Maintaining Healthy Boundaries with Family, Friends and Co-Workers

BERLIN, GERMANY - JUNE 06:  A three-year-old g...

When you hear the word Boundaries, what comes to mind? Is it a fence around a house? Is it the limit of what you will allow your children to do? Is it the emotional distance you keep from others? These are all definitions of boundaries. Emotional boundaries are personal property lines that mark what is our responsibility and what is not. In your family, a boundary might be allowing your children to stay out until 10 p.m. With friends, it might be saying yes to helping them move to a new house but saying no to lending them money. In business relationships, healthy boundaries might be standing up to gossip, or setting limits on what you will or will not do on the job.

We often learn about healthy boundaries in early childhood. It begins with bonding to our primary caretakers. In order to set healthy emotional and physical boundaries, we need to connect with someone who loves and cares for us while also maintaining a separate identity. Boundary development is, after all, about appropriate closeness and separateness, about being able to define what is me and what is not me. It is essential to learn to give and receive love while maintaining a sense of self, to say no without fear of loss of love and to accept “no” from others.

Boundary issues occur when we fail to take responsibility for what is ours, as well as when we do not allow others to have responsibility for what is theirs. For example, as parents, it is essential that we allow our children to learn from their mistakes. When our children choose to be irresponsible, we set good boundaries when we allow the consequences to fall on them. Failing to set boundaries or say no to others is one type of boundary issue that exists when we do anything that is asked of us, regardless of our time, energy or expertise. Another boundary issue exists when we do not ever ask for help or support. We expect to do it all alone and put up walls to keep others out completely.

Not respecting others’ boundaries is another boundary issue. When we do not accept no from others and do not respect others limits we have this concern. We may try to control others and use aggression or manipulation to get others to do what we want. Finally, if we do not hear the needs of others or respond to them, we have boundary issues. We avoid being responsible to others. Being loving requires responding to others’ needs. People with this boundary issue do not take any responsibility for loving another person.

What are the qualities of relationships that have appropriate boundaries?

First, they are relationships in which each person can say no without fear of punishment. If you are able to set limits without worry about losing the relationship or being treated poorly, the relationship has good boundaries. On the other hand, if you worry about saying no, it may be time to look at what you fear about saying no. Do you fear loss of the relationship, the silent treatment, or an angry reaction? Positive relationships are those in which you can say both yes and no freely.

Second, one person does not rely solely on the other for all emotional needs. If a “no” from a friend means that you are devastated, it may be time to look more deeply at how you get your needs met. It is too much to expect that one single person can meet all of your needs for safety, security and love. Having internal strength and support from a variety of sources will allow you to set and accept boundaries more easily.

Third, each person takes responsibility for meeting their own needs, but are responsible to each other. As human beings, we have a responsibility to help each other when burdens become too heavy. When a family member, friend or co-worker is overwhelmed or going through difficult times, we are responsible to care for each other. However, when we take over someone else’s responsibility and do not allow them to do what they are capable of, we cross boundaries. Often times, when this occurs, we need to look at our motives, as we may do this more for our own gain than for the other person.

Fourth, each can ask for and accept help from the other without keeping score. Neither feels resentful about their part in the relationship. In strong relationships, there is give and take so each person feels cared about. They are able to share weaknesses so each feels loved for who they are without having to pretend they can do it all alone.

Finally, people in relationships with healthy boundaries say yes when they mean yes and no when they mean no. Being able to say and hear “no” is freeing because it means you are free to say and hear “yes” as well. You can be secure in the knowledge that when the other person says “yes,” they mean it. You trust that they are not burdened because if they were, they would say no!

As you explore your most important relationships, do they meet these qualifications whether they are family, friends or work relationships? Do you feel taken advantage of or is there give and take? If you find yourself in a relationship with unhealthy boundaries, it may be time to take a closer look at the limits you are setting – or not setting. Remember, you can only change you, not the other person. Whether at home, with friends or in the workplace, healthy boundaries are the key to relationships that enrich your life rather than drain you of energy.

Setting Boundaries with Kids—Bedtime

Getting your children to sleep can be one of the first and most challenging boundary tasks to accomplish. It is an important because it sets the stage for other skills essential to help your children develop confidence and independence. Some brief guidelines follow to help get your child to sleep – and get some sleep yourself.

  • Choose a bedtime routine and stick to it as much as possible. Allow some flexibility for times when it is not possible to stay on schedule.
  • Choose quiet activities as the last event before bed.
  • Once the child is in bed, do not allow him or her to get out of bed for “one more drink of water” or other reasons.
  • If your child is older and you are trying to change old patterns, start the process at a convenient time, when you can afford to lose some sleep yourself.
  • Each parent should assist in helping the child go to sleep. Also, do not allow the child to decide by saying, “I want mommy” or “I want daddy.” You decide who will handle the situation when.
  • When you have an infant and want to teach him or her to get to sleep alone, begin by setting a time limit on how long you will allow him or her to cry. Begin where you are comfortable in terms of allowing your baby to cry without going in to console him or her. Five minutes is a good place to start.
    Allow the baby to cry for gradually longer periods of time before returning to him or her briefly, but leave while he or she is still awake. Continue this until the baby falls asleep – when you are NOT in the room.
  • Allowing your child to cry will not cause permanent psychological harm. Hearing the crying will be harder on you than on your baby. Remember that there are other situations that are dangerous for your child that he or she may cry about that you certainly would not allow him or her to do, no matter how the child responds. For example, you would not allow your baby to play with knives just so he or she does not cry!
  • Stay in the room for two to three minutes only, without picking up or rocking him or her. Keep increasing the time you wait in between.
  • Use the same routine at naptime.
  • For older children, use rewards and consequences to reinforce good night time behavior. For example, explain that if the child stays in bed until morning, he or she will earn a special treat. Consequences can also be used. For example, if the child gets out of bed, the door to the bedroom will be shut for five minutes.

Cloud, Dr. Henry, and Dr. John Townsend. Boundaries.
Ferber, Dr. Richard. Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems.


About Anne Brunette, MSW

Anne provides therapy for individuals, couples, families and groups that struggle with a variety of mental health issues. Her specialties include depression, anxiety, grief and loss, marital therapy and education, and family therapy. Her approach is practical and compassionate while focusing on strengths, relationships, and solutions. She believes it takes courage to seek help and respects those who come to her. Anne has a special interest in working with boundary and life-balance issues. She works to help people improve in all areas of life: emotionally, relationally, physically and spiritually. Works at Doll & Associates.

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