Boundaries are an Expression of Love

Ten years ago an American author, Patricia Hersch, in her book, A Tribe Apart: A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence, stated that for teenagers ‘the fabric of growing up has been altered.’  She believes that today’s young people have been left to their own devices by a preoccupied, self-involved and ‘hands off’ generation of parents.  Adolescents, she writes, have been forced to work out their own system of ethics, morals and values, relying on each other for advice on such serious topics as abuse, dysfunctional parents, drugs and sex.  There are reasons to believe that in Ireland today some adolescents are faced with this situation, not because parents don’t care, but because they themselves are confused and uncertain about what to believe in and what is now a complex and pluralist Ireland.  My own belief is that unless parents are helped around their confusions, then it will not be possible to resolve the troubles of adolescents.

Ireland has swiftly gone from being a singular Catholic society to a pluralist one.  Whether one agrees with Catholicism or not, it did provide guidance on morals, ethics, values and meaning to life.  The pity is that it strayed so much away from the teachings of Chirst, which are just as relevant in today’s society.  From a psychological perspective, which in no way contradicts the wisdom of Christ, adolescents benefit from families where the following practices hold sway:

The consistency and endurance of these family ways are critical and when ‘failures’ occur, there is an urgency to learn from the experience, apologise and get back on track.

Where difficulties often arise is in the struggle that parents have in maintaining boundaries around their parental responsibilities.  A boundary is a very definite fence around a responsibility.  This applies to parents’ own responsibilities and to adolescents themselves holding boundaries around their responsibilities.  Boundaries need to be a two-way street; otherwise they quickly collapse into a controlling, which works to some degree with children, but is a recipe for disaster with adolescents.

It is important that parents set boundaries around what they consider are their fair expectations of themselves and of their children.  These expectations need to be spelled out, a sound rationale give, and when not met, the young person deserves to know what actions the parents will take for self so that the boundary is restored.  In doing this, the parent does not break the unconditional relationship with the adolescent, but she does follows through on the action needed to restore order.

For example, many parents have concerns about what time their adolescents come home at night.  Obviously, the time needs to be age-related, but the principle that needs to be upheld is that ‘until you are eighteen, we need to know where you are, who you are with, what you are doing and what time you will be home.’  Many adolescents rebel against this parental responsibility and when they do, the parent needs to remain calm and solid in holding to their responsibility.  For instance, ‘I need to talk about last night. This is the first time you’ve come home at 2 a.m. without letting me know where you were.  It needs to be the last time.  I care about you and all I ask is that you come home at the time we agreed.  Because this is such a serious issue for me, I’m withdrawing the privilege of your going out at night for a week.  I do not intend to spend my nights sitting up and worrying about what has happened to you.  I hope you see the fairness of this.’

It is crucial to talk with adolescents about time-keeping, drinking, smoking, school homework, friendships, sexuality before they actually start going out.  As seen, it is respectful to involve the teenagers in these discussions about reasonable expectations and consequences when not met.

Setting boundaries will not necessarily mean that your son or daughter will always adhere to them.  However, boundaries are an expression of love and this is a security for adolescents.  Once a parental expectation has been violated, the parent needs to act quickly, calmly, fairly and resolutely to restore his or her parental responsibility.

Parents who maintain boundaries can take heart from a landmark study of 12,000 young people by the University of Minnesota in 1997, which found that those adolescents who have a strong emotional attachment to parents and/or teachers are far less likely to take drugs, drink alcohol, have sex at an early age or engage in violence.

Dr. Tony Humphreys practices clinical psychology and is author of several books on practical psychology, including All About Children, Questions Parents Ask.