Ma – and the Zen art of space and boundaries in family life.

Ma – and the Zen art of space and boundaries in family life.

Understanding entanglement, avoiding enmeshment. Providing the space and having the boundaries to allow our children the room to grow into themselves…like Zen masters…

Lately I have been thinking a lot about separation and separateness and how important that is within our closest relationships. This isn’t to do with being cold, or distant, or craving solitude – although the mayhem and unrelenting sheer hard work of family life can make us yearn for space, time, and freedom to do our own things and be accountable to no one.

We have a 14 year old, and so there’s a real sense of her ‘becoming’. This has been underlined by her having her first chance to have some agency in what she will pick to study for her public exams at 16. It’s only a choice of 3 subjects out of 10…but it’s a starting point for her to decide how she wants to shape elements of her future in terms of what she enjoys, and where her strengths lie.

Of course she’s still our baby…despite her patting me on the head in her tallness and glaring back at me through her eyeliner…There are glimpses of a more distinctly grown up future coming into the mix. She inhabits more space (we need a longer sofa), eats more food, is wonderfully more substantial in thought, and presence. She’s taller than me. She has her own sense of style, fashion, and interior design, having done a make-over of her bedroom over the school holidays. No more illustrations from Roald Dahl books on those walls now!

As our children grow into and through their teenage years, our job is to stay connected, whilst giving them space and scope to ‘individuate’ – to become, to explore their identity on their own terms, to make choices (both wisely and unwisely), to learn by experience, and be the key agents in their own journey.

Even though as an educator, I have had around 30 years’ experience of guiding thousands of young people through that journey from a caring professional standpoint, where hopefully there is absolute clarity of boundaries and the integrity of a young person’s self-hood…as a parent, there are so many ways in which the loving bonds with our children can be prone to entanglement – or even enmeshment – where the space between parent and child becomes encroached upon by over-identification.

This article is about the need for self-preservation both for child and for the parent. And the way in which preserving the space in a close, loving relationship by being disciplined about not writing ourselves into their story too much is so important.

A sense of these boundaries and navigating the tightrope of closeness (for both physical and emotional health and safety) and separateness becomes even more important as our children enter and pass through their teenage years.

These formative years are vital in the development of their own sense of will. We need to allow them the space to have choice and agency in the areas where they have both functional capability and appropriate responsibility.

Where power struggles and conflict dominate, there is often one or more significant underlying need that’s not being met. It may be the need for connection – where they feel that they are no seen, felt and valued for who they are.  Counter-intuitively this need is often acted out on and expressed by rejecting or withdrawing behaviour. We collude with this at our peril.

Where there are power struggles, it may be due a need for agency, greater choice, autonomy and responsibility. Opinions may and probably rightly do differ between teen and parent about what responsibilities they are ready for. Where they are not ready for certain freedoms, it is our duty to keep them safe . Equally it is our duty to scaffold their path to being able to safely manage their independence in the future.

Rather like when our kids were around 18 months or two year’s old – the ‘terrible twos’, the teenage years are a space where counterwill becomes once again dominant and is part of the way in which we all develop our own will. If we don’t make some room for that, then naturally there will be a pushback.

Where parents don’t make well calibrated adjustments, their counterwill will become very strong, and can over time become entrenched in their personality (Gabor Mate – The Myth of Normal). Hearing Gabor Mate speak recently on this topic he described how just as some people don’t know how to say no, some people compulsively don’t know how to say yes. Being in opposition feels more natural and safe than being in agreement. Ideally we are neither compulsively compliant, nor compulsively oppositional – health lies in being able to be in the present and give an authentic yes, or no.

So in the few areas of our teenagers’ highly structured lives where they are allowed to plot their own course, we should aim to honour that chance to exert real choice and agency. To act as a consultant, seeking to probe their thinking, and engage them in looking at perspectives so that they can be discerning in their choices.

We should be wary of collapsing their choice, or over-steering them down paths that we are over-invested in. From years of working in and with some of the country’s most selective academic schools and seeing countless children tread this well worn path, more is not necessarily more if it crowds out self-determination, and with it self-motivation.

They don’t need their time filled with extra qualifications – especially if it means they haven’t had the time to read and follow their own interests. Kids certainly don’t need to be steered into trophy subjects and trophy career paths that are counter to their natural skills, capabilities and true interests. Who are those ‘extras’ really for? And do they really count for much if it means they are spread too thin?

We don’t need to ‘game-ify’ their university choices so that they get into a trophy institution by doing something that gives them the best chance of getting in rather than something they can find authentically engaging. I work with so many young and older clients at or beyond the threshold of burnout because they’ve been encouraged to build a CV at the expense of knowing who they are.

