Boundaries – Do You Have Them?

In their book Boundaries, Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend tell of an experience one of them had with the parents of a 25 year old man. The parents came to see one of them (we’ll just say it was Dr. Cloud for the sake of the story) with the request to help them “fix” their son, Bill. When Dr. Cloud asked where Bill was, the parents responded that he didn’t want to come.

“Why?” Asked Dr. Cloud

“Because he doesn’t think he has a problem,” they responded.

“Maybe he’s right. Tell me about it.” Dr. Cloud said to their great surprise.

The parents went on to tell Dr. Cloud how their son had always had trouble from a young age. He had continually been involved with drugs, dropped out of school, and wouldn’t get a job. They had tried many different things over the years to help him, but he continued to show no responsibility, use drugs, and hang out with the “wrong” crowd.

The parents obviously loved their son and were concerned for him.They had given him money during school, so he wouldn’t have to work and could focus on his studies. When he failed his classes, they had tried to find him a school that would be a better fit.

After a few minutes of listening, Dr. Cloud told the parents, “I think your son is right. He doesn’t have a problem.”

This of course shocked the parents and dad asked, “Did I hear you right? You don’t think he has a problem?”

Dr. Cloud then told the parents that Bill “doesn’t have a problem, YOU DO!”

He described to them how Bill can do pretty much whatever he wants whenever he wants. His parents worry, fret, pay for things, push him to do something with life, continue to allow him to live in their house, etc.

Bill “doesn’t have a problem because you have taken it from him. Those things should be his problem, but as it now stands, they are yours,” Dr. Cloud described to the parents. “Would you like for me to help you help him to have some problems?” Dr. Cloud asked them.

Bill’s “actions need to cause him problems and not you…As it stands now, he is irresponsible and happy, and you are responsible and miserable,” Dr. Cloud told them.

As do most people who have trouble setting boundaries, these parents were worried what would happen to their son if they stopped “helping” him. I’m sure they could picture their son on the streets, homeless and on drugs if they were to kick him out. How would he have money to eat? How would he stay warm? Would he end up in jail or possibly overdosing? These thoughts probably crossed the parents’ mind during their conversation.

“Isn’t that a bit cruel, just to stop helping like that?” asked the father.

“Has helping him helped?” Dr. Cloud asked them.

The parents were now starting to understand.

Do any of the elements in this scenario sound familiar to you and your situation?

I think we as parents can all learn from Dr. Cloud’s conversation. If you are struggling with a troubled teen and have tried everything you can to help them, it may be time to ask yourself:

“Do they have a problem or do I?”

No, not everyone who is having trouble with a teenager (that would include all of us) has boundary issues. The problem comes when we continue to allow the behavior without consequences. Consequences teach our teenagers that results (good or bad) always follow behaviors.

You reap what you sow!

When you tell your teenager they are grounded for a week after they sneak out of the house, then you let them go to their senior prom 2 days later because it’s a “once-in-a-lifetime” dance, and they have been on their best behavior, and you feel guilty making them miss their prom, you are not allowing the problem to be their problem. When your son continues to smoke pot in your house even after you told him he couldn’t live under your roof if he uses, then you have taken his problem and made it yours.

Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend make this profound statement:

“To rescue people from the natural consequences of their behavior is to render them powerless.”

So no need to yell or nag or complain. Allow consequences to take their natural course and follow through on your promises. Counter to what you may feel as a parent, this is not mean, or cruel, or abandonment.

Parenting with boundaries will produce confident, productive children who grow into successful adults.


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