APSGO Parenting Blog

We all know – or think we know – what boundaries are: Boundaries are rules we make for others, or that others make for us.

So I made rules for my kids and called those “boundaries”. But I had no way to enforce these “boundaries”, and their success was determined by my teens’ willingness to cooperate with me. And the folly of thinking these would work became more apparent as I more closely observed whose behaviour I could actually control: mine.

In the early ’60s, in his book Parent Effectiveness Training, Thomas Gordon introduced parents to I-messages: “I feel (blank) when (blank) because (blank). What I’d like is (blank).” So, for example, “I feel frustrated when clothes are left lying around because I don’t know what’s clean and what’s dirty. What I’d like is for everyone to put their laundry in the hamper.”

This method can work when the parent and teen have a mutually respectful relationship. But it’s less likely to work when that relationship is strained because it makes three assumptions which may or may not be true:

a) the other person doesn’t know how you feel,
b) the other person cares how you feel, and
c) the other person will be willing to change what they’re doing so you can feel better.

And of course it can be particularly disastrous if the other person already knows how you feel and doesn’t care!

Seen in this way, boundaries are expectations of others. We expect them to respect the limits we set. But how useful are boundaries that only work when others respect them? What do you do when others don’t respect them? And how do you enforce your boundaries with people who aren’t dealing with you in good faith?

On the other hand, effective boundaries are rules you make for yourself.

  • An “everybody knows” boundary is an attempt to get others to change what they’re doing. Its success relies on others buying in.
  • An effective boundary provides information on what you will or will not be doing. It’s beautiful in its simplicity, and its success relies only on you.

Here’s are some examples of “everybody knows” boundaries versus effective boundaries:

“I expect you to put your dirty clothes in the hamper.” vs. “I’ll wash whatever’s in the hamper.”

“Don’t ask me for a ride after 10 PM.” vs. “I don’t go out after 10 PM.”

“I need you to be ready at 8 tomorrow morning so I can drop you off.” vs. “I’m leaving at 8 tomorrow morning. If you’re ready, I can drop you off.”

“Stop asking me for money for clothes!” vs. “I won’t be giving you any more money for clothes.”

If you don’t respect your boundaries, neither will anyone else. Consistency leads to credibility. Think about people you know who have clear, consistent boundaries: You usually know before you make a request what their response will be.

As you become more consistent with your boundaries, your teens (being uncomfortable with this new and unfamiliar behaviour) will test those boundaries. Expect an initial escalation of drama, crises and emergencies! And know that, if you don’t give in, this will pass. And when my teens would hesitate to ask for something, I’d let them know, “You can ask for anything – and I can say no.”

Coming up next: answers to letters from readers!

Want to know more about Choice Theory? My PDF booklet Who’s Driving YOUR Car? and handout Six Things: How to create healthy boundaries are now available for download on my website at www.sanerparenting.com/downloads/. And if you want to email me at sue@sanerparenting.com, I always welcome your comments and questions!


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