I enjoyed reading an article online in ‘Grown and Flown’ by Samantha Staub, a school counsellor in the US who talked about the concept of ‘We Parenting’ – when parents start talking about their children’s lives as though they  are their own… ‘We’re doing X exam’…‘We’re on study leave’, ‘We’re applying for X, Y university’…

WE parenting and enmeshment.

I have come across this ‘we parenting’ phenomenon often both professionally and personally. It’s done with love, care, and good intentions, but for kids who are happy for that to happen and comply, it’s bypassing the task of individuating, and not enabling the development of problem-solving skills.

It’s not the same as cherishing and championing our kids and creating some ‘golden time’ experiences with them…it’s a way of being that can effect a gradual take-over. The ‘we parent’ is not the supporting act, they are right in there sharing the lead role…

Sometimes, this is happening in the teenage years, as a loving reaction against loss – that inevitable redundancy that the best parenting is always aiming for. We have children in order to one day lose them as children and become adults who hopefully will want to maintain relationship with us! Samantha Staub’s ‘We Parenting’ article gives a great – and sometimes much needed reminder that helping kids “feel like whole, and complete beings who are separate from their parents is a critical first step” in the process of launching into adult life. You can catch the link to the full piece here:

In adulthood, when pregnant, I remember the need to defend against a certain amount of anxious, emotional ‘we parenting’ by loving, excited, and potentially over-involved grandparents. This was when a late scan revealed a potential kidney problem. I needed to remind my own parents of the need for them to back off in terms of their own panicked feelings, to trust us with our precious responsibility, and not layer on their worries on top of ours. It was a difficult, and an important boundary to set. It was mainly possible because of my age, and memories of earlier experiences of anxious intrusion. As a child or a teen, this is not easy, and not easily possible without a fight.

As a parent, I have to really watch that I similarly back off when advising and avoid getting over invested in our teen doing what I would do the way I would do it – speaking out more firmly, when issues arise with friends for instance. Or learning the way I would learn, organising exam preparation the way I would do it. There is a difference between taking a loving interest and being supportive, and having rather fixed ideas about what to do and how to find her way. It’s easy to join that crowd of critical inner voices we all carry around – and that are building in volume in our child’s inner life…that they ‘should’ be this or that…or they’ll have failed or disappointed.

We connect more easily when we are not driven by our own agenda but can dance in the moment with our child. In the teenage years, this is often where the influence of mentors, and teachers can give exactly that sort of space and courage for a young person to create and emerge.

I really like Dan Siegel’s work on interpersonal neurobiology and the power of relationships. His life’s work is centred on the science of how our selfhood can be shaped for good or ill through our relationships. In his book, Intraconnected (2023), he expresses what I am talking about here in a way that cuts to the heart of the matter.

His concept of ‘Mwe’ indicates a third and important part of healthy integration and operation in the wider world. Where ‘me’ relates to the solo, isolated self. That the ‘we’ is where we are subsumed into a bigger whole, a group – whether a dyad, parent / child or couple, a family, a larger group. He postulates the concept of Mwe where we are self-aware, aware of the impacts of our experiences, and the impact we might have on others, as well as being in connection. Integrity and integration co-exist.

Merging and enmeshing – diet, nutrition, and body image.

In my work supporting school safeguarding teams, one issue that has come up fairly frequently is that of increasingly younger children feeling fearful about foods and constrained and restricted about what food to eat and what not to eat. Of course, we know from the press that there are concerns about obesity in young people, but equally during, and since the pandemic, disordered eating and eating disorders have been on the rise.

Schools are observing that parent diets and attitudes towards food and eating habits are having a heavy and sometimes harmful effect on young people who become overly vigilant and anxious about weight, appearance, food, fat content, calories…

Whereas previously, dietary requirements communicated with the school would be restricted to issues to do with allergies and whether or not they were vegetarian or vegan, halal, or kosher. Now the lists of dietary requirements are pervasive and long, and often linked to dieting patterns from the adult world that are simply not appropriate for children to follow. An example to illustrate this sort of enmeshment may be found in many aspects of family life. Speaking for myself as a 50+ menopausal woman who is noticing my natural shape change, as my body leans towards laying down fat around my middle – where my body will naturally start to generate some of my lowering stores of oestrogen.  Listen to Zoe Science & Nutrition Podcast – 30 November 2023:

Whilst I may not be happy with this change – and seek to do something about it to avoid changing my entire wardrobe. That’s entirely a ‘me’ thing. I may address this via exercise and diet in many ways. Again, that is my own thing. It’s not an interesting topic of conversation for anyone else. If I have discontent with my body, it’s certainly not something I want to share with my teen who is having to psychologically adjust to the changing of her own body from its childhood form to a more adult, womanly, shape.

