When we hear the word boundary we typically think of things we can see or touch. When ball players go “out of bounds” they cross over a line that’s clearly marked. In this regard, boundaries serve to maintain order and give the players a sense of place and purpose.
In a similar fashion, boundaries operate in families and impact how they function. Family boundaries define who’s responsible for what, how parents and children interact, and how the family relates with the outside world.
Of course, not all boundaries are created equal. In the realm of family functioning, certain types of boundaries are better than others. The 3 types of boundaries that operate in families are as follows:
1.Clear Boundaries: Highly functioning families have clearly defined boundaries in them. Clear boundaries define the authority of the parents while allowing the children to develop as appropriate for their age. For example, a clear boundary for the 4-year-old in my life, Reeve, is that he goes to bed at 7:00 p.m. each night. By setting this boundary, Reeve’s given a structure that enables him to feel secure in the world and get the rest he needs. Of course, events arise where the 7:00 p.m. limit is not realistic. In these situations, Reeve is given the reasons why an exception is being made and returns to the regular routine as soon as feasible.
2. Rigid Boundaries: Rigid boundaries are found in families where the members are isolated from one another and communication has broken down. In these families, there is little respect for the individuality of the people in them. A rigid boundary in this regard would have Reeve going to bed at 7:00 p.m. until he’s 18 years old. In this scenario, there’s no room for Reeve’s voice or an allowance for his individual growth.
3. Diffuse Boundaries: These boundaries are found in overly involved families. In these families, there’s a blurring of the line between parents and children. Parents act like their children’s friends and children run the risk of becoming too involved with their parents. In our bedtime example, Reeve would be allowed to go to bed whenever his parents went to bed and perhaps even sleep in the same bed with them.
Families who function at the highest level are those who possess clear boundaries. Clear boundaries allow for the age appropriate development of individual family members while promoting the wellbeing of the family unit. In short, there’s a sense of “I-ness” that compliments and enhances the sense of “we-ness.”
Of course, no family is perfect in this regard. In truth, no family is perfect in any regard! What we are striving for is not perfection, but a family defined by love, respect and commitment to one another’s individual growth and the health of the family unit. It’s an endeavor that takes time, patience and practice. And it’s an endeavor that’s within your reach.