that really enrage or upset you. What sort of behaviours you read about out in the world or see or hear about in other people’s children, or in you awareness of certain people you have encountered in the past whose way of being offended you. Identify and brainstorm the key values that lie behind those unwanted experiences.
  3. Over a short period of time, keep a notebook handy and jot down issues you find you have a strong reaction to in the news, or on social media, or come up in programmes you watch on TV. What are you seeing that causes you to feel pride, disgust, annoyance. What made you want to make comment, take action, bring to people’s attention? When you review these, what clues to they give you about things you really care about in life and out there in the world…
  4. Try to nutshell all these values that are emerging – in one word or phrase.

Triaging, and assessing your values.

  1. Try and see if you can place these values in rank order. Which would be your top 3, top 5? Which would be your top tier values – that you would feel very averse to compromising, and upset when compromised… Which are still important, but not quite as essential?
  2. Next to each value, take time to reflect, and perhaps score out of 4 in terms of the following criteria…1 = This is a value I always strive to live by, and there are observable ways in which this value is manifest in my approach to life in home / work. 2 = I mainly try to live by this standard, and I usually can be seen to act consciously in respect of this value at home / at work. 3 = This is a value that I don’t always adhere to, and I intermittently live by at home / at work. 4 = This is a value to me more in theory – it’s something I aspire to, but quite often let slide at home / at work.
  3. Take a step back from both these exercises. What are you noticing? What have you learned from identifying, prioritising and reviewing these values.
  4. Consider how these values are represented in the routines of your family life, and your approach to captaining the family ship…Which do you do well? Which less so? What’s the impact? To what extent does it matter that you do / don’t have these values embedded in your family life…If an alien observer were to watch your family life in action, how would they hear these values being articulated and revisited at home?

Aligning your values.

  1. Discuss going through the process together with your partner in parenthood. It might, or might not be realistic to do this where there is separation or divorce, but if you can approach a discussion about it, then there are several good moments to think about initiating such a project.
  2. Why it’s important…Set the purpose or intention, carve out some time for a bit of a summit about it…It’s about the teamwork around your child or children. And how important that is when you might be about to embark on times of rapid change…whether that’s in embarking on puberty, screen use, phone use, making the transition to primary or secondary school, or sixth form college…Maybe it’s about social freedoms and health and safety, or about boyfriends / girl friends and romantic or sexual freedoms…It might be in response to certain developmental challenges, like sleep disruption, or problems with eating, power struggles with homework, or behaviour issues like aggression or teasing at home. Basically, come 15 or 16 at the most, you will have issues to contend with…like the post GCSE rite of passage of going to a big ticket Festival. Parties that you don’t want to end up being Partygates…And there’ll be the issue of sex and the sleepover…It may be far off…but the preparation for you being ready for it, and them being ready for any of those things…starts early.
  3. Share your priorities, values, and boundaries. Why they matter, where each of you are coming from. How far each of you feels they are problematic, or in place. Try not to be defensive – aim to be accepting of difference and seek to learn rather than to win. What are you both in alignment about, and where are those differences. How can you both seek to operate around points of difference, with greater understanding, avoiding undermining each other.
  4. Decide on which boundary issues are so important they are non-negotiable. Think about ways in which you can clearly and cleanly articulate how important they are. You may like to think about creating something almost like a mantra around it – there may be some variations, but the essence would be the same. Eg ‘This is a matter of health and safety. That’s my job as your parent to keep you safe. I totally get that this is disappointing and maybe really upsetting to you. But your safety and wellbeing is even more important than you liking or approving of my decision. We can look at how we can work towards addressing my sense of the risk and your readiness, but that’s how things are right now.’
  5. If there is a pattern around a boundary that is becoming a point of tension, part of a conflict loop, something wearing that you’ve found yourselves occasionally capitulating over, if it matters – if it’s a red line issue, you need to come together and pull together a strategy towards extinction. Because here’s the thing with boundaries. They are not a one and done conversation. If you want extinction, you have to act on the boundary infringement 100% of the time. Otherwise you are in essence, encouraging the GROWTH of the behaviour. ‘Intermittent reward’ is how you actually promote a habit. It’s the Las Vegas principle. We all know we won’t get a payout on the slot machines every time. It might not be on the second, third, or even the tenth go… But we know it’ll happen from time to time…So people still play…And so it is with boundaries. With some teenagers, or even tweens, there can be a pushback that is quite staggering in its aggression and hostility. Here’s where the teamwork comes in – supporting each other, passing the baton so that the parent under fire can regroup and not succumb to pressure to lash out or give in. And you need to give it time…a few weeks to dismantle the behavioural reward circuitry…This is where the groundwork on why it matters comes in VERY handy.

