In the business world, when starting a business and asking for advice, the response is often “Location, location, location.”

In the relational parenting world, the answer to most questions is, “Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.”

Boundaries are like fences, they either keep something out or keep something in. No, I’m not talking about a baby gate (although that works too). I’m talking about how not to get hooked into your child or teen’s dramatic world of hormone soaked emotional chaos.

Three most important boundaries

There are many types of boundaries. I am going to address here the three most important ones: thinking, containment and protection.

The most important boundary a person can have is around their brain, a boundary around what they allow themselves to think. This takes self-control and awareness.

For instance, we all have thought patterns or trails of thought that we frequent. Some of those trails are bad ones and we know that every time we go down that trail it leads us to a bad place that we do not want to go. When you exercise self-control, you recognize that you are on that trail and jump off or force your brain onto another topic.

The second most important boundary a person can have is about a millimeter outside your skin. It is a boundary that keeps your stuff your stuff and reminds you that you do not have the right to spew your stuff onto others.

A parent comes home who had a bad day at work. When the child squeals with excitement, drops something, or argues with a sibling (things that children always do), the parent loses it and starts yelling at the child. This is a loss of a containment boundary. The parent is taking their bad day emotions out on the child. The child doesn’t deserve to have the parent spew their stuff all over them.

This is the most common boundary you hear about. It is about an arm’s length outside of you and governs what you allow others to do to you, with you, and around you.

Let’s say I am out in public waiting for someone to come out of a building. I didn’t notice that I was standing in the smoking area until someone comes out and lights up. Since I cannot demand that the other person stop smoking, my boundary of protection compels me to vote with my feet and leave the area. I am protecting myself without controlling others.

Similarly, if someone is cussing at me (something I do not tolerate) I will firmly ask them to stop. If they don’t, once again I can protect myself by voting with my feet and walking away.

We aren’t born with a working knowledge of boundaries. They must be taught to us. If they are not taught to a growing child, then that person likely grows into an adult with either poor boundary management or a lack of boundaries. Poor boundary management makes them vulnerable, whereas a lack of boundaries makes them a target for manipulation. Either dysfunctional state of boundaries can produce significant negative behaviors, such as a lack of good judgment when it comes to sharing information, boundary-less or dangerous behavior around peers, not understanding what one is responsible for vs. someone else, and certainly being vulnerable to all kinds of relational manipulation.

Here are two really good books on boundaries, Boundaries and Facing Codependence.

So, boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.


Todd has been a therapist for over 20 years in a variety of settings. An unconventional therapist who tells the truth, Todd has taught undergraduate and graduate level courses, and authored his first book, Simply Relate.

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