Erika spent a frustrating morning homeschooling five of her children,
simultaneously entertaining the toddler, feeding the baby, and making phone
calls for the parish mother’s group. Erika (not her real name), mother of seven,
is exhausted. She volunteers for her parish, teaches all of her children at
home, and juggles their soccer schedules and piano lessons. She is tired all of
the time, and is increasingly resentful of her husband, who seems to demand
additional time from her in the evening. Erika’s husband feels helpless. “I
think she is angry at me, but I don’t know what I have done wrong. I’m feeling
frustrated myself,” he says. The other day Erika snapped at her toddler who was
trying to get her attention, “Can’t you just leave me alone for a minute?” When
his little face crumpled in dejection, Erika broke down in tears; not only was
she stretched way too thin, but she was hurting her children’s feelings as
well. She felt like a terrible mother.
Erika is not a terrible mother. She may, in fact, be struggling with what
psychologists call setting appropriate boundaries . Psychological
boundaries are, for the individual, what physical boundaries are for land or
property. Just as my neighbors have no right to enter my house against my will,
so too, psychological boundaries separate what properly belongs to me, or is my
responsibility, from what belongs to you or is your responsibility.
“Boundaries define your soul,” writes Christian psychologist Dr. Henry
Cloud.  As Scripture has it, “With closest custody, guard your
heart, for in it are the sources of life” (Proverbs 4:23). The violation of
psychological boundaries can adversely affect an individual’s ability to form
healthy relationships later in life.
How are healthy boundaries formed?
We have all had the experience of trying to hand an eight-month old baby to
a good friend or a beloved relative–the infant will cry desperately and resist
going to the other person’s arms. We shrug our shoulders helplessly and smile,
saying, “I guess she is going through stranger anxiety.” Stranger (or
separation) anxiety is a mom’s code word for what psychologists call a critical
step in the process of individuation, of developing a healthy personality.
Beginning from the moment we are born, our understanding of personal boundaries
is being developed. Our parents have a huge impact on whether we feel safe and
loved from the time we are born. They also affect our understanding what is
within my control and what is not, of what belongs to me and what does not.
A newborn infant is totally dependent on his parents; he depends on them for
food and for loving attention to his emotional and physical needs. In a healthy
parent-child relationship, an infant bonds with the caregiver. He feels safe
and nurtured in this environment. At this stage in his development, he cannot
distinguish between himself and his caregiver: mom and baby are one.
But very soon the process of individuation begins.
When the baby reaches eight or nine months, he realizes the importance of
his mother, and glimpses a further truth: we are not one! He has
developed object permanence, which means that he knows that mom still
exists, even when I cannot see her! No longer “out of sight; out of
mind,” the baby cries for his mother when she tries to leave him. This is all
part of the normal process of developing healthy attachments.
God created man in His image and likeness—“conferring on him the dignity of
a person who can initiate and control his own actions…By free will one shapes
one’s own life.”  One of the first steps in learning to control our own
actions is (believe it or not) learning to say “no.” This is part of
discovering who I am (which includes understanding what I am not ) and
is a child’s first foray into making free choices. Dr. Cloud writes that when a
toddler says “no,” he is learning three very important things about personal
boundaries: first, he is learning that he can be attached to someone without
giving up a sense of self; second, he learns that he can say “no” without
losing his parent’s love; and third, he learns to accept “no” from parents.
Toddlers like to venture away from their parents in tentative exploration,
but always return to their parents to “touch base.” Mom and Dad usually respond
with a hug or a smile. Toddlers who are always punished for exploring or whose
parents react with abnormal anxiety to this stage of development, may learn
that the world is a frightening place–or that by exploring I risk losing my
parents’ love. Parents who have no rules, haphazard rules, or who have overly
severe rules can affect healthy boundary development. When a parent demands
that a child not only obey, but like it, he is teaching his child that
his feelings are not his own. When a parent sets no limits at all, he is
teaching his child to infringe on others’ boundaries.
In short, children need to grow up feeling loved and safe and that they have
some form of control. “Freedom makes man responsible for his acts to the extent
that they are voluntary” (CCC 1734). And they need to learn to accept
limits from rightful authorities.
