One of the hardest balancing acts in building a new family is setting healthy boundaries. We know that vibrant relationships require some level of self-sacrifice, but if we sacrifice too much of ourselves the relationships become toxic. We have to set boundaries of what we will and will not accept from family members. It’s important, not only for our well-being, but also to show our children how one goes about setting healthy boundaries.
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 other people. Concepts, however, 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 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.
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.