Healthy Boundaries Make for Healthy Teens
What steps can you take to ensure that you aren’t in violation of someone’s boundaries? For example, not everyone enjoys being hugged, nor is it always appropriate to express that level of touch. From the perspective of a teacher or a therapist, one must understand the innate power differential that exists between teacher and student or therapist and client. One is looking to the other for advice and pedagogic elucidation, and one is holding the power to elicit such information. We therefore need to be thoughtful in our approach to employing touch in these situations.
In a therapeutic environment such as Visions, we address more than substance abuse and mental illness; we are facilitating the excavation of trauma and creating safe boundaries. It’s important to maintain awareness around our own sense of boundaries and how execute them. Asking ourselves these questions and contemplating the answers through talking to our peers and writing them out will help you discern where you may need some work, and where you are strongest:
- What does it mean to set boundaries?
- Is it hard to say “no”? If so, what does saying “no” feel like?
- How do I feel when my boundaries are crossed?
- What is my reaction internally and externally?
- Am I afraid to set boundaries? Why?
- What is my history around setting boundaries?
As clinicians and teachers, it’s imperative that we know and understand where our weak spots are so we can work on them. For some people, it’s not uncommon to wait until someone pushes us to our edge before we set a limit. The desire to please others or to be liked plays a part here, and our own backgrounds and upbringing will also effect how we interact with others. Perhaps we come from a family where hugging and touch is part of the norm. It may be natural for us to reach out and hug someone when they are suffering, but it’s not always appropriate.
Hugging a client may be a violation of a boundary, but if the client has been traumatized in some way, they may not know how to set that boundary. Likewise, if a client persistently tries to hug you, you have to maintain a firm boundary so they learn to understand what is and what is not appropriate. I was volunteering at my son’s school recently, and a kid came up and hugged me, not wanting to let go. It was a child I don’t know and it was a clear violation of my boundaries and the school’s rules. I gently moved away and held a boundary with this child until he moved on. Teens look to us as examples to learn from and to emulate. If we don’t show strong, safe boundaries, they won’t be able to either. Understand that the boundaries we create encourage freedom to be who you are while creating a safe container for healing and recovery.
Respecting boundaries applies to parents too. If the family dynamic has been compromised, parents have to work to rebuild a healthy and safe family structure. Creating solid boundaries is key in that process. Adolescents love to push buttons and stretch boundaries; they are smack dab in the center of their individuation process. That doesn’t mean you, the parent, have to give in. Remember: “No” is a complete sentence, and when it’s said with certainty and conviction, it makes all the difference. A wishy-washy, non-committal “no” may as well be a “maybe” or a “yes.” Poor limits leave room for negotiation where there shouldn’t be.
We all have a part to play in creating safe limits whether we are parents, teachers, or clinicians. Kids, in their infinite wisdom and testing behaviors, demand strong limits, whether they admit it or not. Boundaries create safety. They provide defined parameters in which to develop and grow. So as much as a teen may push, inside, they really do respect a firm “No” and a defined environment.