We hear a lot about boundaries in the language of popular psychology, but I find that often people have no idea what boundaries really are or what it actually looks like to set them. One of the most important boundary lines that are historically problematic are those between children and parents, so let us explore the issue of boundaries and their significance in healthy relational dynamics.
Relational boundaries are essentially lines we draw between ourselves and others. They are lines that define what are acceptable rules of engagement between us and others. Boundaries are ways in which we define ourselves to others and inform the world of our needs. Hence, the ability to set boundaries is our first step toward self-care and self-awareness. However, in order to have healthy relationships, our boundaries have to be adaptable. Too rigid of a boundary will cause problems, as well as too open of a boundary will beget chaos and suffering. Obvious violations of boundaries, such as unwanted physical contact, imposition into one’s private personal space, like reading someone’s journal, going through their drawers, or borrowing things without permission, are frequent examples of boundary violations that occur in families. But there are other more subtle violations of boundaries that are harder to detect and yet can be extremely damaging to the child’s formation of self. These violations can be insidious to the developing mind and are often committed by loving caregivers who are often unaware of the damaging impact of these subtle violations. It can also be hard to separate feelings of concern and care from codependency. How can a parent remain loving without completely engulfing the child and becoming consumed?
Children are inevitable receptacles of their parents’ unconscious debris due to the mere proximity and interdependent nature of parent-child relationships. Yet having consciousness around this degree of emotional enmeshment can help reduce the level of damage in the long run. That which is birthed into our awareness no longer possesses the power to entirely control our behavior. A parent who is capable of conceiving that his/her unconscious process has the potential of being damaging is already light years ahead of the parent who cannot accept this possibility whatsoever.
Narcissistic parents usually have a harder time self-reflecting and are, therefore, more likely to commit boundary violations, as they perceive their children to be extensions of themselves. These parents seek to be validated through their children. They often have high expectations, and while, to themselves, they justify them through supposed care and love, in reality, these expectations are mere reflections of their own narcissistic need for self-aggrandizement. We can often lose ourselves in our children, as we unconsciously seek to repair our own childhood wounds, such as a father who was not allowed to play sports who forces sports on his children or a mother who grew up with a distant mother inserting herself into every aspect of their child’s life. How do we effectively guide our children without violating these boundaries? How do we know what is an appropriate level of engagement versus a boundary violation? If you don’t snoop into your teenager’s journal, how do you know they’re okay? The truth is your child is not simply a product of your good or bad parenting; your child is a separate being, with separate and mysterious needs and interests which you as a parent may never completely understand.
In order to manage healthy boundaries with our children, we need to cultivate the following three principles: respect, agency, and curiosity. We do not protect or guide our children by demanding, shaping, or controlling. We do so most effectively by modeling. Our children don’t always remember what we say to them, but they do remember how we make them feel. If we treat them with respect, they will expect to be treated so. If we protect their agency, we invite them to think critically and to respect their own agency with others. If we don’t assume to know and take time to listen, we won’t need to snoop because they would have already told us. Your curiosity tells your child that what is inside them is important to you, worth hearing, worth knowing. By respecting your child’s boundaries, you let them know that their needs and feelings are important and that they have the right to make space for themselves with others. Letting your child have a boundary with you is letting your child know how to assert self-care and self-love. Without it, no amount of your control will ensure their safety through this treacherous business of relationships. To be able to say “no” when you need to is to say, “I matter to me, even if you don’t like it.” spt