Am I Being Selfish When I Set Boundaries?

“Now, wait a minute,” Teresa said, shaking her head. “How can I set limits on those who need me? Isn’t that living for me and not for God?” Teresa was voicing one of the main objections to boundary setting for Christians: a deep-seated fear of being self-centered, interested only in one’s own concerns and not those of others. It is absolutely true that we are to be a loving people. Concerned for the welfare of others. In fact, the number-one hallmark of Christians is that we love others (John 13:35). So don’t boundaries turn us from other-centeredness to self-centeredness? The answer is no. Appropriate boundaries actually increase our ability to care about others. People with highly developed limits are the most caring people on earth. How can this be true? First, let’s make a distinction between selfishness and stewardship. Selfishness has to do with a fixation on our own wishes and desires, to the exclusion of our responsibility to love others. Though having wishes and desires is a God-given trait (Proverbs 13:4), we are to keep them in line with healthy goals and responsibility. For one thing, we may not want what we need. Mr. Insensitive may desperately need help... Continue Reading »

How to Handle Guilt Messages from Your Mom

Tabitha telephoned her mother, who answered the phone weakly with hardly any voice at all. Concerned, thinking she was sick, Tabitha asked, “Mother, what’s wrong?” “I guess my voice doesn’t work very well anymore,” she replied. “No one calls me since you children left home.” No weapon in the arsenal of a controlling person is as strong as the guilt message. Daughters or sons with poor boundaries almost always internalize guilt messages leveled at them by their mother; they obey guilt-inducing statements that try to make them feel bad. Consider these: “How could you do this to me after all I’ve done for you?” “It seems that you could think about someone other than yourself for once.” “How can you abandon me like this?” “Maybe after I’m dead and gone, you’ll be sorry.” “How can you call yourself a Christian?” “Doesn’t the Bible say ‘Honor your parents’?” “You must really have a spiritual problem to be acting this way.” “You know how it’s turned out in the past when you haven’t listened to me.” “You have no idea how much I’ve sacrificed for you.” A mother who says these types of things is trying to make you feel guilty about your... Continue Reading »

Why Teens Should Get Angry with Parents

Boundaries with Teens

Adolescents get angry a lot. They live in protest mode, so it is second nature for them to get mad at everything in the world, especially their parents. But some parents are conflict-phobic — they are uncomfortable and afraid of being the object of their teen’s wrath, and so they avoid setting boundaries with teens. However, this teaches adolescents that if they throw a tantrum, they can get out of a limit. Teens who learn this will also have difficulty experiencing healthy adult relationships. To help your child avoid this relational future, you’ll want to teach him to accept responsibilities in relationships without having outbursts. Many parents who fear their teen’s anger have either had little experience in dealing with anger or had some very negative experiences. Whichever the case, these parents have few tools to deal with angry people, so they avoid confronting them because it’s too uncomfortable. If this is your struggle, in addition to fearing your teen’s anger, you may also fear the strength of your own anger. To resolve this fear, learn to experience and normalize anger — your own and others’ — as a part of life. Make this an intentional item of growth for... Continue Reading »

Setting Boundaries with the Sins of Your Family

Susie had a problem that I (Dr. Townsend) had seen countless times before. This thirty-year-old woman would return from a visit to her parents’ home and suffer a deep depression. When she described her problem to me, I asked her if she noticed that every time she went home to visit, she came back extremely depressed. “Why that’s ridiculous,” she said. “I don’t live there anymore. How could the trip affect me this way?” When I asked her to describe the trip, Susie told of social gatherings with old friends and family times around the dinner table. These were fun, she said, especially when it was only family. “What do you mean ‘only family’?” I asked. “Well, other times my parents would invite some of my friends over, and I didn’t like those dinners as well.” “Why was that?” Susie thought for a minute and then replied, “I guess I start to feel guilty.” She began to recount the subtle remarks her parents would make comparing her friends’ lives to hers. They would talk of how wonderful it is for grandparents to have a “hands on” role in raising the children. They would talk of the community activities her friends... Continue Reading »

My Teen Is on Drugs. What Can I Do?

It’s every parent’s nightmare: having a teen on drugs. This is not life as God designed it. Substance abuse causes the breakdown of all that is good. Enslavement replaces freedom. Detachment replaces love. Chaos replaces order. Despair replaces hope. Many young people abuse alcohol and drugs, and this problem is not likely to go away anytime soon. I (Dr. Townsend) can’t overstate the danger of substance abuse. It can, and often does, lead to poverty, injury, disease, and death. But despite the seriousness of this problem, parents of teens with this issue need to understand that the greatest single force to help a teen resolve a substance problem is an involved parent. What follows are some guidelines for the process. Defining the Problem Unfortunately, the teen years are a perfect fit, in a sick way, for substance abuse problems. By nature, adolescents challenge the authority and values of parents and are highly susceptible to peer approval. They are interested in feelings and experiences, often to the neglect of good judgment, yet they can quickly become disconnected and can feel isolation deeply. Teens get easily bruised, discouraged, and hurt, and they gravitate toward quick ways to medicate the pain. No wonder the issue... Continue Reading »

