Wednesday, March 21, 2007


I keep trying to write posts about boundaries, but it is a large topic and the posts keep getting out of control. This post too starts in one place and works its way to another, but boundaries are like that.

One kind of boundary is in letting go of the choices that other people make. I wrote about not judging our parenting by the results, and Process responded to that post commenting that part of what I was talking about were boundaries. She was right.

Respecting, remember boundaries, means accepting that I cannot make someone else do what I want them to do. I can offer opportunities, relationship, whatever, to the kids who come into my care, but what they do with that, in the short and long term are up to them.

Boundaries are also about self-protection.

Marelow wrote the other day that she would never stay with a boyfriend who treats her the way her son does. She of course was speaking of extreme behaviors, but that sentiment could be expressed by any parent of any young child. Children are supposed to demand that their needs be met, and they are not supposed to take our needs into consideration. Any adult who behaved like a normal two-year-old should absolutely be avoided.

But sometimes the treatment we get from the traumatized children we care for really does look and feel more like abuse than it does like the normal narcissism of childhood. Traumatized children are more likely to be physical violent. They are more likely to call us names we are shocked to learn they even know.

Boundaries, which are not the same things as rules, protect us from this unacceptable behavior.

An example of a rule is: There is no swearing in this house. If you do swear you will have (1) a time out; (2) to think of and write down five different ways you might have expressed yourself; (3) put 50 cents into the potty mouth jar. We have rules to limit behavior. Often they exist to change behavior. A child does not do his homework, so the new rule is that he must bring home a note from the teacher every day listing what he has to do and cannot play any games until after he finishes it. We hope that the child develops the habit of doing the homework and the need for the formal rule goes away. Rules are a normal and good part of parenting.

A example of a boundary is this: it is not okay to swear at me. If you use foul language at me I will remind you that I will not listen to that. If you continue I will walk away and not engage in conversation with you until you can address me respectfully. The goal of a boundary is to keep me safe from behavior that is harmful to me. Though it may result in a change in behavior, that is not the goal. A boundary can continue to exist as long as the relationship exists. I can have a child who continues to swear like a sailor in all sorts of situations, but knows that I will not engage if she speaks that way to me. That is a boundary that is working.

When Andrew was a toddler he developed a habit of hitting. When he did it I would hold his hands, look in his eyes and say, "No hitting mommy." If he hit me again I would say, "I can't play with you if you hit. I am going to go... wash dishes/read my book/etc ... We can play again in a few minutes." Though my walking away from him after he hit me was certainly a negative consequence, I never punished him for hitting me. I never gave him a time out, or hit him back.

When I wrote about Miss E the other day, it was suggested to me by her social worker that I tell her that I would leave her house at some specific time whether she was ready or not. I realized that that would not address the issue that I was having with her.

When I was first driving her to school I was also driving Andrew. I was very clear then that I would leave her house at the point I needed to to get Andrew to school on time. That was a boundary and it existed to protect Andrew. Had he continued to have a zero hour class, these last couple of weeks would have been different. I would certainly have driven off without her at least once, and she probably would have started getting herself out of bed earlier. That might have been a good thing.

I could do that now. I could set up a rule intended to help her to get to school on time. I'm not going to though. I am not her mother (by choice) or any other person who is responsible for her being "good." It is not my job to control her and attempting to do so would just create tension. There's nothing wrong with creating tension if you need to, of course. It's just that it is not my job to make sure she gets to school on time and we both know it.

If I was feeling resentful about sitting in her driveway for 10+ minutes then I would need a boundary to protect myself. I could instruct her to call me in the morning 10 minutes before she was ready to be picked up, or I could tell her that I will drive away at a particular time. Actually if she is as late as she was yesterday, I will have to tell her that I have to drive away at 7:00 in order to get to work when I want to.

And that is a boundary. We create boundaries to protect our own needs. In order for a boundary to work, you need to have a action plan to protect yourself.

There are two things that I really like about dealing with kids this way. The first is that they can usually come to understand that it is about protecting yourself and not about controlling them. In my experience that means it is less likely to escalate into a power struggle. If I was Miss E's mother and was telling her that I was driving away at a certain time because she needed to learn to get to school on time, she would be more likely to be late on purpose or to cut school after I dropped her off just to show me that I couldn't control her. If I was her mother and told her that I could give her a ride if she was ready by a certain time because that was when I needed to leave, she still might cut school -- but she wouldn't do it in an effort to demonstrate to me that I couldn't control her or to "get back" at me.

The second thing I like about it is that it is the best way to teach these children that they have the right to have boundaries themselves. With a few exceptions the kids we care for have been abused. That means someone has denied them the right to have boundaries, denied them the right to control how they are touched and how they are spoken to. Teaching them to have boundaries may be the best thing we can do for them.

When Carl lived with me he went through a very clingy stage. He seemed to want a hug every time we walked past each other. It got to be too much and I finally told him that he could have two hugs a day but neither of them would be given if I was in the middle of something like washing dishes. (Exceptions would be made for genuine emotional distress on his part, of course. We were talking about every day clinginess). He would pout about it sometimes, standing next to me at the sink saying, "Please. I could really use a hug right now. I need a hug." I would respond, "And you will get one as soon as I am done. Right now we can talk if you want."

Though at the time I really was just protecting myself from wanting to scream over being touched all the time, I realized later I was teaching him something valuable : Our bodies are our own. Nobody else has the right to demand that we touch them or allow them to touch us. Even if the other person "needs" it really, really bad, we have the right to say no.

The children we care for often have a desperate need to form and maintain their own boundaries. One of the best ways we can help them learn that is to form and maintain our own.


  1. Elegantly stated. Boundaries are so important for children to learn. I recently found you site and read through most of the archives. I just wanted to say how much I am enjoying your perspective on being a parent.

  2. We've used a similar tecnique to teach Baby R not to hit. If he is standing we say "No, hitting isn't nice." The second time we repeat it and walk away. If we are holding him then the second time we just set him down and walk away. It really works, he would rather have us when he is upset so he doesn't hit us. The poor cushions on the other hand. lol

  3. Yet another tip that I'll store for future use. When I read about some behaviors of the kids I'm considering adopting I often "OK, what would I do in this situation or that situation?" I usually have two or three ideas but who knows what the best tactic would be when actually IN the situation and not reading about it. In some cases I can see where boundaries to protect me would be the best option. Let them work through what they have to work through -- they just can't hurt themselves or me in the process.

  4. How did you learn this? Was any of it taught in FP training? So many parents so much need to learn how to do this, and it seems to be almost impossible to teach.

    A topic for another post would be responding to the children's boundaries when they set them--which they will do when they see them modeled.

  5. Process, I learned all this in Alanon/Naranon. It was one of the things that I thought should be in foster parent training. I find it much more helpful than all the behavior mod stuff they tried to teach me.

    I stink at behavior modification.

  6. I was sent here by Aidel and I am glad of that! Wonderful perspective and insight. Thank you.

  7. I absolutely love this.

  8. You know, I've been looking at photolistings and when they've said "must be good at establishing boundaries", I haven't had any idea of what that meant in practical terms. Thank you!

  9. Now how do I teach that thought about boundaries to my MIL? I had to tell my kids that no one is ever allowed to touch them if they don't want to be touched... except the doctor under very specific circumstances, and Bubbie.

    And Bubbie shouldn't be an exception... it's just that she's one of those "I must kiss you at least once upon arrival and 17 million times (well, at least once and often more like three times) before I take leave of you" types and some of my kids (and me, for that matter) don't appreciate it one bit. She'll actually chase them, sigh.


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