Janet Lansbury published a great article on her website, Elevating Child Care. I was particularly moved by her observations about personal limits. As a trauma survivor, I struggle with setting boundaries. In recent months, I have come to see this as a two-step process. One step is garnering the strength to speak up about my boundaries. This has taken time and practice, since for so long, speaking up was absolutely prohibited. The other step is knowing what those boundaries are. This is actually proven to be the more difficult step. It requires a new level of self-understanding.
For a trauma survivor in an adult relationship, setting boundaries is challenging. With children, the process of healthy boundary creation is just short of rocket science. Recently, I have realized that I spend most of my daily energy trying to stay calm as my children invade my personal space. Boundary invasion comes in many forms. As I become aware of these forms, I am getting better at addressing them in a positive manner.
My physical boundaries were the easiest to address, but not because my kids respect my physical space. I am a human jungle gym like all parents with small children. The anxiety I felt about these boundaries was just easier to understand. I know my physical boundaries were never respected as a child, so my reaction made sense. I also find it easier to ask for my space when I need it. “You can’t sit on my lap right now, but you can sit next to me.” “You can climb on me, but try to keep your very sharp elbows out of my stomach.” I can do that.
One challenging physical boundary involves sharing my things with my children. They always want to play with my stuff. Why? Because it belongs to me of course. Unfortunately, my past experiences don’t encourage a generous spirit on my part. In my childhood, my things were not respected. When a family does not respect body boundaries, they usually don’t stop there. Recently, I have realized that my ability to share has a direct reflection on their ability to share. I have started to make different choices. I still don’t let them play football with my glass collectibles or mess with my work computer, but I have been a bit more generous with the non-breakables.
Some boundaries are less obvious because it may only be an energetic intrusion. When my twins start to run around the house, chasing each other and screaming, there is boundary invasion. It took me a while to recognize that. I can feel my anxiety rise as the volume goes up in my house. My internal control-meter starts to go off. The situation gets less and less predictable as the intensity rises. I value predictability, because traumatic situations always happened when there was chaos.
The most significant challenge in my relationship with my children is determining the definition of “no”. I have struggled with holding my ground after I have said no, because in my childhood, I wasn’t allowed to use that word. Unfortunately, this sends the message to my kids that I will change my mind if they just persist. No means maybe. On the bad days, I have to ask them to stop an activity many times before they stop. The more times I have to say it, the more my anxiety builds, because if my kids don’t respect my “no”, I feel unsafe. And when I feel unsafe, I yell.
My children aren’t the only boundary invaders in my house. I do it to myself. I violate my personal limits. I don’t know when enough is enough … until it is too late. I will try to get just one more thing done. I will schedule five appointments in one day and forget to eat. I will stay up late organizing some part of the house even though I have to get up at the crack of dawn. I will push myself until I am whining. When I ignore my need for self-care, it never ends well. I become intolerant and impatient. With small children, intolerance does not create a good family environment.
Recognizing and responding to my personal boundaries is critical to my success as a trauma survivor turned parent. Ignoring my own needs for physical space, quiet and downtime will always create a parenting moment that I would like to forget. I have heard that I need to love myself before I can love another. For a child abuse survivor, boundaries provide that love.