Boundaries: Keeping families safe


Janis Fry and Dr. John Taylor
Focus on Adoption magazine

Dr John Taylor guides us through some key strategies for teaching healthy boundaries and keeping children safe.

Boundaries are the “rules” that create safety and common understandings of accepted behaviour in our homes and families. In this article, we will look at what we mean by boundaries, examine some of our beliefs and assumptions about appropriate behaviour for children, and then learn how we can communicate these expectations to our children, in a manner that makes them feel safe and respected in the home.

Boundaries are often implicit, or unstated, and our children learn them easily from a very young age by modeling after others in the home. However, when older children join our families through adoption, they can come with a range of experiences that may include maltreatment or abuse or, at the very least, a variety of expectations when it comes to boundaries.

In the foster care system they may have had multiple placements and been exposed to children with sexualized  behaviours. Some children may have been institutionalized and cared for by relative strangers. They may seek affection indiscriminately from adults they have just met. Others with histories of abuse or who have witnessed abuse, may be  triggered or frightened by any form of physical touch. or may engage in some level of sexualized behaviour with other children.

It is not surprising that these children have poor or confused personal boundaries. Even healthy families vary in their  behaviour when it comes to boundaries. In some families, adults and children kiss on the mouth; in others, this is seen as inappropriate. Families vary in their dress codes, bathing and toileting routines, and bedtime and sleeping arrangements.  We should not be surprised when children’s beliefs or expectations are vastly different than our own. They are not misbehaving, but rather behaving as they have learned in different environments.

Helping our adopted children to learn strong healthy personal boundaries is one of the most important tasks we face as parents. This is a critical area of safety for the child and others in the family and needs to adressed calmly, clearly, and early in the placement.

Modeling is one important way we teach boundaries but, given our children’s exposure to other models, it will likely not be enough. Dr. Taylor says that children coping with anxiety and confusion in a new home need to have norms and expectations made explicit. Knowing what the limits and expectations are will go a long way to relieving a child’s anxiety. For instance children may be told, “In this family we do not hurt each other. When we are angry, we speak to each other about our feelings, but we do not hit, punch, or slap each other,” or we say, “This bedroom is your sister’s space. You can only play in here with her permission and only with the door open.” In this way, children learn important rules or  boundaries about safety and personal privacy.

Responding to sexualized behaviour can be especially challenging for parents who may be uncomfortable with the topic and the language. According to Dr. Taylor, caregivers and parents often express concern with confronting a child’s sexual behaviour directly because they feel they may somehow damage the child’s healthy sexual development. In fact, this is not the case, and the parents should intervene as they would with any unacceptable behaviour. The message needs to delivered calmly and clearly and the language needs to be clear and unambiguous. For instance: Eight-year-old Jessica is sitting on the family room couch in her nightie, while sucking her thumb, watching television, with her legs open and her genital area visible. Noticing this, her mom says, “Jessica, please don’t do that. It’s inappropriate.” Jessica wonders if it is the thumb-sucking that is objectionable. Or perhaps her choice of TV show? What she needs to hear is, “Jessica, we can see your genitals, which is a private part of your body, remember?” The message is one of privacy and respect for self and others. Also, importantly, it is not one of shaming or embarrassing the child about a behaviour she may not even have been aware of.

Some boundaries are relatively universal, such as those around safety and privacy, but others are unique and very personal. You may have fond memories of having special time alone with a parent at bedtime, your mother giving you back rubs, or crawling into bed with your big brother during a thunderstorm. Remember, these are your experiences and not your child’s. Your child’s experiences with being comforted may be very confusing. Even talk of love or being loved can be confusing for a child if, in their previous home, it was a prelude to some form of “problem touch” involving  someone who loved them or whom they loved.

Parents, says Dr. Taylor, need to be patient. Simple, consistent rules will need to be enforced and re-enforced until they  become the new norm for the child. If, however, over time, sexual behaviour does not respond to correction it may have a different meaning for the child. This type of problematic sexual behaviour will be discussed in subsequent articles.

Read part two: Circles of relationship: Teaching social distance.

Dr. John Taylor is a Vancouver area psychologist specialzing in childrens’ therapy. Janis Fry, MSW, is the Manager, Program Services at the Adoptive Families Association of BC.