What are Healthy Family Boundaries?: Part 2 in our series on Healthy Families

David Olsen, Ph.D, LCSW

Renewing Relationships for 35 years

In our last newsletter, we referenced the fact that healthy families have healthy boundaries.  In reality there is no possibility of either health or positive child development without appropriate family boundaries. In fact, when assessing families that come for therapy, one of the first things that family therapists assess and explore is how the family sets and maintains boundaries.

Boundaries are frequently misunderstood, though. Too often they are seen as negative, or punitive, instead of positive opportunities for growth and development. For example, we don’t allow children to have a steady diet of candy and that doesn’t make us mean, but rather attentive to growth and development. When we limit activities during covid, it is out of concern for health and safety. Boundaries that are healthy are designed to create a capacity for growth, development and safety.

Healthy Family Boundaries allow children to grow and develop in an optimal way.

Healthy boundaries allow children to be children; while that seems obvious, its importance cannot be understated. In the best case, boundaries protect children from their parent’s problems, anxieties, and marital tensions and allow them the luxury of innocence and free play. Consider the opposite… in alcoholic families, children are not free to be children. Instead, children must overfunction to help the family manage on multiple levels, frequently serving in a parental role to help take care of multiple responsibilities. These children are well aware of their parents issues, frequently compensating to make up for parental deficits. They pay a significant price, though, as they often feel chronic anxiety and have great difficulty relaxing even into adulthood. Families that maintain healthy boundaries allow children to enjoy the freedom to be children.

Healthy Boundaries create a clear executive subsystem

In intact families, co-parenting is an essential part of boundaries. When couples work well together and agree on boundaries, families remain more healthy. If, on the other hand, there is a lack of agreement between the couple, problems are created and kids play one parent against the other. In addition, research indicates that too often one parent over functions, and carries the “emotional load'' leading to resentments, and at times the breakdown of healthy boundaries.

There are obviously a variety of family constellations. These include families where grandparents or other relatives are part of the executive system for various reasons. Regardless of the arrangement, the structure must be clear, and the executive system must function together to prevent children from being confused.

Healthy Family Boundaries are developmentally appropriate 

In other words, healthy boundaries are congruent with the developmental level of children. Younger children, for example, need more rigid boundaries like routine bedtimes, healthy eating, etc. Older children, however, need boundaries around study habits, social issues, and maintaining relationships. As they get older, boundaries are developed to help children take on increasing amounts of responsibility to help them prepare to launch into college or career. Boundaries do not exist to produce clones, or even to guarantee that children share all their parents' values. Rather, they exist as a way to teach responsibility and prepare for autonomy. Boundaries that are either too diffuse, or too rigid always fail!

Rewards and consequences

Finally, boundaries without consequences are worthless! Boundaries without both rewards and consequences to not develop an internal sense of discipline and do not prepare children for life!

The workplace will not consider irresponsibility “cute” nor will it tolerate poor performance. Clear rewards and consequences help prepare children to face the real world, develop their own internal code, and launch successfully. The absence of clear consequences trains children to not take boundaries seriously, and does not prepare them for life.

Creating healthy boundaries is both critically important and very complicated. Unfortunately, it is impossible to address all of the complexities and complications in a brief newsletter. For help with creating and maintaining healthy boundaries talk with one of our family therapists for help!