Being alongside of our daughter online – I am aware that she is already targeted for adverts marketing weight loss. It’s horrifying – but this is the commercial world we are in. She’s able to see YouTubers opine on body image and aesthetics. At the same time there’s talk about diversity, acceptance and self-love, the over-riding influence is to be skinny and conform either by being sexlessly thin or by being curvy in a hypersexualised way.

Even if we couch our terms in seemingly body positive ways by talking about being healthy, and having strong bodies, the point is as a parent of a teen, particularly if we are 40+, male or female, our bodies metabolise things differently. We are no longer growing at the rate and pace the teenage body is. So yes, it’s important to steer clear of a hyperfocus on food, or giving food moral attributes like ‘good food’ and ‘bad’ food, and that we are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depending on what we’re eating.

Our kids may need to snack. They may need something nutritionally dense that for us would not be our choice. More important that they learn to listen to their body, and tune in to what their body needs, and to develop an appreciation of food without shame, prohibition or rigidity – either too healthy or too fast and unhealthy.

This discipline of teaching them and trusting them to listen to their body, their levels of energy, their feelings of wellbeing or not…is a crucial skill -to be able to discern and feel the difference between comfort eating and hunger. Where is there a hole in their heart needing filling vs filling their bellies to feel whole. To be able to hear the needs of their growing body even if they have exceeded their daily calorie limit…And unless they are under a properly managed weight-loss programme why on earth should that cumulative tally be relevant?…And to steer away from the wiring that insidiously comes into play when there’s an habituation to hunger.

Obviously I’m not saying we should provide limitless Haribo and KFC… but to impose my own ego state unmanaged, to become a ‘we’ enterprise where we are constantly looking at food, calories from a weight-loss perspective is either going to set up power struggles, where we’re constantly rubbing up against the natural counterwill of child vs cereriac or lentils…Or is going to merge a deficit mindset about our relationships with our bodies and with food. Both of which should be balanced, appreciative, joyful.

Acceptance of our bodies, love and care of our bodies, is not what the world is going to teach us or our kids. And their bodies are subject to change and scrutiny. Both by them themselves, and their peers.

Girls experience sexual harassment very early along with their earlier onset of puberty. Boys who get their growth spurt earlier are judged and interacted with in entirely different expectations and often more aggression than their counterparts who have yet to make that shift to the deeper voice and larger frame. Boys and girls will be prone to lay down fat prior to those growth spurts. It doesn’t mean we should impose our time-travel fear of potential obesity on them.

Mwe, means taking care of ourselves, being mindful of our needs and values. It also embraces the ‘we’ element – that we are together with them. That we care and have their backs, having a loving and protectively nurturing oversight of our kids as they grow. In that sense, they are part of us, and are in our protection.

But Mwe does both those things and honours their integrity as an individual, giving the space for them to be different to us, to have room for growing into themselves. Like in the Zen garden, there is carefully managed space planted and pruned between us, that is dynamic and defining, and important…

That my stuff does not have to be your stuff. That within our relationship as our children grow we can be in a dynamic state of the present continuous…I am knowing you and working with you for the best outcomes for you…rather than I know best.

Clarity and distinctness- ‘my stuff’, and ‘your’ stuff.

Where might you have experienced or do you experience ‘we’ pressure…?

What our parents may have focused on, what we may focus on, and how it can grow into and merge in and encroach upon the freedom of our children and teens to emerge….

Some examples…

  • Being required to be clever / pretty / athletic / sporty / strong / masculine / feminine / competitive.
  • Fears of difference – sexuality, gender.
  • A need for you or for your child to be or feel a certain way – or not be or feel a certain way…eg sadness, anger.
  • Being overly invested in a young person taking a certain career path, a set direction in their life, not allowing them difference and real freedom- or exacting a high emotional price, imposing feelings of disappointment.
  • Being controlling and over-invested in committing to a range of hobbies – without due regard for intrinsic motivation, tiredness, or signs of the child struggling.

It is easy to add things in, impose or invite extras into our lives and relationships. Just have a Maths tutor on Thursdays. And choir on Fridays. Oh and a team sport – you need a team sport. That’ll Saturday mornings then. Before we know it we are chasing our tail and hustling a child bristling with counterwill to all these ‘character building’ worthy experiences. Are they their genuine interests, or are they bolstering our own ’drivers’ – ensuring they’ve built a marketable CV in a competitive world. Making sure we’ve given them every chance of being able to ‘make it’.

I am a great lover of all things Japanese. Especially when it comes to gardens. There is a sparseness, a simplicity, a minimalism that resonates strongly. And this is the ethos that I think adds to this sense of boundary – being in relation to each other, whilst maintaining integrity.

Whether it is the experience of the most vivid of eye-popping greens carpeting the floor in a wooded enclave. The space between the trees containing nothing but velvet moss and maybe a well-placed fern. Or the finely raked gravel bed flowing around strategically positioned stones.

