I spoke about how children develop poor boundaries in the context of abusive family situations a few months ago.
It’s something I have been continuing to think about and I have a few more thoughts on the issue. The first is that good boundaries aren’t a set of laws or rules that a person must follow. A boundary transgression is when someone steps over the space where you end and they begin. Or vice versa. It’s an internal sense that something that should just be yours or someone else’s has been invaded. And it’s a tricky thing, because there are times when you can do something and it feels perfectly fine, even healthy. But the exact same thing in a different context can become a violation.
Children who come from abusive families don’t have any reason to know what a healthy boundary is. They have been taught that transgression is the norm. They have no reason to know that they have a boundary that others should not be inside, and it makes sense that they trample on other peoples’ boundaries as well. All of this makes sense, but until they learn where they end and where others begin, they will suffer. They will get themselves into unhealthy, enmeshed relationships, they will lose friends who rightfully don’t want their own boundaries invaded. And since their family is abusive, they may end up in some bad situations and feeling pretty lonely.
I don’t have a solution for this. It’s hard. But if a child casually shares really private information or makes requests of you that feel deeply uncomfortable, there is a good chance that there is something wrong at home. I don’t know how we should respond to these kids, but I do know that we should be very careful not to make them feel ashamed of themselves or their transgression. It is not their fault. They were taught to interact with people the way they do, and the last thing they need is to feel like there is something wrong or unloveable about them.
Perhaps, again, the best we can do is to model strong, healthy boundaries with them. And we can become informed. And we can write books that show the difference. In light of that, I have a short list of books that show boundary transgressions with children, and how they deal with them. I would love to hear of more.
- The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean
- Dancing on the Edge by Han Nolan
- The Diary of a Teenage Girl by Phoebe Gloeckner
- The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
- Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout