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Generational Boundaries

Generational boundaries insure the roles of children and parents do not cross.

Generational Boundaries

In a healthy family parents insure the generational boundaries respect the roles of the children and the parents.

One of the first families with whom I counseled early in my career was a young couple with a five-year-old boy. One of the first things they said to me was, "We can't seem to do a thing with him. He doesn't mind us, and pretty much does what he feels like doing."

I asked the parents' permission to consult with their primary care physician with whom I had consulted on other occasions. They said the physician had referred them to me and her examination of their boy showed no physical or neurological problems.

Going into the Home of the Young Couple

I decided, there were a couple of things that I could do. I could refer the family to a child psychiatrist but the nearest was 200 miles from their home. I had done quite a bit of work with marriage and family counseling, but had to admit none was as challenging as this appeared to be.

The young couple gave me permission to go into their home to observe the family in action. During the first 20 minutes it was obvious the child was watching over his shoulder at what I was doing. Finally, the three of them seemed to accept my presence and went about their business interacting with one another in what I assumed was a fairly normal pattern.

What I observed was a child acting very bossy to his parents. When they did not immediately answer questions or pay attention to what he was doing he yelled at them. He ignored their questions and their directives. They removed two toys which prompted a tempest of crying, howling and pounding fists on the floor. I have to admit that the child's behavior was over the top. I understood what his parents meant when they said, "We can't seem to do a thing with him."

Boundaries Defined

Generational boundaries exist so that children in a family can be cared for by their parents. Parents who have developed healthy boundaries do not allow their children to take on adult behaviors, roles or problems. A family with healthy boundaries provides care and emotional support to their children in addition to discipline when needed. Strong clearly defined generational boundaries help children feel secure.

Boundaries Confused

That morning I discovered the generational boundary had not been clearly defined by the parents. The line separating the parent from the child was diffused. Personal boundaries like a "no trespassing" sign, which define where the behavior of a person begins and ends did not exist. I discovered the boundaries had become confusing and the child was dominating the entire household with inappropriate behavior.

During the follow-up sessions with the parents, I explored the potential of marital conflict because the conflict can spill over onto the parent-child relationships. I was assured that none existed beyond the normal disagreements between a husband and wife. I found no reason not to believe them.

This young couple had not successfully created clear expectations of the five-year-old. As soon as they established appropriate and inappropriate behaviors the five-year-old challenged them and the parents caved in. That gave the five-year-old more power than he should ever have had in that situation. When parents give up their parental responsibilities children will take them on and assume the role of parenting. Other issues can develop within the family, such as enmeshment, which is a lack of separateness between the child and others. It is a condition or a state of mind that all infants experience as part of their relationship to their initial caregiver. As the infant develops, however, the child individuates or becomes aware of its caregivers as separate individuals with their own thoughts and feelings.

Power Struggle

The child's need for emotional support was unmet. He ultimately functioned on the parental side of the generational boundary as well as on the child's side of the boundary. He did not know whether to create the rules or to obey them. The one predictable thing was his anger and the ensuing power struggle for control.

Rudolph Dreikurs, an Adlerian psychologist, believed that children often feel they don't get the attention they deserve. Normally, a child gets attention by being good but the child doesn't mind being bad to get attention. When he still does not feel important he doesn't mind moving to the next level to gain power and control. When they still do not feel better about themselves they try to challenge the adults through power, they also may become angry and retaliate by getting revenge.

Summary of the Problem

After observing the family, it became obvious that two things were happening. The first had to do with the generational boundary. The parents had given up their executive power and neglected to clearly create the rules the child was to live by. The line between generations was blurred and the child did not know whether to create the rules or to obey them, as I stated above.

The second thing happening was the child's effort to feel important. It may be difficult to understand, but in many ways the child felt invisible. He wanted to count for something. So he misbehaved to get attention, and when that did not work, he challenged his parents at every turn in order to feel in control. Having control, however, did not meet his need to be recognized. He still did not feel that he counted. That could only be accomplished by experiencing the unconditional positive regard from the parents. It is similar to the feeling all of us have when we ask, "do you love me?" The fact that we have to ask discounts the value of the answer.

Solve the Problem

1. Create the generational boundary. It is not too late. Together the couple must create the rules for the child to live by. Be complete but simple. What kind of behavior do you want from the child? For example, do you want a rule like, "When everyone is finished eating, people may leave the table." Or, "Everyone may walk fast, but not run in the house." Or, "People may throw things when they are outside, but not when they are inside." Or, "People may use their big voice outside and their little voice inside."

2. In order to deal with the child's need to be recognized and count for something, give the child attention before he needs to misbehave to get it. Assign tasks that give the child a sense of power and control. When the child tries to engage you in a contest for control try not to take the bait! Give him tasks that give the sense of being in control.


Dr. Knittel is a retired professor of counseling psychology at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.