By Darlene Lancer

Good parenting requires having appropriate and flexible boundaries that respect your individuality and separateness. In healthy families, parents respect your emotional, mental, sexual, and physical boundaries. In dysfunctional families, boundaries are rigid, blurred, or a mixture.

Individual boundaries

When boundaries are too rigid, family members are disengaged emotionally and physically. There may be no feeling of closeness, nor affection showed. As adults, siblings are emotionally distant, and families don’t often celebrate together. Children may be distant from siblings and enmeshed with a parent.

In other families, boundaries are nonexistent or enmeshed, which teaches you that you have no right to set boundaries. Family members gossip and overreact to each other, give unwanted advice, and invade personal boundaries. Any form of abuse violates boundaries. Some controlling parents take over your decisions and control your hobbies, school courses, friends, and dress.

Parents may also invade your boundaries by prying, reading your mail, questioning your friends about you, or ransacking or taking your belongings without permission. They resist your urge to separate because they want to be needed. Natural independence is seen as disloyalty and abandonment, and you may either rebel or feel guilty when you try to set boundaries with your parents and with others as an adult.

Describe the boundaries in your family growing up in the following areas:

  • Money

  • Your personal belongings

  • Physical touching and showing affection

  • Sex and nudity

  • Emotional — respect for your feelings

  • Mental — respect for your thoughts and opinions

Generational boundaries

There’re also generational boundaries between parents and children. Yours were violated if you were put in an adult role. This may have happened if one parent became overly close with you and used you as a companion, as a confidante to discuss your parents’ relationship or personal problems, or as an ally against your other parent.

You functioned as an emotional surrogate for the lack of intimacy between your parents and/or as an ally or pawn in their power struggles. After a divorce, generational boundaries are often disrespected when one parent uses a child to convey messages to the other parent.

Generational boundaries are also crossed when a child takes over parental responsibilities for an irresponsible or emotionally or physically absent parent. This can happen in single-parent families or if one parent is ill, in the military, or an addict. Some children as young as 5 are left to make their own meals. One child may assume the role of “little mother” or “little man” and take care of younger siblings or a needy parent.

This is how many codependents learn to become over-functioning adults and caretakers. Some receive praise for doing so, and their role becomes part of their personality as adults.

Crossing generational boundaries is psychologically damaging. If this happened to you, you had to repress your needs and feelings in order to adopt an unnatural, age-inappropriate persona (be “a little adult”) to accommodate the needs of your parent. This separated you from your authentic child-self.

Think about boundaries between generations:

  • Did you have to perform adult tasks or assume adult responsibilities?

  • Did a parent inappropriately confide with you?

  • Did a parent ask you to talk to your other parent for him or her?

  • Did you believe you had a special relationship with a parent who excluded your other parent?

  • How did you feel in each of these situations?