Families often seek help from a therapist during periods of transition. Transitions, in the context of family development, are periods of growth or change. In this blog, I am specifically addressing the transition period where a child becomes more independent and autonomous. These changes might be expected, such as the beginning of a new academic year (Kindergarten, high school, cegep), or something less predictable such as the period of preadolescence. This can be challenging for us as parents, as it can provoke feelings of inadequacy, sadness or emptiness. It often comes with a change in the role we play in our child’s life, and how needed we feel. What I have noticed in my practice is that the majority of these family transitions boil down to one thing: boundaries.
In the book entitled “Boundaries” by Cloud and Townsend, the authors illustrate the idea of boundaries by asking the reader to imagine themselves as a house sitting on a piece of property. The readers’ boundaries are compared to a fence around that property. The type of boundaries we have in relationships with others will determine who and what is allowed on our property. Perhaps we have very rigid boundaries and so we’ve built a tall brick wall as the barrier around our property. This can be a positive thing as it protects us from having anyone come onto our property and destroy our grass, but it also blocks out the sunshine and makes it difficult to water our grass. Perhaps instead we have a very small fence with a gate that’s always open. This allows lots of sunshine and watering opportunities, but it also means that people might trample all over our nice lawn. Finding a good balance between the two can be a challenge for all of us, which is why teaching children that their boundaries should be respected is an important part of parenting.
Children practice setting limits (boundaries) with their parents from a young age, and they learn whether or not these limits will be respected based on how we react. A young child asking for more independence in dressing themselves, or offering to help with small tasks like setting the table, is setting a boundary by asking their parents not to take over and do things for them. This affords them opportunities for both failure and success without someone swooping in to save the day. Dr. Andrea Martin writes about the importance of failure in greater detail in her blog Helping Versus Hovering.
As children get older, their boundaries may include asking parents not to kiss them in public, being less physically affectionate, or no longer wanting to be tucked into bed and so on. Setting physical limits helps children feel comfortable with the knowledge that they are making decisions about who has access to their bodies. This is a crucial step for the development of healthy interpersonal relationships. The concept of setting boundaries in adult relationships is discussed further in Dr. Danit Nitka’s blog The Importance of Setting Boundaries.
Where things can get really rocky is, of course, in adolescence. This is one of the most challenging periods for parents because their children are wrestling with wanting more autonomy and independence, while still asking to be cared for and loved. At the same time, parents want their children to grow up to be strong, independent individuals, but also want to hang on to their “babies” and protect their children from failure. This dynamic on both ends tends to cause a lot of tension and conflict in the home, especially while negotiating these new boundaries.
When parents begin to feel overwhelmed by these changes, I encourage them to ask themselves two questions: Whose need am I meeting? and What am I afraid of?
Let’s start with the first question:
Whose need am I meeting?
Maybe your child is pulling away a little more these days, spending more time in their room, not texting you as often (or not talking with you very much at all), prefers spending time with friends, doesn’t share details about school or grades anymore and so on. Your reaction to these things might be to challenge your child, make requests that they change their behavior, comment on how hurt you feel that they are shutting you out, or find ways to stay included in the aspects of their lives of which they are shutting you out. Although we might tell ourselves that we are “doing this for their own good”, I would challenge you to ask yourself the question “whose need am I meeting?” Sometimes our worries and fears about our children pushing us away causes us to tighten our grip in order to soothe our anxiety. Unfortunately, refusing to respect a healthy boundary set by our children might actually raise their anxiety and reduce their self-confidence. Richard Schwartz talks more about the impact of boundaries, or lack thereof, on family systems in his book “Internal Family Systems Therapy”.
This doesn’t mean that we should stop engaging with our children or that we should allow them to spend the entire day locked away in their bedroom. Children still need guidance, and part of that guidance includes certain limits. This brings me to my next point: parents need to set their own boundaries with children too. Every home tends to have rules and limits which are generally set by the parents. These rules should be consistent but also adaptable so they can be adjusted as children grow and learn. Oftentimes parents are comfortable setting limits, but lack follow-through when those limits are not respected. By not respecting our own limits, we teach our children they don’t need to respect our limits either. This is an important skill because it allows our children not only to set limits, but also maintain them when someone tests them. Let’s look at some examples:
The second question I tell parents to ask themselves is:
What am I afraid of?
The anxiety that parents feel about their children setting limits often has a lot to do with their own unresolved childhood needs (to explore this further I highly recommend “Getting the Love you Want” written by Hendrix and Hunt). Perhaps parents are worried about feeling abandoned or rejected by their child. Perhaps they are worried about their child “failing” or getting hurt, as they once did. The message I want parents to retain is that it’s okay to feel afraid, and it’s normal to feel hurt when our children pull away. These are natural feelings that come with the transition period of getting older and gradually needing less help. The important thing to remember is that it’s not our children’s responsibility to soothe our fears. Instead, we might ask ourselves what we can do to manage our worries and our sadness, rather than tightening our grip on our children. We need to pay attention to the moments when we begin to feel this way, and see if there is something we can do differently in the way we react to these feelings. Here are a few suggestions that I have found helpful: call a friend, speak to your spouse about how you’re feeling, take a walk, have a long shower, or perhaps just sit with the feeling and let it wash over you for a moment.
Boundaries can sometimes feel like a barrier in a relationship, especially when they provoke such strong feelings of rejection in us as parents, but they actually create stronger and more healthy relationships. So watch for moments where your children are looking to take the lead in setting their limits and practice respecting those boundaries. It might be difficult having to let go of our children a little bit, but the rewards are tremendous when we get to watch them succeed on their own!
(1) Cloud, H. & Townsend, J. (1992). Boundaries. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
(2) Hendrix, H. & Hunt, H. L. (2019). Getting the Love you Want: A Guide For Couples. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Publishing Group.
(3) Sweenzy, M. & Schwartz, R. (2019). Internal Family Systems Therapy. Guilford Publications.