In couples and family counseling, we are often asked if there is a magic wand or pill to make the changes we want, to manage our spouses changes, or to make our children behave. These questions almost always come when a person is feeling overwhelmed by their emotions and the prospect of change, which requires effort. We all experience ups and downs, positive mood and not so pleasant moods, anxiety and depression, fear, stress, etc. We all believe that we should be happy most if not all the time and we all want a quick fix so that we don’t have to work so hard.
All of us have at one time or another felt frustrated and overwhelmed about the changes we need to make, the change process of our partner, or the rearing of children. Although there is no magical answer to changing your beliefs and behaviors or that of your partners or child’s, there are some strategies that can be helpful.
One strategy is having personal boundaries and family rules. Almost everyone has boundaries and family rules, but are those boundaries and rules written down and posted? From our experience working with individuals and families, we can tell you that unless your boundaries and rules are written down and posted, their existence is questionable. Boundaries are rules are often thought of and responded to as if they are punishments, but his erroneous. Boundaries and rules are simply parameters that guide our intentions, words and behavior so that we do not harm ourselves or others. Our attention to people and our focus on tasks throughout the day is constantly under attack and we are frequently distracted and tend to forget about our intentions.
Additionally, we all struggle with consistency and persistency and our goals waiver until our desire and motivation seem to be stronger than the ever lurking “I don’t feel like it” or “I don’t want to”. Boundaries and Rules differ in that boundaries are for ourselves and rules are for others and both have consequences. Boundaries and rules have varying intentions and purposes and come in different forms, but generally tend to have two common traits: First, they are specific and second, they are easy to understand.
Here are two types of rules we have found in our discussions with families that may clarify the importance of these two traits:
‘Do’ boundaries and rules
‘Do’ rules are teaching tools, and they are effective in most situations because they guide behavior in a positive way.
Here are some examples:
“I will take a time out when my emotions are too elevated to talk about.”
“We will sit down to eat.”
“I will speak in a polite voice and tone.”
“We wear our seatbelt in the car.”
“I only respond with connection when I am talked to in a gentle, empathic and validating way.”
“Be home by curfew.”
The ‘Do’ boundaries and rules are by far the most effective and productive because our brains don’t process negatives well. It is the proverbial “Don’t think about a pink elephant” analogy. This doesn’t work because in order to not think of something, our brain has to bring it up in order to program it as something to not think about…so whether we tell ourselves to do something or not do something, our brain will always bring it up. With this clarification, let’s address the ‘Don’t boundaries and rules.
‘Don’t’ boundaries and rules
We actually tend to use ‘don’t’ boundaries and rules when it is difficult to explain exactly what to do instead because we get so focused on what we don’t want ourselves to do or others to do. Here are some examples:
“Don’t scream and yell.”
“Don’t act out the addiction.”
“Don’t get in a car with any other driver who has been drinking.”
Tips and strategies
First, as the old saying goes, “Less is more”. It is difficult for any of us to remember more than a few things at a time, which is why we tend to forget and, also why we are encouraged to write things down we want to remember – especially boundaries and rules. For boundaries, it is better to break them down into categories such as emotional, social, physical and sexual boundaries. For household rules, it is better to make the rules around similar things but with an emphasis on attitude and treatment of others so that everyone feels safe and secure, which is the ultimate purpose of boundaries and rules anyway.
Discussing boundaries and rules with our partner and our children is important so that they aren’t blindsided by consequences for things they were never informed about; however, it is not realistic to explain our boundaries and associated consequences to everyone, everywhere, all the time. Boundaries, rules and associated consequences should be posted or at least available for review when needed. A quick reminder is always good.
“What are the rules in this house?” or “Do you remember my boundary about this?”
Boundaries and rules are meant to be preventative of harm and so the more concise and clearer, the better. Boundaries and rules begin to lose their power when they are constantly changed or added to. Too many boundaries and rules are overwhelming to both the one creating and enforcing them and to those striving to remember and follow them, which leads to partners, parents and children ultimately giving up on them and returning to old patterns of communication and behavior.
A second strategy is the actual consequence for the breaking of the boundary or rule. It is important to remember that consequences are both positive and negative. If our own, our partners or child’s behavior is negative, the consequence is negative. If the behavior is positive then the consequence is positive – typically called a reward. Positive consequences or rewards often feel uncomfortable. For some reason, we are more comfortable offering criticism or contempt, ignoring or avoiding or punishing rather than offering affirmation, praise, connection, vulnerability and other positive reinforcements. We often wonder why we should use positive consequences – after all, we or they only did what was “supposed to be done.” Positive consequences encourage the continuance of the desired behavior. The most powerful positive consequences are the relational kind such as words of affirmation, quality time, close proximity, hugs and other forms of healthy touch and interactions that build the relationship.
We can also use material rewards or things that we, our partner and children enjoy as positive consequences. Going on dates, a favorite meal, play a game, etc. Negative consequences also work best if we remember that again, it is not a punishment but an act to remove ourselves or others from something that is meaningful that is related to the boundary so that we can return to a state of security and safety. Negative consequences are effective when the consequence is related to the boundary or rule. For example, if the rule is to be home by 10:30 p.m. and the child returns at 11 p.m., the consequence should be to restrict time with friends, this is an appropriate negative consequence.
It is absolutely crucial to remember that if we have boundaries, rules and consequences, it is our responsibility to uphold them and if we don’t, then we are breaking them, not the other person and we are also reinforcing and enabling the very behavior we want to go away.
Using the same example just cited, of course the teenager will beg and plead and persuade and come up with excuses about their choice to break curfew so that they can avoid the consequence and they may resort to demeaning words and say the rule is stupid and we are unfair. This is expected! Who has never had a complaint about a boundary or rule? Who has never tried to avoid consequences for choices? We all struggle with that, but if we fail to uphold our own sense of security and safety, we will not be teaching anyone to learn how to keep themselves safe in circumstances and relationships. Despite the tantrums, whining, complaining and threats, we must be true to ourselves and to the safety of all by following through and upholding boundaries and rules.
Boundaries and rules are crucial for healthy relationships with our self and others. Begin now to identify what your boundaries are for yourself and what your rules are for your children and family at home and in the community. Keeping boundaries helps in the decrease of anxiety, depression and addictive behaviors.