Rules to Establish Boundaries in Dysfunctional Families

by Anna Green Google

    Families can manifest dysfunction in various ways. They might have difficulty communicating without yelling or might show disrespect and passive-aggressive behaviors. Dysfunctional families with boundary issues present different types of problems, however. They might be apathetic toward one another and under-involved or, at the other end of the spectrum, overly involved to the point where individuals lose their identities. Establishing rules regarding boundaries is a good first step in creating healthier family dynamics.

    Carl Benedict of Serenity Online Therapy explains that “physical boundaries define who can touch us, how someone can touch us and how physically close another may approach us. Emotional boundaries define where our feelings end and another's begins.” Before your family can set rules regarding boundaries, you need to establish a common definition of what constitutes a boundary. Additionally, each family member will have different ideas about what physical or emotional boundaries feel appropriate. Thus, it is important for family members to clearly state their personal definitions of healthful boundaries.

    While it is important for families with dysfunctional patterns to establish new boundary rules, adopting these boundaries can be difficult, particularly if the family is not used to such guidelines. Parents might need to be flexible, both for themselves and as their children learn the boundary rules. Additionally, as children grow, existing boundaries no longer fit the family’s needs. Families should revisit their boundary expectations regularly and ensure the rules are working.

    After defining and setting boundaries that meet the family’s needs, family members must be able to assert themselves and let others know when they believe someone has violated an established boundary. The Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne Student Assistance Center recommends using “I statements” when asserting personal boundaries. For example, you might tell your family member, “I feel frustrated and angry when you lie to me” instead of saying, “You make me angry and frustrated when you lie.” When asserting boundaries, share with your family member how the boundary violation affects you without placing blame or being confrontational.

    Some boundary rules that families might adopt include knocking on a door before entering another family member’s bedroom or asking permission before borrowing someone’s personal items. These types of boundaries would be appropriate rules to apply to both parents and children. Parents will need to set additional boundaries that apply only to the children, however. For example, parents might want to establish rules regarding physical affection between their teenage child and her boyfriend such as no kissing or other public displays of affection.

    About the Author

    Anna Green spent seven years as a self-employed legal writer before becoming a therapist for children and adolescents. After earning degrees in political science and English, she attended law school and then pursued a degree in mental health counseling. In addition to her writing work, she is the founder of a nonprofit mental health group.

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