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Why Boundaries Matter: Teens, Authentic Connection, and Positive Relationships

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Healthy boundaries support adolescents’ ability to form positive relationships. Therefore, they are essential to authentic connection and to mental health. 

Typically, parents or primary caregivers teach children about boundaries, by example and sometimes verbally as well. Unhealthy or dysfunctional boundaries may indicate a family system was disrupted. Thus, they can be a symptom of relational trauma.  

Fortunately, the impact of this type of trauma can be ameliorated. Young people can learn to make authentic connections even if they didn’t develop those skills early on. Healing their relationships with parents and forming strong relationships with peers and mentors (including teachers, counselors, and therapists) are key to this development.

The Purpose of Boundaries 

Boundaries protect us from others and keep us from being harmed. They also protect the outside world from us, to prevent us from doing harm to others. Boundaries protect us emotionally, mentally, and physically: 

  • Physical boundaries protect us from unwanted physical contact—we decide who, what, where, when and how someone else can touch us. 
  • Emotional boundaries protect us from the feelings or energy of others when they are used against us.  
  • Mental boundaries protect us against other people’s hurtful words, ideas, or judgments. 

A healthy boundary system allows us to protect ourselves and know that we are worthy of protection. Furthermore, healthy boundaries support us to respect and protect others. With healthy boundaries in place, it’s easier to build authentic and caring relationships.

Types of Dysfunctional Boundaries 

There are two types of dysfunctional boundaries. First, we can be too open and vulnerable. On the other hand, we can have boundaries that are too impenetrable. In these cases, we are not vulnerable enough to make authentic connections.   

Symptoms of Open/Vulnerable Boundaries 

When we are too open and vulnerable, we

  • Allow other people’s words, judgments, and behaviors to affect us on the emotional, mental, and/or physical levels 
  • Feel that we are unable to protect ourselves 
  • Believe that we need someone else to protect us 
  • Think that the only way we can feel protected is if we get very close to someone else. However, we never feel close enough, so we never really feel safe.  

Symptoms of Invulnerable/Impenetrable Boundaries  

When our boundaries are impenetrable, we  

  • Have a sense of being shut off from the world 
  • Are unable to truly connect with others 
  • Experience difficulty letting in other people’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors 
  • Refuse to let anyone get close enough to hurt us. 
Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: Healthy Boundaries

The Link Between Boundaries and Containment 

Another aspect of boundaries is containment, which describes how we protect others from ourselves, in terms of physical, emotional, or verbal behaviors. Both lack of containment and being overly contained are symptoms of dysfunctional boundaries.

Lack of Containment

Usually, there are two reasons for lack of containment. Having a parent who was uncontained is the first reason. When a parent models this behavior, the child will typically follow their example. Additionally, if a caregiver failed to correct a child’s dysfunctional behavior, lack of containment can occur.  

  • Standing too close to other people (being “in their face”) 
  • Touching people and their things without asking permission 
  • Saying whatever comes to mind (not having a filter) 
  • Reacting before you think something through  
  • Being unable to contain your emotions or energy 
  • Blaming others and having a hard time accepting responsibility for one’s actions. 

Symptoms of Being Overly Contained 

Dysfunctional boundaries can also lead to being overly contained, or walled off. Thus, they have a different set of behaviors:

  • Rarely approaching others for physical contact
  • Not expressing their wants or needs out of fear they won’t be met
  • Intense focus on not offending others
  • Trying to act “perfect” because they are afraid of being abandoned.  
Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: Healthy Boundaries

Approaches for Healing Dysfunctional Boundaries

Therapists use multiple modalities to help teens and families heal dysfunctional boundaries. The first step to address dysfunction is to identify what isn’t healthy. For example, do we tend to be more open? Or do we tend to be walled off from others? Are we overstepping others’ boundaries with our behavior, or keeping them at a distance?

Therapists who work with relational trauma help clients recognize the triggers for unhealthy behavior stemming from dysfunctional boundaries.  Clients working to improve containment might benefit from therapy that regulates emotions. As a result, they strengthen their ability to rely on themselves to calm down. Therefore, they feel less of a need to talk nervously, be reactive, or rely on others.  

Therapeutic Modalities for Treating Dysfunctional Boundaries and Relational Trauma

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy: Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) helps people acknowledge  unhealthy behaviors. They often use these to cope with deeper underlying issues. Additionally, they work with a therapist to develop ways to modify these behaviors. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) helps people identify and modify thought and behavior patterns. This helps them shift from the negative toward the positive. 

Mindfulness: Mindfulness practices, such as yoga and meditation, enhance awareness of self, environment, and others. That can help them protect themselves emotionally from others and stay calm. It can also help them be more sensitive to other people’s boundaries. 

Somatictherapies: Somatic therapies help people heal by working with the body, not just the mind. Such interventions are helpful in addressing trauma.  

Experiential therapies: These include art therapy, music therapy, adventure therapy, Equine Therapy, and other modalities. Experiential therapy helps people express themselves. In addition, they build self-esteem and self-knowledge. Moreover, it is very beneficial for teens that find talk therapy difficult. 

Treatment for Dysfunctional Boundaries 

Because our boundaries are formed in childhood, they are well established and it takes time to change them. Recreating the boundary system and structure requires practice, guidance, and compassion for ourselves and others. 

At Newport Academy, our family-focused approach helps adolescents and families address underlying childhood trauma and repair ruptured relationships. Through healing these early traumatic experiences, teens can feel more supported to develop healthy boundaries in relationships inside and outside the family. Get started today by learning more about our specialized treatment for teen trauma and other mental health disorders.