I remember the first time I visited Ryoan-ji in Kyoto – the most famous rock garden in Japan. Before arriving, I just didn’t really get it. It’s a rectangular gravel pit bordered by low stone walls – like a box – with 15 stones artfully placed on moss islands. So what?

I tell you what…because for me that time…to sit on the wooden porch bordering one side of it…was the initial and very experience of mental calming and inner spaciousness. What was sounding to me like it would be a drive-by tourist experience transcended into 45 minutes of stillness, groundedness, and oneness– sitting in the reverential calm, soaking it up.

I have a busy brain. And despite my best efforts at mindfulness and meditation practice since that point, I often have several tracks of thought running haphazardly and simultaneously. I struggle to slow it down, to be present, and access that stillness and separation that when I achieve it allows me to take a pause and be with me.

As a parent, it’s pretty difficult. It’s practically impossible when parenting a young child and one has to even put on hold the expectation of reliable solitude and privacy in the bathroom. Now our daughter is a teen, I am often finding myself in that ‘rushy rushy’ mode, trying to create the space for work, and household tasks to be done so that I am ready to collect myself sufficiently to connect with her meaningfully and be present.

So yes. Those coffee table books and magazines aspirationally placed on hand for that moment when I will have the space to sit down (HA!) and leaf through them, or have that mindful cup of tea…space is in short supply!

This is perhaps why I am drawn to the art and philosophy of the Japanese garden. Where it isn’t just about what you put in, and how carefully you nurture it, it is also about pruning, the placing of space between objects, so that they may be seen and appreciated more clearly.

It’s not only about giving our children some space and room to grow. It’s about giving our own selves the chance to expand. We can so easily overlook the dynamic power that space has in our minds, in our sensory experiences, and in our relationships.

For instance in the absence of the phone or the easily scratched itch to multitask and google it or complete a payment or pay a bill, we can find more space for each other. We know this. But it’s a discipline. A workspace – whether for academic enterprise, or an office for work, is so much more inviting, anchoring, and facilitating for deep focus, when it is clear and well ordered. As I write I am surrounded by fragments of notes, pages of research and brainstorms…

Zen as a philosophy embraced by samurai who identified with its simplicity and self-discipline. Practices associated with it go far beyond contemplation, to embrace daily activity with simplicity and precision. Sweeping the garden, making tea, chopping vegetables, landscape gardening, calligraphy – all these involve finding the profound and powerful in the every-day. Creating something extraordinary by bringing a focused attention to it.

This pristine quality of the aesthetic, often feels like an affront to our chatty, hyper-consumer world where everywhere we find fillers…Whether it’s fillers of time to scroll through, or purchases to fill our shelves. We are not comfortable with silence or stillness. We are not great at clarity where boundaries are concerned and holding space for discomfort.

The concept of MA in the Zen approach to life and gardening, refers to intervals, spaces and implies the existence of a boundary by honouring the spatial integrity of objects.

It flips our prioritisation of object, and gives space, emptiness, a dynamic and defining quality. Equally it moves us to drop down from ‘doing, doing, doing’ to enter a state of ‘being’ – connecting with the self, and connecting with the natural world, connecting with spirituality.

How can you bring more space and less clutter into your life? Would that be spatial, or temporal?

Where are there things in your life where you need to say no, and prune back, cut down in order to gain space and perspective?

How much room do you get to ‘be’? What would it feel like? What function might that have?

Where in your life do you have relationships where perhaps you need to address the issue of space and separation, or the urge to merge and write yourself in too far into the story of someone you care about?

Where in your life are you good at having boundaries? Where in your life do you tend to say yes, and take more on than you want to?

There are always circumstances that will encroach on empty spaces, your time. Caring obligations can and do fluctuate. Where do you collude with adding in rather than taking away the ‘busy stuff’?

When you take a step back and think about it, where are you intentionally stepping back to enable your child or teen to step up and develop their independence and autonomy? How are you scaffolding that?

Itemise all the things you do in a day or in a week for your child or teen…which could they and should they do more for themselves – or exclusively for themselves?

Have you ever had a melt-down because you just got into a tangle of responding to requests from your kids, said yes, yes, yes to helping until it all got too much?

Did you, or do you find yourself enmeshed with adults who are emotionally immature, who are expert at making their stuff your stuff, and push back hard at any space or defined limit you try to put in place? Maybe this was how you experienced one or more of your own parents as you grew. How does this influence you in your close relationships? Consider how that experience influences you at your best, and at your worst as a parent….Check out Dr Lindsay Gibson’s book:

I hope this piece has got you thinking…and has in some way helped. Looking for getting and being more -from doing less – with discipline and discernment at work and at home, in our lives, and in our relationships is not easy…but maybe this suggests some productive ways of reflecting on what’s coming up for you, and what action you might start to take…

With love and gratitude…

Linked articles and deeper reading:

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