People talk about boundaries quite a lot these days - holding boundaries, crossing boundaries, clarifying boundaries, etc. And the expectation when you hear a word like boundary is quite punitive - what happens when they get crossed? A situation that I see often with clients is that one person will be furious that their boundaries have not been respected while the other person doesn’t really understand what is meant by a boundary to begin with, let alone how they disrespected it. To be sure, the topic of boundaries is a tricky one in any relationship, and is even more difficult to navigate between parents and children.
We all have our boundaries, our invisible lines in the sand that let us know if we’re being treated in a way that feels fair to us; how do we work with them so that they enhance our lives and the lives of those we care about, rather than hem us in? How do we treat them as gates that allow appropriate passage, rather than walls that stifle us and keep us separate?
One thing to keep firmly in mind when talking about boundary-holding is that holding firm boundaries means you also have to have clear communication. I can think of a lot of clients who have tried very hard to improve their lives by getting clear about what are acceptable and unacceptable ways to treat them, and that’s fantastic. For many people, having that willingness to say “I won’t put up with this anymore” is an incredible, life changing step. And, if that step is not accompanied by some kind of warning, it can result in real pain. Think about it this way: if you were having company over and you put your anxious dog in the bathroom because you were worried it might bite strangers, you would tell the people you were having over not to use that bathroom.
So when working with families of teens, where communication is de-facto an issue, boundaries can be a very intense topic. Family systems are the products of years of constant, below the surface communication. House rules aren’t just about whether the jack of diamonds is a valuable card in hearts, they’re real things that dictate expectation of behavior at all levels within a family. If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “if you’re living under my roof, you’re living under my rules”, or watched your kid roll their eyes so hard you could practically hear it, then you know what’s going on here. Parents expect their children to know how to behave implicitly, teens expect the same. Good luck with that!
So the first hurdle to parents and teens respecting each others’ boundaries is communication. This means a little bit of re-training, but is quite doable. Instead of taking your preferences for granted, you have to do some self exploration and make them explicit to yourself, so you can make them explicit to others. This isn’t the most pleasant process in the world, but it’s immensely helpful in maintaining healthy relationships. And as a bonus, this leads to re-examination of boundaries, which often means altering them to be more useful in your life.
The other issue that tends to crop up, and this is a thorny one, is that it’s important for parents to cross their kids’ boundaries sometimes. This is not a process that anyone likes, trust me, but that willingness is at the heart of parenting. Regardless of what teens might tell you, their parents know a lot more about the world than they do. Not for every facet of living - every generation has its own ways of doing things - but for a lot of them. A parent who is willing to step in and apply this hard-earned wisdom when they see their kid making a dangerous decision is doing their job, unpleasant as that is.
When I was a young adult I had periods of intense difficulty and struggle in my life, and my parents occasionally chose to step in and sort me out against my will. I hated them for it, and thinking back on a couple occasions, I still feel my chest tighten with anxiety and my fists clench in anger. That being said, this was usually for the best. I was making decisions about forces I didn’t understand, and their guidance, unwanted as it may have been, really helped me in the long run.
And, don’t discount the emotional impact this had on our relationship. I’m advocating for the intelligence of their decision, and I’m still angry about it. These are the moments that will define the relationship between parents and their kids as their kids move into adulthood. They’re not to be taken lightly, and there’s probably no way to engage in them without leading to resentment of some kind.
What’s important is to sit in the paradox of knowing that it must be done, and done well, but that it cannot be done perfectly. Anger, frustration, shame, they are unavoidable in the process of a child stepping out from their family and becoming an adult. The extraordinary opportunity, though, is to show your children that an adult acknowledges they must sometimes make a decision they don’t want to, and make it with dignity.