Learning how to set and maintain emotional boundaries is an important part of growing up. It is also a key to developing relationships that are supportive, caring, and respectful. These kinds of positive relationships create the foundation for lifelong happiness.
Unfortunately, many adults have difficulty setting their own emotional boundaries, let alone teaching their children. The reasons are simple. Setting boundaries is uncomfortable, forces us to speak for ourselves, and seldom results in a “thank you” from others. Yet, it is one of the most important things we can do for ourselves and our children.
What is an emotional boundary?
An emotional boundary is a limit we establish to protect ourselves from being hurt, manipulated, or used by others. It is an expression of self-worth that helps people understand who we are, what we think, and how we feel. Boundaries create needed emotional space between us and others.
Healthy emotional boundaries are essential to healthy relationships. It means we know and understand our limits and those limits are clearly and honestly communicated. Setting healthy boundaries helps preserve one’s integrity and increases resilience. Communicating a boundary does not mean “I’m right and you are wrong.” It simply means, “This is what I need to feel positive about myself and respected by you.”
Examples of healthy emotional boundaries for teenagers may include:
- Moving slowly into friendships to establish trust
- Stating personal values despite what others believe
- Respecting others, despite their differences
- Respecting oneself, even though someone may not like you
- Clearly communicating needs and wants, even though you may be rejected
- Noticing when your personal boundaries feel invaded
- Understanding that others cannot anticipate your needs
Examples of unhealthy emotional boundaries for teenagers may include:
- Trusting no one, or everyone
- Going against personal values to please others or to be liked
- Giving as much as you can for the sake of being liked
- Allowing friends to direct your life, without questioning
- Letting others define you
- Falling apart or being a victim so others will take care of you
- Believing that others can anticipate your needs
What is boundary-setting? Why is it important for your teen?
Setting personal boundaries involves taking specific actions to change your relationship with important people in your life. Boundary-setting is imperative to learn during adolescence because it is a time of identity formation. If young people allow peers, family members, or other adults to make them feel uncomfortable, vulnerable, disrespected, or unworthy, it is time to teach them how to set boundaries that will help them feel better about themselves and more confident of who they are.
If you hold regular family meetings, these can provide excellent opportunities to talk about emotional boundaries and practice communicating them to each other in a safe space. Learning to use “I messages” is a habit that makes family meetings successful and is also critical to boundary-setting.
Four Tips That Will Increase Your Child’s Happiness
1. Talk with your teenager about emotional boundaries.
Help your children understand the concept of emotional boundaries, and how important this understanding is to happiness and well-being. An easy way to think about boundaries is to think about property lines. A “no trespassing” sign indicates that you are about to violate a boundary. And there will likely be a consequence.
A property boundary is easy to picture. But personal boundaries are invisible and unique to each person. Emotional boundaries often change as people grow and mature.
Share a story of a time when your personal boundaries were invaded by a friend and how you successfully or unsuccessfully reacted. Acknowledge how difficult it is to speak up for yourself and what you need. Ask if your teen has noticed being uncomfortable with friends who did not respect boundaries.
2. Teach teens to be responsible for their emotional reactions.
Help children learn that setting emotional boundaries is not about blaming others for hurting them. It is about remaining calm and explaining what you need from others that is different from how they are behaving toward you. Everyone has different emotional needs. Many people respond habitually to others without thinking about the impact of their actions. Communicating in a clear way about what you need means that you are taking responsibility for own emotions and developing relationships that are built on trust and respect.
3. Identify unacceptable actions and behaviors.
The first step to setting boundaries is to be able to notice when people around you are behaving in ways that are unacceptable. Start with a simple family exercise that parents and children can do together: 1) Think of a friend or friends with whom you sometimes or often feel uncomfortable. Perhaps you experience them as uncaring, or you feel put down or manipulated by them. You don’t need to share the names of these people. 2) Each person lists five things you’d like your friend(s) to stop doing or saying to you or around you.
When you have your lists, sit down together and brainstorm how an emotional boundary could be communicated for each item on the list.
A few examples:
- Your overweight teen daughter feels ashamed when her friends talk about obese girls and their clothes. How can your daughter communicate to her friends that these discussions are hurtful? How can she ask her friends to modify their discussions?
- Your son feels frustrated when his best friend takes decisions out of his hands and assumes that your son will do what his friend wants. Your son fears that speaking up will destroy his friendship. How can your son communicate his feelings to his friend?
Answering these questions is not easy. Yet they are necessary to answer when you or your children feel discomfort, resentment, anxiety, guilt, fear, shame, and stress in your relationships. When you feel you are not making your own decisions, asking for what you need, feeling criticized, accepting responsibility for other’s feelings, and unable to say “no,” it is time to reflect on how to communicate your discomfort in ways that will be heard and responded to. In some situations, friendships may not be worth saving. This is up to each of us to decide.
During this exercise, practice listening to each other. Respect each person’s contributions to the discussion. The learning that occurs by talking through scenarios benefits everyone.
4. Encourage action.
There are many barriers to boundary-setting—fear of rejection, guilt, and fear of confrontation. Healthy boundaries allow teens to feel respected, valued, and empowered to build positive relationships in their lives.
Encourage your teens to take small steps to set emotional boundaries with their friends. With practice, boundary-setting gets easier and more natural. It is important for children to understand that everyone has the right to set emotional boundaries and that elaborate explanation is not necessary. A simple, “no,” or a brief statement why a behavior is unacceptable, is enough. We don’t need to defend our emotional boundaries to others, only to state why they are important to us.
Emotional boundaries also play a vital role in building healthy family relationships and are a crucial part of self-care. When parents model effective boundary-setting with children, children learn how to do the same. Younger children can learn the basics of boundary-setting through simple role-play situations. As they mature to adolescence, this foundation is an asset toward understanding and reacting to more complex human interactions.
How to Set Healthy Boundaries: 10 Examples + Worksheets, published by the Positive Psychology Program.
Why Healthy Relationships Always Have Boundaries & How to Set Boundaries in Yours, by Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S., published by PsychCentral
6 Subtle Signs Your Boundaries Are Being Broken, by Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S., published by PsychCentral