Boundaries: The saviour of parents throughout the world. A way of teaching children the rules of society, right from wrong, what is acceptable and what is not. A way to make sure they learn to keep themselves safe. Right?
I am someone who had always considered good boundaries as a stabilising force in my children’s lives. Coupled with a solid routine I had always thought that these were the reason my children felt safe, and were developing well.
After my post about The Electric Fence I had a discussion about boundaries with an adoptive parent who is years ahead of us. The discussion really made me reconsider what I thought of as ‘good’ boundaries, and what our priorities as parents should be.
I was posed a question about what happens when attempting to enforce a boundary is the very thing which triggers a trauma response in our children. How do you then use boundaries when they are the very thing which seem to cause them harm?
I had no answer to this.
I then began to think about the times I have had to enforce the boundaries we have laid out for our children. Youngest is pretty much predictable in his responses. He is 2 and he is constantly doing his best to circumvent the rules, not because he’s trying to be naughty but just because he’s discovering the world and trying to take control of his own life. He has no problems with the consequences of his actions and responds as you’d expect any child to respond.
With Eldest it is slightly different. He has always been a compliant boy, he follows the rules. The reason he does this is likely because when he didn’t do precisely what was expected of him (even if he didn’t know what that was) he would be met with aggressive and very scary behaviour from the people in charge of his safety.
Boundaries and routine do help him to understand what is expected of him, but enforcing them is actually at odds with us trying to build up his self-confidence. As I’ve talked about before we have been encouraging him to challenge things, to build his confidence, and that sometimes means he challenges us and our boundaries. The problem is he isn’t there yet with his confidence and when he is caught openly circumventing one of our rules, regardless of the reason, it can trigger his default fear response before we even do or say anything to him. He shuts down and stops responding.
So I wonder, if our boundaries are causing this trauma response in him, should we stop enforcing them? I don’t think that’s the full answer either. As I’ve said the rules we have in place mean he knows what is expected of him, which we do think is beneficial to him at least on the face of it.
So, maybe we need to pick some of the important rules and hold fast to them. These are the ones which are easy for him to understand, and do tend to be the ones he doesn’t challenge; the ones that directly affect his safety, such as making sure he holds our hand when on a busy road.
There is one rule which I caught Eldest breaking the other night. He came out of his room when he was meant to be sleeping, something he’s only meant to do if he needs to use the toilet, which he wasn’t doing. He’s not exactly light-footed (herd of elephants style), so I caught him out of his room. In his eyes I saw the shock, and could immediately see that he was going to clam up and stop responding to me, and it stopped me short.
Instead of moaning, I just said hello, and gently stated that he was out of his room, it wasn’t what he was expecting. He didn’t shut down.
Instead the conversation went like this:
Me: Oh, did you need to use the toilet?
Me: Oh, ok then?
Eldest: I needed to close the bathroom door.
Me: Right, why is that? (I could see that was what he was doing, the bathroom light was off and he was in the process of closing the door when I found him)
Eldest: because the light makes a noise. (It’s the extractor fan, but it comes on with the light, and has a delayed shut down)
Me: Oh you’re right it does doesn’t it. Don’t you like that noise?
Me: (inside jumping for joy I give him a hug and congratulate him for sorting it out himself)
Two things happened here. Firstly, by not enforcing a broken rule just for the sake of it, I prevented the fear response from fully triggering. Secondly, by allowing him to explain himself I realised that for the first time he sorted out his own problem without crying for us to do it for him. He was a bit scared of the noise the bathroom fan made, and knew that if he closed the door he wouldn’t be able to hear it. He figured out his own solution and acted on it even though he knew it was breaking a rule.
That was incredible progress for him. If I had enforced our ‘stay in your bedroom at nighttime’ boundary, not only would it have triggered his fear response, it would also have undermined his use of his own initiative, and therefore his self-confidence. Since that night, in normal circumstances, he hasn’t left his room because we listened to him, validated his feelings and now make sure he knows we’ve closed the bathroom door for him. We had been so wrapped up in enforcing our boundaries we didn’t realise what was happening.
So we need to find the balance, only enforcing the extremely important boundaries, like the safety based ones. The others may still exist, but maybe we need to leave the gate open on those, to encourage him to use his initiative to work around problems without fear.
As ever I am left thinking that we all just make things up as we go along when it comes to parenting, trial and error, but what we can do is listen to the experience of others, adapt and hope for the best.