Raising Kids with an Eye on the Future

It was a normal day, but one that would forever change my friend’s parenting. We had finished dinner, and I (Dr. Cloud) was visiting with my friend, Allison, and her husband, Bruce, when she left the dinner table to do some chores. Bruce and I continued to talk until a phone call took him away as well, so I went to see if I could lend Allison a hand. I could hear her in their 14-year-old son Cameron’s room. I walked in to a scene that jolted me. She was cheerfully putting away clothes and sports equipment and making the bed. She struck up a conversation as if things were normal: “I can’t wait for you to see the pictures from our trip. It was so much—” “What are you doing?” I asked. “I’m cleaning up Cameron’s room,” she said. “What does it look like I’m doing?” “You are what?” “I told you. I’m cleaning up his room. Why are you looking at me like that?” All I could do was to share with her the vision in my head. “I just feel sorry for Cameron’s future wife.” Allison straightened up, froze for a moment, and then hurried from the... Continue Reading »

A Little Boundary Clarification Goes a Long Way

The parents of a twenty-five-year-old man came to see me (Dr. Townsend) with a common request: they wanted me to “fix” their son, Bill. When I asked where Bill was, they answered, “Oh, he didn’t want to come.” “Why?” I asked. “Well, he doesn’t think he has a problem,” they replied. “Maybe he’s right,” I said, to their surprise. “Tell me about it.” They recited a history of problems that had begun at a very young age. Bill had never been “quite up to snuff” in their eyes. In recent years he had exhibited problems with drugs and an inability to stay in school and find a career. It was apparent that they loved their son very much and were heartbroken over the way he was living. They had tried everything they knew to get him to change and live a responsible life, but all had failed. He was still using drugs, avoiding responsibility, and keeping questionable company. They told me that they had always given him everything he needed. He had plenty of money at school so “he wouldn’t have to work and he would have plenty of time for study and a social life.” When he flunked out... Continue Reading »

Your Child’s Pain Should Not Control Your Actions

Boundaries with kids begins with parents having good boundaries of their own. Purposeful parents stay in control of themselves. If your child is controlling your decisions by protesting your boundaries, you are no longer parenting with purpose. Terri was having problems with her thirteen-year-old son Josh not doing his homework. I helped her come up with a plan that would require Josh to set aside a certain time each night to do homework. During this hour Josh had to be in his study place with nothing else but his work, and he was not to do anything else but study. Terri had no control over whether or not Josh actually chose to study during that time. What she could control was that he do nothing else during that time but sit with his homework. When I saw her the next time, Terri looked sheepish. She had not lived up to her end of the plan. “What happened?” I asked. “Well, we were all set, and then he got invited to go to a baseball game with his friend. I said no, that his hour was not up yet. But he got so upset, I could not talk him out of... Continue Reading »

Common Signs of a Lack of Boundaries with Family

Let’s look at some common signs of a lack of boundaries with the family we grew up in. Catching the Virus A common scenario is this: one spouse doesn’t have good emotional boundaries with the family he grew up in — his family of origin. Then when he has contact with them by phone or in person, he becomes depressed, argumentative, self-critical, perfectionistic, angry, combative, or withdrawn. It is as though he “catches” something from his family of origin and passes it on to his immediate family. His family of origin has the power to affect his new family in a trickle-down effect. One sure sign of boundary problems is when your relationship with one person has the power to affect your relationships with others. You are giving one person way too much power in your life. I remember one young woman who made steady gains in therapy until she talked to her mother, when she would withdraw for three weeks. She would say things like, “I’m not changing at all. I’m not getting any better.” Fusing with many of her mother’s ideas about her, she wasn’t able to stay separate. This fusion with her mother affected her other relationships.... Continue Reading »

Boundaries and Emotional Blackmail

“Every time I disagree with my mother, even on little things, I feel this terrible sense that she’s not there anymore,” mused Ingrid over coffee with her friend Alice. “It’s like she’s hurt and withdrawn, and I can’t get her back. It’s really a horrible feeling to think you’ve lost someone you love.” Let’s be honest. None of us enjoys being told no. It’s difficult to accept another person’s refusal to give support, to be intimate, or to forgive. Yet good relationships are built on the freedom to refuse and confront. Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Good relationships are built on appropriate no’s. Even when we’re children, young or old, we need to know our boundaries will be honored. It is crucial that our disagreements, our practicing of saying no, and our experimentation will not result in a withdrawal of love. How often do we hear the statement that “God loves the sinner, but hates the sin”? It’s true. His love is constant and never fails. When parents detach from a misbehaving young child instead of staying connected and dealing with the problem, God’s constant love is misrepresented. When parents pull away in... Continue Reading »