Parent boundary strategies…what works…what doesn’t.

  1. Nurture your connection with your child. Being in relationship with you, and feeling the value of that relationship is the best – and when the chips are really down – the only – leverage you have. Never take that connection for granted. Actively court connection as your kids grow. You will lead more effectively with more than their consent, their investment in their relations with you and the sense that it is something beneficial and of value. We do this by getting good at prizing our kids, letting them bask in our warm appreciation, our compassionate, focused attention, ‘collecting’ them after an absence – welcoming them, checking in with them in meaningful ways…being their compass, orienting them about what’s happening and why, who they are, what their strength are…As Gabor Mate and Gordon Neufeld write in ‘Hold onto Your Kids’: “The real challenge is to win back their hearts and minds, not just have their bodies under our roof and at our table. When attempting to collect our children we must remember that they need us, even though they may not know it. Even the most alienated and hostile of teenagers needs a nurturing parent.” Both writers acknowledge how very difficult this is when attachments are frayed almost to breaking point. Sometimes needing a break between parents and child. Sometimes removing a young person – either temporarily or permanently – from a peer group situation that is fuelling the precocious separation and rejection.
  2. Don’t have auto-consequences- the same, predictable go-to punishments. These are often the confiscation or tech, suspending pocket money, or grounding. Using tech as a punishment can have the effect of inviting or accelerating secrecy deception. Where do you go, and what do you do when your kiddo turns round and tells you they don’t care…Likewise, the comment on grounding by Mate and Neufeld in ‘Hold onto your Kids’ is as follows: “Like most behavioural approaches, grounding works best with those who need it least and is least effective with those who need it most. But under any circumstances, grounding, if we are to employ it at all, works best if parents seize it as an opportunity to reestablish the relationship with their child. And that means taking all punitive tone and emotion out of the interaction.”
  3. Don’t go over the top…Who has got the staying power to keep with enforcing being grounded for a month…Especially when there’s constant chipping away at the sentence by your little lawyer…
  4. Don’t feel you have to immediately say what the consequence is…This isn’t Hansard. There are no sentencing guidelines and quotas…Two week’s suspended sentence for casual swearing…a month in Chokey for telling Mum or Dad to ‘Go X themselves…’ You can feel free to come down from the moment, and make your decision once the red mist has cleared…You can let them feel the weight of the impact, and the uncertainty of the next step whilst they calm down also…Later that evening will do. Mediated with your partner will also be good.
  5. Very clear, clean language can be used to firmly signal the boundary. ‘What you have just said / done is really not ok with me.’
  6. Use ‘I’ statements, not ‘You’ statements. ‘You’ statements emphasise blame and invite the conflict loop of criticism and defensiveness. With ‘I’ statements, we take responsibility for feelings and needs… ‘When you…(factual description) it makes me…(cleanly state the impact)…I imagine…(what you wonder about what’s happening with them)…I need…(what you would like to happen next to move towards repair)…Would you…(your ask of them)…
  7. Sample script. a) When you swear like that in front of your little brother…b) It makes me feel very protective of him because he is so young to be around angry and abusive language. c) I wonder what you think about that now, in hindsight, because you are normally caring and protective of him and wouldn’t want him to feel afraid. d) I need us to clear the air on this one – and understand what was going on for you at that moment… e) Would you tell me where you are at with what happened back there? (Structure and sentence stems adapted from Marshall Rosenberg…Non-Violent Communication). And yes…recognise limitations. You can’t have an accountability conversation with someone who is in their red zone. You need to ‘safeten’ the situation first. Call a time out. Remove them, or yourself, from the battle-field if needs be… ‘I love you but I cannot and will not listen to you / deal with you when you are abusive / bullying / manipulative / deceitful.’ Then when you are self-regulated, and some space (but not too long) has made for anxiety spikes all round to climb down. A good yardstick would be 30 minutes…then it would be well worth your while having a go at co-regulating and trying something restorative…
