Sitting in a coffee shop, I overhear snippets of conversation between a mother and her teenage daughter sitting right next to me.
The mother is hungry for validation and keeps touching her daughter’s hair. The girl asks her to stop at least three times.
The mother whines for her daughter to pay attention to her. When the girl gets up to leave, she says no to her mother’s request for a goodbye kiss. Mom whimpers, “Can you at least run your cheek along mine and give me some affection?”
I cringed at the mom’s lack of boundaries. The daughter, though obviously annoyed at the same time, seemed relatively unfazed, as if she was used to it.
Observing this scene made me realize how hard it can be for parents to respect the boundaries of their children. When my kids were little and trying to establish their autonomy, I often found it tough to allow them to do what they wanted.
Staying up all night or eating straight sugar just wasn’t reasonable, so in those instances I would feel justified in denying their needs and wants.
There are deeper and more subtle ways, though, in which we cross lines with our kids. Most of the time we aren’t even aware that we do.
We violate their boundaries when we make our kids do certain things because we want to be accepted, to be seen as good parents, or in moments when we’re simply acting unconsciously.
As kids, we don’t have the logical capacity to distinguish between emotional manipulation, parental unconsciousness, and the truth. When our parents act in these ways, we know it makes us feel uncomfortable, but we learn to ignore our uneasiness until it feels normal. It’s up to the parents, then, to demonstrate healthy boundaries and a respect for them once established.
Boundary violations like the following can be traumatic to children:
1. Requiring children to hug and be physically affectionate with people as a way to be polite: “Give your Auntie a hug” or “Kiss Mommy!”
2. Not allowing our children to have negative emotions: “You have no reason to be angry about that” or “Stop crying and cheer up, this is ridiculous!”
3. Making adult emotions the responsibility of our children: “Mommy is so sad. If you want to make Mommy happy, you’ll put your shoes on” or “You hurt my feelings because you didn’t listen to me.”
4. Discussing the private lives of adults in great detail with young and emotionally immature children: “I hate my boss! He’s an ass and he treats me like dirt.”
5. Speaking unfavorably about the other parent (or other people the child knows and loves): “Your father never follows through on his word.”
6. Parents speaking unfavorably about themselves in front of the kids: “Oh I’m so fat and hideous” or “I’m such an idiot!”
7. Requiring older children to do things that they really don’t want to do (like play a sport or an instrument that they don’t enjoy).
8. Publicly shaming children by chastising them for their behavior in front of others.
When we put our kids in an uncomfortable situation like any of the above and make them accept it as normal, we put them at a disadvantage that can affect them all the way into adulthood.
Most of us know from personal experience that we have no idea what our personal limits are as adults because our parents didn’t allow us to have boundaries as kids.
We’ve learned to say “yes” when we would rather say no because we don’t want to risk disappointing someone, so we violate our own boundaries. Our partner asks for sex when we don’t feel like having it and we do it anyway, and then get angry at our partner. A co-worker wants to gossip about someone we respect but we don’t know how to stop it, so we stay silent and become resentful.
We’re so accustomed to the feelings of discomfort that arise when a boundary is being challenged that we don’t even notice them; all we see is our obligation to please the other person.
If you start to recognize boundary violations from your own childhood or you’ve committed them yourself as a parent, don’t despair; it’s totally possible to re-learn boundaries at any age.
If you want to know what your personal limits are now, start by using your physical body as your compass.
Boundary violations feel uncomfortable.
They make us angry, confused, defensive, or resentful.
If you’ve said “yes” to something and you feel any of the above emotions surface, check in and ask yourself whether you’ve just violated one of your own boundaries. If you realize that you have, then rescind your original answer and give a “no” instead—we’re allowed to change our minds.
One of the hardest parts about re-establishing our boundaries is that other people probably won’t appreciate our new-found limits, especially if it means that they won’t be getting something they want from us. That’s okay. We aren’t responsible for making them happy, we’re responsible for taking care of ourselves.
One of the best parts of resetting boundaries is that it has an effect on the people we’re close to.
Kids model their behavior after ours, and when they see us respecting ourselves, they will emulate that. The same is true for friends and family. When they see us getting clear around our limits, we set a precedent. If they know that we speak our truth when asked for something, then they can relax knowing that our answers are trustworthy (even if they don’t initially like it). Don’t we all want to know that people are doing things for us because they want to, and not because they feel obligated?
Back to the mom and daughter in the coffee shop: the mom had quite terrible boundaries but the young woman, well, she was pretty good at saying no, even though it upset her mom.
May we all learn from her.
Boundary work is a necessary part of developing self confidence and self esteem. Relationships get much easier to navigate when you’re being honest about what you want and don’t want to do.