Much has been written about boundaries and what they mean for a family. I have a super simple definition – a boundary is:
What keeps some things out, and some things in.
Sometimes these boundaries are rigid and let nothing through, like a brick fence…
Sometimes they are “permeable”, and things get through easily, like an old wooden fence….
Here are some key areas where families need to develop boundaries:
- Physically (control of your physical presence, control of one’s body);
- Emotionally (the ability to contain feelings so they don’t ‘spill over’);
- Psychologically (growing your own identity; ‘me’ versus ‘not me’);
- Socially (the ability to contribute and belong to a group but not lose your sense of being an individual).
So, a boundary can be an emotional boundary, or a physical boundary or both at the same time.
Where do we first learn about boundaries? In our family! Clear boundaries in your family are necessary because:
- They let you know who is in charge and who does what;
- They teach you how to live in the world when you become an adult;
- They make the home a safe and happy place to live;
- They help to contain strong emotions and feelings;
- They teach respect, compassion and validation for others.
However, a number of things can disrupt and damage boundaries, such as:
- Lots of fighting, especially between parents;
- When the parents are too controlling;
- When the parents are too passive or uncaring;
- When there is lots of anger or criticism in the family;
- When there are mental health issues or drug/alcohol abuse;
- Negative life events like divorce, physical or sexual abuse, or violence.
In each of the above examples, there are poor boundaries. In these cases, someone’s ‘stuff’ is coming out and affects those around them.
After many years of seeing families, I believe uncontrolled anger is probably the most common and dangerous. The person who is angry is responsible for their anger – no one else, and when it spills out into verbal abuse, it becomes a boundary issue. In fact, the words spoken in a family are so important, I have written about it separately here.
Here’s a question for you: What kind of boundaries does your family have?
- Do I model good boundaries? Remember, your kids are watching you!
- Does everyone have their own bedroom? Ideally yes, as it teaches about physical boundaries.
- Do all family members have jobs to do to help the family? Jobs teach responsibility; what is my responsibility is a boundary issue.
- Are some decisions made as a family, like a good team does? If young people are not included, then the parental boundary could be too rigid.
- Is the climate in the family warm and friendly or cold and angry? If there is little warmth, then the emotional boundaries could be too rigid.
- Does my teenager feel free enough to safely leave the family nest, and be welcomed back later? To either restrict them too much, or not caring enough, are both boundary issues.
Boundaries then, are important for a family’s mental health. If the boundaries are poor – and that means they could be too rigid (like a brick fence, with no give at all) or too loose (like the old wooden fence where anything goes through) then some of the consequences could be:
- Depression or anxiety (for both parents and young people);
- Behavioural problems (especially for the kids);
- Toxic anger (especially from the parents, but also for the whole family);
- Self-harm or being suicidal (especially the teens who feel there is no way out);
- Drug or alcohol abuse (to escape the pain).
Fine tuning the boundaries in a family can sometimes be difficult and for some, talking with a Family Therapist could be beneficial to make sense of it all.
As a qualified and experienced Family Therapist, if you feel some input from outside the family might be helpful, I would love to hear from you.
Author: Dr David Ward, BSocWk, BA., Grad Dip (Couple Thpy), M.Couns., MPhil., PhD.
Dr David Ward has been a therapist for over 25 years, working with adults, adolescents, children, couples, and families. As a qualified Family Therapist, he can help a family get those stress levels down and guide the family to be the best it can be.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129 or Vision Psychology Wishart on (07) 3088 5422.