The Boundaries Paradox


I don’t know about you, but as a parent I frequently struggle with determining boundaries.  How far is too far, how tight is too tight?  I want my kids to have a sense of control in their own lives, to safely learn how to make good decisions, and to be empowered in having an impact on what is happening in their lives.

At the same time, I don’t want my kids running the family, becoming overwhelmed with the responsibilities of the many, varied decisions that are involved in family life, or having a sense that they have to be in control because no-one else is.

Particularly when you have kids with attachment disorder.  Control is a double-edged sword for them.  They feel compelled to be in control because they have no ability to trust the adults in their life to provide for their safety and basic needs – yet they are terrified of having to be in control.  They fight to get control, then are overwhelmed and resentful when they are in control.

I can’t profess to have figured any of this out yet.  And I have learned a few things that seem to work well and others that definitely don’t work.

One thing that does work is to be clear, concrete and unfailingly consistent in your expectations of what the kids’ responsibilities are, what behavior is expected, and how they can communicate when they are unhappy, dissatisfied or upset.  Being clear that everyone has chores to do is fully in the parent’s realm to mandate.  Depending on the age and abilities of the children in question, providing opportunities to decide which chores they will do may be totally appropriate.  Having tight boundaries on the expectation (everyone contributes to the family by doing chores) while loosening the parameters around the specifics (here is a list, choose 3 you will be responsible for) can allow room for choice. 

Another thing that works well is having clear and absolute boundaries around fulfilling expectations.  What doesn’t work is using traditional rewards and consequences when expectations are not fulfilled.  If the same infraction results in the same consequence, the child simply learns to bargain each day – deciding if it is worth getting up on time to have computer time.  By always changing up what the consequences are, the child learns that there is a price to pay, and that price can sometimes be high.  Not getting up on time, in my house can result in losing computer time for the day, losing all electronics for the day, having to do an extra chore, losing phone privilages, having to perform at least one kind deed for all other family members, or whatever else might pop into my creative little head that day. 

In my previous entry, I shared a letter I wrote and gave to my 16 year old.  At the time, I honestly was not convinced that he would choose to continue to live with our family.  I took him out to lunch so we could read and discuss it together.  We went after the lunch rush, and got a nice tall booth in the corner.  He had tears in his eyes after he read it.  Initially, he withdrew.  He would not give me eye contact and literally sank into his body.  I reiterated that everything I do and every decision I make for him and his sisters is based in my deep, unconditional love for them.  He told me that he did know that.  I told him that he can tell me that he thinks my rules stink and that he doesn’t like them.  He must tell me in ways that are respectful and loving.  So, he told me my rules stink, he doesn’t like them and there is nowhere else he would rather be than with us.

The weeks since our talk have been good.  Not perfect.  Not entirely easy.  And very good.  Of course Kenneth had to test the boundaries.  He found that they were firm and that there were no cracks in the foundation – my husband and I were in alignment and could not be divided and conquered.  He decided one day that he would prefer to live on the streets than do what was expected of him.  For 3 hours.  He walked to my office and apologized.  He helped come up with ideas for how he was going to meet the expectations that were lined out.  And he was informed that if he ever again chooses to leave rather than fulfill his expectations, it will be a final decision.

Since then, Kenneth has been happier and more energetic than I have seen him in a very long time.  He spends more time with the family, laughs more often, and is helpful and kind.  He is volunteering at a meals program for the homeless and attending a class on digital storytelling.  Tomorrow he will begin helping out at a day care center for high-risk children.  He seems to really enjoy helping other people.   We had a family day last week – a picnic lunch and a 2.25 mile hike up and back down a very tall ridge.  It was such fun and Kenneth had us all cracking up all day. 

My fear that tightening the boundaries for Kenneth would push him away have not only been unfounded, but proven to be totally false.  And herein lies the paradox – Kenneth seems to actually be growing more rapidly and in a stronger, more positive way within these tighter boundaries than he was without them.  Who would have known?!

copyrighted March 23, 2010

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