As we discussed in our previous post, setting and keeping boundaries is an essential part of growing up.

In short, “boundaries” are rules that a person creates for themselves about what are acceptable ways for others to interact with them. Boundaries are necessary in all types of relationships for one to feel safe, valued, and respected. Parents should set and hold boundaries with their teens, teens should keep boundaries with their parents, friends, and everyone else in their lives.

But not all boundaries are created equal. And not everything labeled a “boundary” is actually that; some are actually brick walls, and some are sheer curtains.

Some believe boundaries to be “unkind,” and others use boundaries as an excuse to be overbearing or cut people out of their lives.

Because so few of us understand or implement boundaries correctly, it can be hard to know what healthy boundaries look like in action.

Healthy vs Unhealthy Boundaries

The key question then becomes, what is a healthy and appropriate boundary, and what isn’t?

Although there are different types of boundaries, experts agree that all healthy boundaries share these characteristics:

  • Present and clear
  • Appropriate versus controlling or manipulative
  • Firm but flexible, not rigid
  • Protective, not hurtful or harmful
  • Receptive, not invasive or domineering
  • Not set by anyone else but the individual.

Additionally, according to Elizabeth Ernshaw, LMFT and others, healthy boundaries allow teens to:

  • Protect their physical and emotional spaces
  • Have higher self-esteem, confidence, and self-respect
  • Separate their needs, thoughts, desires, and feelings from others
  • Share personal information in an environment they are comfortable with
  • Say “Yes” when they mean yes, “No” when they mean no, and be okay when others do so too
  • Recognize that their boundaries will be different from others
  • Empower teens to make healthy choices and take responsibility for themselves.

When we fail to set clear and appropriate boundaries, we can fall into unhealthy boundary patterns. These can hurt both the person setting them and those around them. Although not an all-inclusive list, unhealthy boundaries are often characterized by:

  • Weak sense of personal identity
  • Basing how you feel about yourself on how others treat you
  • Not expressing or communicating your wants and needs
  • Sharing too much too soon with people
  • Feeling responsible for others’ feelings and happiness
  • Allowing others to make your decisions for you.

Just as healthy boundaries will enable them to build confidence and create and maintain healthy relationships, unhealthy boundaries can lead to problems throughout a teen’s life. 

Common Types of Boundaries

Next, let’s take a look at six common types of boundaries and what they might look like in practice:

1. Physical

Physical boundaries refer to your personal space, your privacy, and your body. Things like physical touch or unwanted comments regarding your body fall into this category.

Some examples of healthy physical boundaries are:

“I’m not a big hugger; I am more of a handshake person.”

“Please ask before going into my bedroom.”

“I am not comfortable being kissed in public.”

2. Emotional 

Emotional boundaries relate to your personal feelings and include boundaries around inappropriate topics, emotional dumping, and dismissing emotions.

Examples of healthy emotional boundaries could be:

“I don’t want to talk about that subject.”

“I care about you and I’m sorry you are having a hard time, but I am not in a place where I can help right now.”

“If you keep criticizing my feelings I won’t open up to you anymore.”

3. Time 

Time boundaries are limits set surrounding how your time is utilized and respected, and what is important to spend your time and energy on.

Healthy time boundaries might include:

“I can only help for an hour.”

“Sunday’s are my day off so I won’t be able to make it.”

Saying “no” to anything that you don’t wish to spend your time and energy on.

4. Mental/Intellectual

This refers to your personal thoughts, opinions, beliefs, and values. It also means showing respect towards others who hold different beliefs from you.

Examples of healthy intellectual boundaries might be:

“We can agree to disagree on this one.”

“I will listen to your opinion, but you aren’t going to change my mind.”

“If you keep talking about this, I’m going to leave the conversation.”

4. Material/Financial

Material boundaries include your money and possessions, and what (if anything) you are willing to share with others.

Examples include:

“I have a rule against loaning my car to anyone.”

“That’s not in my budget at this time.”

5. Sexual

These boundaries refer to your expectations concerning intimacy and include topics like consent, respect, understanding of preferences, desires, and privacy.

Some examples of expressing healthy sexual boundaries include:

“I’m not comfortable being touched there.”

“Please don’t kiss me in public.”

“I’m waiting until I’m older to have sex.”

Understanding and setting sexual boundaries are extremely important for young people. A lack of or unhealthy boundaries makes teens more vulnerable to being a victim of abuse in relationships. Not understanding sexual boundaries can also lead to inadvertently becoming a perpetrator.

No one goes into a relationship thinking it will become abusive. The cycle of abuse can develop over time, and sadly, many teens stay in relationships despite the abuse.

The stats are scary, but one way to ensure that your teen doesn’t get involved in an abusive relationship is to teach him or her about boundaries.

How Do I Actually Set Boundaries?

Now that we’ve convinced you of the importance of healthy boundaries, let’s get to the nitty-gritty.

Here are our best tips to setting healthy boundaries for yourself, your teen, and your family:

  • Self reflect. Think of a few areas in your life where you feel used, taken advantage of, drained, or otherwise stressed out, and decide how you
  • Start small. If you don’t have many boundaries in place already, adding too many at one time might seem overwhelming. Instead, just pick a few areas
  • Set them early (when possible). The sooner a new acquaintance, co-worker, friend or other knows your boundaries, the easier it will be for them to respect them.
  • Make them consistent. When you hold boundaries sometimes, but other times let them slide, it can lead to confusion in your relationships. Try keeping your boundaries consistent and steady. This will reinforce them with others and ensure those lines remain clearly established.
  • Create a framework. Dr. Quinn-Cirillo notes that boundaries “vary depending on the type of people or relationship.” However, it’s helpful to have an outline in place of your must-have boundaries that can be adapted as needed.
  • Make them clear, direct, and concise. It doesn’t help you or anyone else if your boundaries are fuzzy or confusing. People need to be able to understand your wants and needs so that they can agree to keep them.
  • Communicate what you will and will not tolerate. People won’t know what they are doing is unacceptable if you don’t tell them. If you are frequently frustrated at otherwise feeling taken advantage of, speak up. It likely means your boundaries aren’t being communicated effectively.
  • Be direct and firm. Don’t let people talk you into or out of things. It is possible to be kind yet firm at the same time. Your teen might be frustrated if you don’t allow them to go to a certain type of party, but need to should respect your decision.
  • Think about the impact. Sometimes a so-called boundary goes too far. Are your boundaries in some way harming or hurting others? Do they intrude on another’s boundaries? If so, you may need to make a change somewhere.
  • Pay attention to how your boundaries make you feel. Are they helping you feel happy, safe, protected, and respected in your daily life and relationships? That is the main goal of having boundaries. If something is off or not working, start back at #1 and adjust as needed.

If all this sounds overwhelming, remember that the first and best thing you can do as a parent is to understand, set and maintain your own boundaries.

Once you have a solid grasp on boundaries and have established some of your own, turn your attention to helping your teen understand them as well. Save this post as a reference. When you get through the basics, you can workshop together to set some boundaries in your family, with their friends, and in any relationships they have.

In our next blog, we will talk about how parents can set boundaries for their teens and be consistent in sticking to them.