  8. Relational accountability works really well…and can help stabilise a tailspin in the relationships when stand-offs start to emerge. Put the ball in their court. ‘This is not OK with me. ‘How do you propose to make this right?’ ‘It concerns me to see that you seem to think you can behave in this way without it affecting your relationships.’ Actually putting the emphasis on having restorative conversations rather than punishments.
  9. What are your options in terms of consequences? At the same time as expressing empathy, compassion, and love…because it is a difficult thing to do, to make repair. Ensure they know it’s still on the agenda. For instance exercising your right to strike on matters of discretionary good will. Reminding them that good interactions build good relationships. They have the power to improve their interactions at home. And if they don’t have the skill, you’ll help them – to improve their interactions…and thereby the relationship.
  10. Being totally and utterly consistent. Saying what you mean, and meaning what you say. 100% of the time. It’s like the ‘no shoes’ rule. No outdoor shoes on in your home. 100%. The rack is by the door. Slippers are available. Everything stops until the shoes are off. Eventually everyone knows the score, and everyone holds the boundary. This means really being aware of the part you play around boundary infringements. Because this is the only thing you really have control over. So if they are late for school, or forget their assignment, they take responsibility. You don’t run in to save the day. If they want a lift, or bring a friend home…you don’t shame them. However you do remind them that the status quo of ‘easy-come, easy-go’ is not in place. Especially if there has been behaviour that is bullying, abusive, entitled. They need to feel in their marrow, the disenchantment with the tactic they used, that misfired, that was ‘not ok’. They can’t pick up the intermittent reward…At the same time, they need to know that you’re not happy. You are still loving and compassionate, and you are ready for the repair to happen, to restore greater harmony. Until there is a meeting of minds around the values and the respect for the boundary…Then there will be a resizing of the freedoms they will have in your relationship to offend and hurt or take. It’s to do with emotional authenticity, being responsible for your part in the dynamic.

How does this meditation on boundaries in the family life land with you? What conversations may this spark in your home? Hopefully there may be things of immediate practical value, or for you to start to consider for the longer term.

Please remember that this is an issue that so many of us struggle with. Few of us had a proactive approach to boundaries modelled and effectively instilled in us. So bags of self-compassion. You may be aware of friends or family who might find this article useful. Do feel free to share.

Every article, every talk, every workshop, every coaching session – is a precious opportunity. Healthier families, healthier futures. One parent at a time…

Do get in touch with feedback or questions. And if you’d like to book a consultation, drop me a line.

With love, gratitude, and boundaries!

Emma.

Watch out for future articles. Modelling repair when we are in the wrong…How appreciative enquiry can be used in family meetings to come together and collaboratively carve out a better path…

Complementary reading.

  • The Emotional Experience of Learning and Teaching – Elsie Osborne and Isca Salzberger-Wittenberg
  • Nonviolent Communication: Create your life, your relationships, and your world in harmony with your values. – Marshall Rosenberg
  • Connected Parenting – Jennifer Kolari
  • Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers – Gabor Mate and Gordon Neufeld
  • Boundary Boss – Terri Cole
  • Understanding Children’s Needs When Parents Separate – Emilia Dowling and Di Elliott

More to explore