Recently, I spent a few days at the NATSAP conference on behalf of Shelterwood. I was fortunate enough to hear John Townsend speak on boundaries. He shared about the cost of not keeping healthy boundaries for parents and care workers (compassion fatigue). Here are a few of the thoughts that I felt were particularly helpful.
Teens Need Boundaries
Adolescence is an important stage for kids to push against parents in an effort to build autonomy. Without boundaries, teens are more likely to become depressed, anxious, angry and detached. Of course, it is not easy to put boundaries in place and maintain them. Boundaries can feel like battle lines as teens love to say, ‘no,’ but often struggle hearing the word ‘no’ themselves. Yet we all know, as successful adults, that hearing the word no is a part of life. It is critical to be able to deal with our emotions when someone says no to us.
Boundaries will feel harsh if they are not built with love and empathy. But make no mistake; there still needs to be a line. Without boundaries, teens can become aggressive, believing that the world is their ‘property.’ Other teens that have experienced boundary violations may become depressed and allow others to trample on their boundaries sexually, emotionally, or physically because they have come to believe that they have no ‘property.’
If not creating boundaries leaves our kids or clients struggling into adulthood, then why is it so hard for us to maintain clear boundaries? Why might we so quickly give in to the demands of our teens, friends, co-workers or spouses?
- Afraid of losing the relationship
Relationships are critical to each of our lives and they are often what keep us going. It is easy for us as parents or counselors to build entitlement within our kids or clients because we are safe for them and we feel special when they seek us out. So we might give them extra time, money, or praise when what would actually be better for them is to hear the word ‘no.’ They need to hear no even when giving them a longer counseling session might seem useful, or when giving them their full allowance even though chores are undone in order for them to buy that special pair of pants that will generate a hug and a smile. Teens become entitled so quickly when boundaries are not kept. It is so easy to drift from compassion into co-dependency. When we are afraid of losing a relationship with a distant teen, friend, or spouse, he or she quickly has leverage on us and this is a dangerous power for anyone to have, especially teens. In order to combat the need for your teen’s approval, try to create a ‘life team,’ a group of adults that can support and encourage you outside of the home. Don’t rely on your kids to nurture you, lest you give them too much power.
- Conflict Avoidance
Each of us learned how to deal with conflict when we were nine years old. Take a moment to think back to those young years in your childhood home. Maybe you learned how to explode with anger, change the subject, or laugh. Each of these techniques does not really deal with the conflict. The inability to manage conflict leaves you weak in the face of opposition and trying to defend yourself when you actually do say ‘no’ in order to create a boundary around a behavior. Townsend encourages people to role-play in an effort to change the neurology in the brain. It is critical that we as parents and care givers learn to confront conflict and become able to embrace the emotions that come along with saying ‘no’ in order to win the long- term battle of autonomy.
- Fear of Failure
We create a fragile teen when we don’t think they can handle boundaries. They become more insecure when we fail to provide the security of rules and follow through. Teens need to learn how to adapt to the difficulties of the world and that failure is part of life. As parents and counselors, we often perceive struggling teens as weak and incapable of dealing with failure. We might unconsciously believe that their drug addiction, depression or anger is the result of difficulty in their lives, and that if we can just remove the difficulty, then they won’t need to self medicate by cutting their arms, getting high, or acting out sexually. When we see them as fragile, we tend to compensate for their weaknesses and enable them to maintain these behaviors. Trying to keep your teen happy and safe will wear you out and fail to teach them how to survive on their own. So often we tiptoe around our teens when they struggle with depression, anger, anxiety, and/or learning difficulties that we actually build greater insecurity in them and continue to perpetuate a dependence on us. While this might make us feel needed and important in the relationship, we are actually just enabling co-dependence.
If you struggle to create boundaries with your teen, ask yourself these four questions when they make a request for your help:
- Is this something that they can do for themselves?
- Do you have the resources to help?
- Will you feel cheerful or resentful after helping them?
- Is the outcome going to build autonomy or dependence?