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Boundaries in the Family

Four Tips To Help You Set And Enforce Family Boundaries
By: Dr. Charles Sophy

A healthy sense of self comes from clear personal and family boundaries. Much like physical structures that define space, boundaries are what define us from one another. Healthy boundaries are integral to how we find privacy, personal respect and our sense of what we as individuals are entitled to. We all need boundaries for our own peace of mind.

Many people have difficulty creating and respecting healthy boundaries. More often than not, an individual's ability or inability to create/respect healthy boundaries is a product of their upbringing. Families that struggle with boundaries tend to raise children that struggle with boundaries, who tend to raise children that struggle with boundaries and so on. Setting boundaries and limits for your child is often a painful experience and requires that a balance be struck between love and boundaries and the enforcement of rules. It is crucial, therefore, that you begin as early as possible to teach your children their physical and emotional self.

The development of healthy personal boundaries begins in infancy. As early as several months of age, newborns begin to develop an interest in the external world. If children are denied the opportunity to separate, they may begin to feel it's "bad" to have their own identities. Eventually, this may result in difficulty setting limits with others. For healthy development, young children need the freedom to explore their surroundings within safe limits set by their caregivers.

Parents who establish boundaries with their children begin to teach children about boundaries. Children are not born with an innate sense of boundaries. It is your task as parent to teach your child "I end here and you begin there." Closed doors and drawers must be respected - whether it's the door of the parent or that of the child.

Let's check out Matthew's home:

Matthew is 4 yrs old and is usually allowed to wander the house freely as long as he is in no physical danger. He enters his parents' room without knocking and is free to open drawers and closets. His parents indulge his behavior because they do not want him to feel that the family has any secrets. By being so permissive, Matthew has not learned to set boundaries and respect the privacy of others, especially those who are not part of the immediate family unit. When Matthew's family hosts house guests, he still feels free to roam in to the bedroom of his guests. Not only does he roam, but he walks right in to the bathroom where one was trying to have his privacy!

The guest asks Matthew to leave the bathroom, a direction to which Matthew responds by throwing things, yelling and crying. Mom and Dad investigate and discover that Matthew was told he could not come in to the bathroom when others were using it, especially if he had not knocked.

Matthew's parents were quite dismayed as to why their guest had reacted so strongly to his intrusion. Matthew's parents had never set this boundary and re-enforced it. In order to not be guilty of intruding, acting inappropriately, Matthew needs to be taught that there are boundaries of others that need to be respected and that there are consequences for not respecting them.

Honest communication is the key to creating healthy boundaries.
    Try These Tips:
  • Know Your Own Boundaries: In order to teach you must know the limits of your own personal space.
  • Be Clear: Teach your child exactly what you want them to know. Do not expect your child to anticipate the boundaries.
  • Reinforce: Practice what you preach and model good behavior. If you want your child to learn not to rummage through drawers, don't go rummaging through theirs.
  • Follow-Through: Remind your child of the limits. When someone breaks the rules, there should be reasonable and logical consequences that are agreed upon ahead of time.
  • It is vital to teach your children as early as possible the boundaries that you want them to learn and incorporate into themselves as they move out to the world and will need to interact respectfully.

Dr. Charles Sophy, author of the "Keep 'Em Off My Couch" blog, provides real simple answers for solving life's biggest problems. He specializes in improving the mental health of children. To contact Dr. Sophy, visit his blog at