Family Boundaries (Interactive Concepts)

Boundaries are essentially unwritten rules that define the family interactions, stating who participates and how. For example, can children of the household express their anger to parents? Can a parent form a coalition with a child against the other parent, if so what happens? Can grandparents discipline children when a parent is in the room? Does a husband always put his own mother’s needs above his wife’s needs? What about step-families?

In a family system where the structure is clearly defined, grandparents serve as an extended support subsystem to the nuclear family (parents and children). Executive decisions for the entire family are made by the parental subsystem while the children are able to learn the values of competition and cooperation as they freely interact with mutually supportive parents.

Interpersonal boundaries also exist for each individual family member within the household. This is the boundary needed to permit “space” for personal growth.
* thoughts and feelings are respected
* individuals are not confined to a limited, acceptable range of behavior
* differences are accepted in a family as a natural consequence of unique personalities
* adolescents particularly benefit from the ability to stay connected yet be an individual

Enmeshed patterns in family structure blur boundaries. In this family setting, autonomy is sacrificed to the cost of belonging because responding to family needs comes first and foremost, before individual needs. There is a narrow acceptance of individuation at the cost of belonging, and individual growth is restricted as a result. enmeshed boundaries are characterized by the following:
* members speaking for one another
* parents telling children what the children really think and feel or telling them what they should think and feel
* guilt used as a means of controlling others
* hints that neither parent has psychologically separated from his or her own parents

Disengaged boundaries do the opposite of enmeshed patterns in that they sacrifice belonging for autonomy. These are overly rigid or impermeable boundaries that inhibit communication and rob the family of much-needed mutual support.
* privacy is taken to the extreme
* little sharing of thoughts and feelings occur
* members of the family typically seek support outside the family with friends, activities, alcohol, or other drugs

Enmeshed and disengaged boundaries create a setting within family systems where effective problem solving is not displayed and members’ individual growth is hampered. This is because the pattern of dysfunction creates the need for members to continually strive for a balance between autonomy and meeting their need to belong.

Note: most of the time it is difficult to label families as either absolutely enmeshed or disengaged. Families usually have interpersonal boundaries with a combination factor: the son is enmeshed with his mother while disengaged from his father; a father is disengaged from his own father yet enmeshed with his own daughter; parents are disengaged from one another, but each is enmeshed with one of the children. Again, the balance for autonomy and the need to belong is a continuous challenge.

Source – Worden, M. (1994). Family Therapy Basics. Brooks/Cole Publishing Co., Pacific Grove, CA.

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  1. Posted June 1, 2013 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Do you think the culture & heritage of the family directly influence the formation of boundaries? How much do the family boundaries change or not between immigrant grandparents and their grandchildren? We are all influenced by familial tradition!

  2. heidiblackstun16
    Posted June 1, 2013 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    Yes, each family is definitely unique. You bring up a great point with the reminder of culture & heritage as they have great influence on families.

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