One essential part of self-care is setting clear boundaries of what we expect from each other. It can be hard to do that, especially when we know as foster or bonus parents that parenting our children requires some level of self-sacrifice. However, if we sacrifice too much of ourselves the relationships become toxic. It's essential for our emotional health and for our family relationships that we all respect healthy boundaries. Furthermore, personal boundaries are more than a way of taking care of our own needs. They also are one of the best ways to model for our children the self-respect that they need to be resilient and happy adults.
There are several types of boundaries that are important for a healthy home life. If you are a new blended family or have a new foster placement, start with just the basics and build up to the more complex tasks.
• Start Simple
Early in the relationship, or if you have a lot of conflict, it’s best to settle for just a few house rules. Start with the basics, such as respect for family members and enforcing personal space. Younger kids may need physical boundaries, such as not going into someone else's room. In my experience, children and teens like to have their rooms as their safe space, and having other siblings come in can be a constant source of conflict. Consider letting kids set their own boundaries for their stuff, both to teach them how to do it and to let them feel some control over their lives. Being able to establish grounds rules for their physical things can be an important way of claiming self-respect.
• Be Concrete
Concepts are not easy for kids to understand and follow. I still remember my frustration when I was a child trying to understand what my mother meant about my “bad attitude.” I didn’t know what an attitude was, and I didn’t know what was bad about arguing my point of view. (Yes, some would say that I still suffer from that problem.) So, use descriptions of concrete actions. For example, the rule can be that no one calls anyone else bad names or makes fun of them. As they mature, children will be able to figure how the concrete actions create the right attitude.
It’s also important to be specific because traumatized children often think something mysterious about them is the core problem. Other people’s children often come to us with a pre-existing narrative that garbles what we say. It is all too easy for a child to transform “you never clean up after yourself” into “you are a trashy person.” From there they leap to the conclusion that trashy people inevitably get kicked out of this house, so there is no point in trying. It takes a lot of therapy and commitment and time to help children change those narratives. In the meantime, we have to relentlessly focus on talking to them about narrow and specific actions.
• Be Consistent
Of course, the real difficulty is always in enforcing our boundaries. When possible, all of the adults in a child’s life need to agree on the boundaries. At the very least, you and your spouse need to present a united front. Then you can agree on what happens when the kids test the boundaries, as they almost always do. The best consequences, in my experience, flow logically from the boundary. I once saw a family friend admonish his teenage son at a restaurant when the son called his stepmother “that woman.” When the son persisted, his father didn’t argue. Instead, when the server brought the check, the father calmly handed it over to the son with the comment, “Only adults can choose for themselves what to call people in my family. If you want to be an independent adult, you can start with paying for your meal.” The son glared at his father, but backed down and, I’m told, never crossed that boundary again.
I was fortunate to have stepchildren who were always respectful and a husband who always backed me. But when I had foster children who received conflicting signals from their biological parents, the situation was more complicated. I never wanted to disrupt a child’s placement for being disrespectful to me, but I needed to establish basic ground rules of respect. I found that logical consequences helped immensely. For example, a younger child once responded rudely to me. I pointed it out and, when she gave another rude response, I simply said, “Remember that I don’t favors for people who are rude to me.” Then, shortly thereafter when she asked for something out of the ordinary, I said, “No, I told you that I don’t do favors for people who are rude to me. You’ll have to work this out on your own.” I only had to apply the rule a few times before she apologized and stopped the behavior.
Never feel guilty about setting boundaries in your family. Healthy boundaries are essential to healthy relationships. It will not help your kids if you are uncaring, but neither will it help if you are a doormat. They need to know that you are committed to them; they need just as badly to know that you will protect that commitment with strong boundaries.