What Makes A Family Tick? Part V

Happy Family with LifelineThis is the fifth of a multi-part series that examines the workings of a healthy family. It’s meant to be a sort of how-to guide that can help you create the family you always dreamed of.

The Four Foundation Stones


In every family three different kinds of boundaries should be operating at all times:  the boundary around the family itself; the boundary that separates the parents from the kids; and the boundary that separates each individual from each other. Boundaries are there to keep the system and subsystems intact and protected from outside threats.

The vital but invisible boundary that separates the family from the larger world allows family members to know who belongs and who doesn’t. In a family with a good, semi-permeable boundary, members feel free to step out and participate in the world without losing their sense of security and belonging.

Think about the doors and windows of a house. When they are closed, the boundaries are intact and the family is safe and secure within. Add some screens and you can now get fresh air and good circulation but still have a boundary that protects you from flies, mosquitoes and random people walking in. When night falls or it’s rainy or cold, you can shut the windows and doors until conditions improve. The doors, windows and screens create a boundary that is semi-permeable.

If the boundary around the family is rigid, it’s like the windows and doors are locked or nailed shut. There is no way for fresh air or the sounds of the outside world to come through. And there is no chance for people to come or go without some difficulty.

Rigidity in a family boundary often develops when serious problems like alcoholism, mental illness or abuse are present. In these cases it becomes difficult for members who may be suffering to ask for outside help because a strict “Don’t talk about our problems to anyone outside of the family” rule is operating.

On the other hand, if the boundary is too loose it may be hard to maintain any kind of structure or stability at all because of the constant or unpredictable stream of people coming and going. Part of the reason that a boundary exists in a family is to clarify its membership, which must be intact in order for the structure to develop well. Without it, chaos will reign.

When I was working in Foster Care, I once visited a family on the verge of losing custody of their children. The first thing I noticed was that the front door was missing. Snow was blowing in and anyone could just walk in, day or night so everyone who lived there was constantly exposed to danger. Life in this family was extremely chaotic and the missing door proved to be a very powerful metaphor for what turned out to be a lack of any boundaries at all in this very troubled family.

An interpersonal boundary between individuals also exists in families. This boundary allows each person to feel entitled to having her own thoughts, feelings and personal space while still knowing she can reach out for comfort, information or emotional support when needed.  If a child starts crying or yelling, for example, the parent shouldn’t automatically assume she knows why, although she might have a good idea.

In order to respect that boundary, she should start by asking the child what’s going on and giving him a chance to tell her before rushing in with some kind of reaction. In other words, a good interpersonal boundary helps keep assumptions and mind reading to a minimum. Before jumping to conclusions about what someone might be thinking or feeling, family members who respect interpersonal boundaries take the time to check in with each other and ask first.

When these boundaries are too loose, people tend to be over-involved in each other’s lives and overly reactive to each other’s behavior. Family members may feel that they have no privacy or the priveledge of keeping some things to themselves. A parent might flip out if one of the kids doesn’t get invited to a party or gets cut from a team. Interpersonal boundaries are so loose that it gets hard to tell who actually suffered the loss—the kid or the parent. In extreme cases, a lack of interpersonal boundaries can lead to physical or emotional abuse or even incest.

Parents start to help their children learn about this important boundary early on by giving instructions like, “Keep your hands to yourself,” or “Mind your own business.” On the other hand, when interpersonal boundaries are too rigid, it’s hard to get anyone to care or get involved with helping at all. Individual family members are caught up in their own worlds and have a hard time connecting with each other emotionally. When this is the case, you might see problems like emotional or physical neglect.

At certain times during a family’s life, this interpersonal boundary is necessarily looser or stronger. During infancy for example, a mother often feels like there is no boundary at all between herself and her baby. She spends a tremendous amount of time literally attached to her child as she goes through the routines of feeding, burping and holding.

The parents are appropriately deeply tuned in to every sound and movement that baby makes and often know when he is about to start crying minutes before he makes a sound. But as the child grows, he starts spending more time in his crib or being held, fed, and played with by others. The individual boundary between mother and child begins to form.

During adolescence, teenagers begin to spend more time in their rooms away from their parents. They’re working on finding out who they are and establishing an identity for themselves that is separate from their family. It’s totally normal but every parent feels a little left out at first.

The boundary is being renegotiated and it’s confusing. If you only have one child, you may take it personally for a long time. But if you have more than one, by the time the second or third child starts isolating himself you know it’s just a part of their development and you don’t worry. A lot of parenting is like this—kind of a bad joke really. By the time you figure out what’s going on, you’ve moved to the next stage and you don’t get to show off how skillful you’ve become at handling it all. So annoying!

Next Week: Part VI, The Four Foundation Stones, Hierarchy


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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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