When we become parents we’re kind of pushed to do any catching up on asserting ourselves and maintaining boundaries that we didn’t get to do as kids. Bummer but true. I’ve had tough challenges in standing up for my kids with relatives and friends, many have crossed different boundaries, as in have crossed the lines or attempted to cross the lines that I consider to be respectful treatment of children. When certain people in our circle have pushed our boundaries too far, we’ve minimize the contact, not out of spite but just my commitment to my child’s emotional health. If a relative or friend treats one of my children disrespectfully, rather than directly confront the adult, I tend to speak to my child in front of them, which gives the adult the message and more importantly gives my child the warmth or reassurance that they need to help them mitigate the projections that’s just been directed at them.
I will then talk to the adult if I’m concerned that it’s a theme as opposed to a once-off incident. Even though adults can feel very challenged by this very open and direct communication, I see that by talking about the problems and being honest when there are issues that are clearly already think in the air, it gives the other person a chance to resolve our differences and ideally come to some mutual agreement, although this often isn’t possible. Most people learned in childhood to fear limits and having boundaries asserted. When boundaries were asserted with shaming and punishing it sadly makes any issues around boundaries as adults potentially very emotionally charged, which makes calm clear communication, problem solving, active listening and creating agreements difficult if not impossible for many (who can’t regulate the intense emotions evoked).
My son has told me “mum you have a way of putting people in their place that they think you’re being nice to them”, which for me is a huge compliment because I truly aim to be as calm, clear, non-aggressive, mature and open minded as possible when talking to another about a tricky or even emotionally charged issue. This isn’t something I learned in my childhood, quite the contrary, these are skills I’ve had to learn but can be learned by anyone who truly wants to learn to resolve conflicts more constructively.
This is where I find nonviolent communication comes in. I am very clear and strong about my boundaries and putting my children’s needs first around family AND I try to do the merry dance of being as diplomatic as possible, speaking non-aggressively and from my own perspective without labelling them and all that more compassionate communication definitely helps. Yet I couldn’t always do this and initially, I think for most people in their journey of boundary setting (when boundaries weren’t respected in childhood) it’s a very awkward, messy, clumsy and often very scary and painful process initially. But if you’re to wait until you can assert yourself with calm confidence and grace, you may have to wait your whole life. Like a kid learning to ride a bike, expect to fall down and pick yourself up a lot, but be proud of yourself for facing the fears instilled in you by your parent(s) related to speaking up for yourself
Also on the subject of boundaries relating to family and friends, I haven’t had a relationship with my father since my early twenties. I’ve only ever known him to be a volatile and violent man with no integrity, no social conscience and he’s a pedophile, so it’s a no-brainer really. It’s a basic issue of safety. This level of boundary is an extreme position for a situation of high risk, yet appropriate in the more extreme cases of parents who violate boundaries and do a lot of harm without awareness or attempts to change and repair. It’s a big call. Every relationship has it’s healthy and not so healthy aspects, we each have to weigh up the benefits versus the risks, but if the risk is high enough, then sometimes this is the right thing to do. I believe that every parent not only deserves to have a voice in how their children are treated and who they have a relationship with, but it is our responsibility to protect them from influences that are dysfunctional to the point of being potentially very harmful.
I remember putting up a tent with another adult in challenging weather conditions, it was starting to rain and the wind was strong. My son arrived on the scene asking if he could go to his friend’s house. The other adult launched a verbal attack at my son telling him “your mother’s a bit busy right now and you’d be better off giving us a hand”, the words weren’t as sharp as the tone and the piercingly accusatory look. I intervened by asking my son to look and me and slowly and calmly telling him “it’s ok honey you haven’t done anything wrong, I can talk to you about your friend in a minute, just tell him you’ll ring him back and then can you help us with these poles.
Another time my daughter started crying about missing her friends as it was the holidays and she hadn’t seen them in a while. The adult with me totally ignored my daughter’s cries and kept talking to me, asking me questions, even though I was clearly giving my daughter the attention she needed. So I said to my girl “you’ve got my attention love, you need me right now.” Then turned to the adult and said “I can’t talk now my girl’s upset.” In both cases the other adult was a relative and it does take courage I find to prioritize my child’s needs over that of the adult, but it’s so important that we do so because the adult is an adult, but our child is dependent on us.
When our children see us standing up for them, supporting them to speak up for themselves and being careful about the influences upon them, it gives them the message that they themselves should be discerning about who is in their circle and how they are treated. This becomes especially important for children during the teen years where the parents lose a lot of their influence. And I think that as difficult as it might be, it is GREAT modelling for your kids. I see the benefits of this with both my children, but especially with my oldest now that he’s out there in the world a bit more as a teen, he has no trouble asserting himself non-aggressively, but VERY clearly. He’s very clear about his right to have a say in who affects him and how they affect him.
Recently my daughter got upset at an after school class she attends and started crying. When the teacher tried to shush her, reason with her and otherwise talk her out of being upset, my daughter told her “I can’t help being upset. I’m allowed to cry.” The teacher softened at that point and became more sensitive to what my daughter was upset about.
Parents I work with often reflect that their parents seem to have a belief that they have rights over their grandchild and don’t know how to deal with this. Your parent’s belief that they have the right to treat your child how they like including doing that which causes you great concern is only likely to change by you making your boundaries super clear. It’s your right and responsibility to assert boundaries that will keep your child physically and emotionally safe. With one of the grandparents of my children (they had 4 at the time), she and I eventually had a big discussion where I just wouldn’t step down and everything changed after that. One thing I remember saying was along the lines of “we’re really similar in lots of ways, we both have very strong opinions about bringing up children. Some of those opinions differ a lot, but just know that I’m incredibly passionate and confident about how I bring up my children, I’ve put years of thought and education into my parenting choices. When you tell me what I should and shouldn’t do, I find myself wondering if you know that I do actually, not just think, but think and research very deeply with the major decisions as a parent. I’m happy for you to share your thoughts and opinions but I’d like to see some evidence that you are also interested in my thoughts and opinions and willing to accept that I am the parent and these are my choices to make. And you’re about as likely to convince me to change my mind as I am to change yours.”
She’d been a school teacher and principle most of her life, a loving and very well meaning woman and I do appreciate her a lot, I’d prefer an overinvolved grandparent than one who didn’t care or engage, but a lot of work to maintain the boundaries, she’s VERY traditional, very pious, very arrogant and authoritarian, but after that big argument she actually gave me more space, as in didn’t take every opportunity to try to educate me or correct my children. It was a nerve wrecking conversation but incredibly satisfying. It takes a lot of guts because most of us are terrified of hurting the other person or afraid of the back lash that we learned to expect from what we experienced or witnessed in childhood, but what motivates me is to remember that if I don’t I’m protecting the adult’s feelings and wellbeing more than my own child and I have a commitment to not do that.