Enjoy the Rewards of Boundaries in 3 Straightforward Steps

Jean used to believe that she would never learn how to say no and make it stick. But, as she sat at her kitchen table with a teacup in hand, she felt amazed. It was an unfamiliar sensation, but a pleasant one. Her mind wandered back to the events of the morning. Her eight-year-old son, Bryan, had begun the day with his usual waking-up shenanigans. He sulked and pouted his way to the breakfast table, announcing, “I’m not going to school — and no one’s going to make me!”

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them by phone or in person, he becomes depressed, argumentative, self-critical, perfectionistic, angry, combative, or withdrawn.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 »

Are You Blackmailing Your Children?

“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 “It’s like she’s hurt and withdrawn, and I can’t get her back.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 »

Boundaries, Compliance, and the Fear of Saying No

“May I tell you something embarrassing?” Robert asked me (Dr. Townsend). A new client, Robert was trying to understand why he had so much difficulty refusing his wife’s constant demands. He was going broke trying to keep up with the Joneses. “I was the only boy in my family, the youngest of four children. There was a strange double standard in my house involving physical fighting.” Robert cleared his throat, struggling to continue. “My sisters were three to seven years older than me. Until I was in sixth grade, they were a lot bigger and stronger. They’d take advantage of their size and strength and wale on me until I was bruised. I mean, they really hurt me. “The strangest part of it all was my parents’ attitude. They’d tell us, ‘Robert is the boy. Boys don’t hit girls. It’s bad manners.’ Bad manners! I was getting triple-teamed, and fighting back was bad manners?” Robert stopped. His shame kept him from continuing, but he’d said enough. He had unearthed part of the reason for his conflicts with his wife. When parents teach children that setting boundaries or saying no is bad, they are teaching them that others can do with... Continue Reading »

How to Set Holiday Boundaries with Family

When you were born, God placed you into a family for a season of time to help you grow into a mature adult. At some point this season ends, and your relationship with your parents changes from child-to-parent to adult-to-adult. The roles change from dependency and authority to mutuality. While you are to respect and care for your mother and father, you are no longer under their protection and tutelage. Children are to obey parents, while adult children are to love and honor them. Therefore, situations will occur where you need to make decisions and set boundaries with family with which they may not agree. For example, you might decide to spend some traditional holiday time apart from your family. This can often be a cause for a confrontational talk: You: “Mom, I wanted to let you know as soon as I could that I’ve made plans to go to the mountains with some friends this Christmas. I know this will be the first Christmas I won’t be with you and Dad, so I wanted to talk to you about it.” Mom: “What are you talking about? You always spend Christmas with us. Your father will be so hurt.” You:... Continue Reading »

Adults: Do Not Obey Your Parents

As an adult, loving and honoring your parents does not equal obeying. God placed you with your parents for a season of time to help you grow into a mature adult. At some point this season ends, and your relationship with your mom and dad changes from child-to-parent to adult-to-adult. The roles change from dependency and authority to mutuality. While you are to respect and care for your parents, you are no longer under their protection and tutelage. Children are to obey parents, while adult children are to love and honor them. Therefore, sometimes you will need to confront parents, disobeying their desire for you to agree with them or go along with a bad situation. People often have difficulty confronting parents, because they still feel like a little child with them. Emotionally they have not left home, so they do not feel free to be separate, truthful, and honest with them. There is too much to lose. If this sounds like you, it might be very helpful to work on these issues in a small-group setting or with a counselor in order to free yourself up from the past so that you can be an adult in the present. One... Continue Reading »

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 »