In the Garden of Eden, God said, “‘Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth
and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and
all the living things that move on the earth’” (Gen 1:28). God wants us to take
ownership of and responsibility for what is properly ours. God set clear limits
(boundaries) for Adam and Eve: they were not to eat of the tree of the
knowledge of good and evil. When they disobeyed God, they were banished from
Unhealthy personal boundaries confuse the distinction between what is
properly mine and my responsibility and what is properly yours. Sexual abuse is
the most severe violation of an individual’s personal boundaries. But there are
other, less dramatic, ways that a child can become confused. A parent whose
moods are violent or wildly fluctuating can confuse a small child who doesn’t
know how to react. A child often feels responsible for a parent’s mood, and
children who have grown up with an alcoholic parent or an angry parent, often
find themselves as adults continually striving to please everyone or make
everyone happy . Parents who provide no limits (or inconsistent limits)
may raise children who violate others’ boundaries, sometimes criminally.
Erika, whom we met at the beginning of this article, reflected on her own
childhood. Everyone in their family had to walk on eggshells around Dad.
“Shhh,” her mother would say, “Don’t talk to Dad right now. He is in a bad
mood.” Jane not only feels responsible for other people’s moods (which is
something that is truthfully out of her control), but she exhausts herself in
the process of pleasing everyone. Throughout her entire life, she got the message
that it was not OK to say “no” or her loved ones might suffer. When a friend
from the parish mom’s group called to ask if she could bake cookies for their
meeting next week, Jane said “yes,” even though she hadn’t been planning on
attending and would have to stay up late baking, already exhausted because her
husband was out of town!
But, isn’t Erika practicing Christian charity, as we all should? “For I was
hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me to drink, a stranger and
you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison
and you visited me” (Mt 25: 35).
As Dr. Henry Cloud writes, “We are to love one another, not be one
Each of us need to develop our own unique personality and the talents we
have received from God to become the person he wants us to be—to fulfill the
mission he has in mind for each one of us from before we were formed in the
womb. But God wants us to follow Him in freedom and love. “I no longer call you
slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called
you friends…” (Jn 15:15). Our deepest vocation is to love. A slave does not
love freely, and unhealthy boundaries keep us slaves to their shifting borders.
When Mary and Joseph found Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem, after he had stayed behind
unbeknownst to his family who had left with the caravan, his parents were
“astonished”: “ ‘Son, why have you done this to us?’” Mary and Joseph
were understandably anxious when they could not find him. Although Jesus
obediently returned to his home with Mary and Joseph, he did not sugar-coat the
fact that he was growing up, was called by God to a special purpose; after being
lost three days and causing his parents so much worry, he replies to them, “Why
were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
(Lk 2: 41 ff).
How can we tell whether we are stepping outside our boundaries, or even
trespassing on someone else’s, when our intentions are noble? Sometimes we say
“yes” to too many requests for help—whether from a child who is in need of
last-minute assistance on a project, or from a neighbor who is in trouble. How
do we distinguish between being a Good Samaritan and overstepping our
Carol King, a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPS) with an MS in
Pastoral Counseling who sees clients in both private practice and at the Alpha
Omega Clinic (a Catholic mental health clinic in Maryland) suggests that we
“take it to prayer; always seeking God’s will. That is, in this particular
case, does God want me to be a cheerful giver or do I need to have the courage
to say ‘no’? God doesn’t want us to do things for the wrong reasons—out of fear
of rejection, or out of an inordinate desire to please, for example.” As
Scripture says, “If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body
over…but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Co 13:3).
“There is a place for self-sacrifice, a place for denying yourself and your
own desires—we can’t always do what we want. While it might win us immediate
praise and positive regard, over -functioning for someone else is not
real love, or respect, or true charity. It allows the other to under -function,
to under -use his gifts and/or to avoid the natural teaching
consequences of his choices.”
Mrs. King points out that a red flag indicating boundary transgression is resentment
. “ Saying ‘yes’ when we really internally mean ‘no’ sets us up to resent,
which silently damages relationships. When we are angry but do not admit it,
our anger hides below the surface. It is hidden under outward compliance, but
“One of the best things you can do as a parent is be clear about your own
personal boundaries and honor each child’s unique gifts and personality. Your
children have to feel distinct from you. They need to know that you (the
parent) are not depending on them for your happiness. They need to
know that their mistakes and choices are their mistakes and choices.”
Respecting the dignity of men and women begins
with respecting our own dignity as human persons created in the image and
likeness of God. Part of respecting our own dignity (and teaching our children
to be respectful of theirs) is recognizing healthy personal boundaries and
acting out of true freedom and love. “The understanding of Godly boundaries is
a profound catalyst for positive change,” says Carol King.