When teens and young adults are facing mental health issues, they need a healthy, safe, and secure environment. Setting boundaries is essential to creating this type of environment. When children predictably and reliably experience acceptance in the form of boundaries, consistent and safe nurturing, and responsiveness from a trusted caregiver, they internalize the experience of having inherent self-worth and value.
Using Commitment, Acceptance, Security, and Attunement, the CASA Developmental Framework provides a structure for teens and young adults to restore healthy relationships with their families. Security requires boundaries, and both are key for teens and young adults to heal.
Why Do Teens Need Boundaries?
“When we talk about boundaries and limits, it’s always rooted in emotional and physical safety and what’s best for someone developmentally,” Rob Gent, Embark’s chief clinical officer, said.
“Children crave structure. Children crave knowing what is safe and not safe. And their safety is based on what you’re going to follow through with and not follow through with,” Gent said. “So, oftentimes children challenge their parents because they don’t know what’s safe.”
Healthy boundaries create a foundation for healthy relationships. When teens don’t know where the boundaries are, they’ll test them.
“Young people need to know ‘What are you going to do to maintain my emotional and my physical safety, and will you do what’s developmentally best for me?’” Gent added.
Setting boundaries that your teen needs
According to Gent, boundaries have a few important characteristics that make them different from limitations and rules.
- Boundaries are based on emotional and physical safety and doing what is developmentally best for someone: you, your partner, your co-worker, or your child. Boundaries create safety.
- Boundaries apply to anyone who comes into your sphere of control. When we’re talking about you and your family, we’re probably talking about your body and your home.
How do boundaries differ from rules?
“Johnny has to clean his room before he can hang out with his friends on the weekend” is a good example of a rule because it doesn’t fit the criteria above.
- It only applies to Johnny.
- Whatever you may think about the messy room, picking it up isn’t essential to Johnny’s physical or emotional safety, and it doesn’t get in the way of his developmental needs, even if keeping order is a good skill to teach.
Rules are generally good things, but boundaries are a higher priority. Boundaries create a safe environment where rules can be followed peacefully.
Examples of healthy boundaries
Gent gave some examples of healthy boundaries that are a good place to start for family members:
- No physical abuse. It’s never okay to hurt someone else physically.
- No verbal abuse. This threatens physical and emotional well-being.
- No sexual abuse. Each person has a right to decide what happens to their own body.
- No stealing.
- No lying.
- No doing drugs around others or in the house.
When Gent starts working with a family, he asks them to set 10 boundaries. At first, a lot of parents find it hard to come up with more than two or three, especially if they grew up with unhealthy relationships and weren’t used to having boundaries when they were younger.
Why Good Boundaries Can Be Hard for Families
Healthy relationships have clear boundaries. When you don’t have appropriate boundaries, it hurts everybody. It increases stress and contributes to relationship tension. According to Positive Psychology, “Lack of healthy boundaries can negatively affect all aspects of someone’s life.”
It can be hard for parents to set healthy boundaries if they didn’t grow up feeling like their needs were protected. Their emotional boundaries and physical boundaries may not have been respected. Parents may be dealing with unresolved grief around these issues, so they need help understanding what healthy boundaries look like.
“If you don’t know what your boundaries are, your teen who’s struggling isn’t going to know what your boundaries are,” Gent said. “And then they’re not going to know how to set their own boundaries to keep themselves emotionally and physically safe.”
Teaching teens how to set healthy personal boundaries helps them in their friendships, romantic relationships, and future workplaces. Firm boundaries in high school protect your teen against situations like peer pressure, substance abuse, and dating abuse.
On a fundamental level, boundaries are self-care and essential for well-being.
Enmeshment breaks down boundaries
Enmeshment can make it challenging for families to set boundaries.
Enmeshment can be emotional or situational in a relationship between two or more people in which personal boundaries are permeable and unclear. When people are enmeshed, they feel each other’s feelings or forget to feel their own. They can find it difficult to focus on their own desires, especially if they conflict with the other person’s ideas or desires. Enmeshment between parents and children can interfere with a teen’s natural drive toward independence. They’re not free to learn how to take charge of their own life.
According to Gent, “Enmeshment is the opposite of maintaining boundaries, it’s the breakdown of boundaries. When you have enmeshment, two people don’t know where one starts and one ends.”
What Do You Do When Your Teen Breaks Boundaries?
Gent provided insight about why boundaries are critical during behavioral health treatment. Establishing boundaries in mental and behavioral health treatment programs gives teens and young adults a safe structure. They know what to expect, and they know what’s expected of them.
Do teens in treatment break these boundaries? Yes, of course.
When this happens, there are consequences. Consequences are different than punishments because they are directly related to a behavior. Some consequences are natural. If someone punches a hole in the wall, their knuckles hurt. But this behavior can also mean that because they couldn’t regulate their emotions, they can’t participate in an activity, such as horseback riding. It’s not safe for someone to be on horseback if they’re not in control of their emotions.
When boundaries aren’t maintained, consequences are necessary and healthy
When someone breaks boundaries, you use consequences to reestablish safety in your relationship.
Someone who doesn’t maintain your boundaries should naturally receive distance from emotional, physical, and relational intimacy with that individual. If you catch your teen using drugs, they don’t get to use the family car because you can’t trust them to be independent out in the world. And you get to decide what restores that trust.
Setting Healthy Boundaries Is About Love
Boundaries are an important part of life. By setting boundaries for your children, you are teaching them how to function in the world, care for themselves, live up to expectations, and interact well with others. Teens and young adults learn their behaviors have consequences.
Most importantly, setting boundaries and limits creates physical and emotional safety for your teen because they need to know what’s okay and what’s not. It meets a critical developmental need, and when they’re not sure, they don’t feel safe.
“And I would argue,” Gent said, “the definition of love is being committed to doing what’s physically, emotionally, and developmentally best for someone else.”