Understanding Boundaries

Cows are funny creatures. When a cow is initially placed in an enclosed pasture, for the first few weeks the cows will stick to the perimeter of the fence pushing their bodies against it while they graze in order to see if the fence is secure. A good rancher will then spend every day fixing any broken parts of the fence until all is repaired creating a safe haven for the cows. Even if the best tasting alfalfa is in the middle of the field, the cows won’t touch it until they feel safe. If there’s an opening in the fence, they can get out and would be unprotected from the dangers outside, or a predator could come inside. Once the cows know the perimeter is secured, they’ll come to the center for the good stuff.

Why are Boundaries Important for Children

Much like cows, adolescents thrive in a secure and safe environment where firm boundaries are in place. According to Brene Brown, a leading researcher in Shame and Vulnerability work, a boundary is a simple “statement of what is okay and not okay” based on your personal values. I heard it said once that the most compassionate people have the firmest boundaries. I don’t know about you, but my first thought when I heard this was “no way!” I thought that if I’m saying no to people then I am being unkind, unhelpful, and definitely uncompassionate. But boundaries are all about respect, and compassion without respect for yourself and others is insincere. The only true way to have a safe and secure relationship is by holding firm boundaries. Brene Brown goes on to say “daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others. We can’t base our own worthiness on others’ approval. Only when we believe, deep down that we are enough can we say ‘Enough!’”
Let’s look at our cow analogy again, an adolescent naturally will push our boundaries around our personal values in order to test their security in the relationship, just like a cow pushes along a fence line looking for openings. If our values are strong and our boundaries are firm the adolescent will feel safe. I had an experience a few weeks ago with a teen that solidifies this idea. This girl is the epitome of a boundary pusher, she has nearly exhausted every staff who works with her. She constantly challenges personal values and boundaries. One of my personal values that she constantly has pushed is honesty. With that value, I hold the boundary with my teens that if they are always honest with me I will always be honest with them. One day, she was having an extremely hard time keeping herself safe and she repeatedly tried to walk off campus away from staff. I noticed her struggles and asked her if she would come talk to me. In this conversation we had, she told me she felt safe with me. I asked her why, and she replied, “because I know you will always tell it like it is, and that you don’t take my crap.” I have since shared many opportunities with this girl to stand up for my values and be firm in my boundaries. This has helped me to connect with her on things that are healthy and important to me rather than her attempting to connect with me over negative things. If I was not firm in my value of honesty, I know for a fact that I would not have the relationship with this student that I do now.

How to Start Setting Boundaries

Now that we know the strength boundaries can give us in a relationship, we must ask ourselves “What boundaries do I need to have in place that allow me to take care of myself while treating you in a way that is in line with my values.” According to Brene Brown, that question is not only how we show true compassion in relationships but how we show compassion for ourselves creating a safe and secure relationship.

By Amy Bowler, Residential Manager at Sunrise Residential Treatment Center.