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

by Heather Senior Monroe 

Boundaries are important for teen mental health. Moreover, healthy boundaries support adolescents’ ability to form positive relationships. Therefore, they are essential to authentic connection. Authentic connection is key to happiness and self-acceptance. 

There are three elements of healthy boundaries. Specifically, these are vulnerability, protection, and containment. Furthermore, these elements are also essential for authentic connection.  

Typically, parents or primary caregivers teach children about boundaries. They do so 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  

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: Healthy Boundaries

The Purpose of Boundaries 

Boundaries have two main purposes. The first is to protect us from the outside world. Therefore, they keep us from being harmed. The second is to protect the outside world from us. As a result, they prevent us from doing harm to others.  

Boundaries protect us in three separate areas: 

  • Physical boundaries protect us from unwanted physical contact. Thus, 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. 

 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 strong. 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

Boundaries and Lack of Containment 

The word “containment” describes how we protect others. Furthermore, this is so we don’t commit physical, emotional, or mental offenses against others. Lack of containment is a symptom of dysfunctional boundaries. 

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.  

Symptoms of uncontainment include the following: 

  • 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 

As we have learned, dysfunctional boundaries can lead to a lack of containment.  

However, someone can also be overly contained, or walled off. Thus, they have a different set of behaviors.  

For example, they will rarely approach others for physical contact. Moreover, they may fail to say what they are feeling. 

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: Healthy Boundaries

The Relationship Between Containment and Boundaries 

Boundaries and containment do not necessarily match. People whose boundaries are too open are not always uncontained. Furthermore, those who are walled off are not always overly contained.  

For example, a person with open boundaries can be deeply affected by others’ feelings and behaviors. However, they might be overly contained. Thus they may not express their wants or needs. Often they fail to express these needs out of fear. The fear is that they won’t be met. In addition, they might focus on not offending others. They try to act “perfect” because they are afraid of being abandoned.  

In addition, a person who is invulnerable to the actions of others can also have lack of containment. Therefore, they may often offend people with their behaviors, words, and emotions.  

Furthermore, all boundary and containment issues can coexist. In addition, they can change depending on the trigger point or person. For example, someone may be walled off around women, but vulnerable around men. It all depends on the person’s relational history with their caregivers. 

Treatment for 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? Also, are we overly contained or uncontained?  

Therapists who work with relational trauma help clients recognize boundary issues. Moreover, they help people see the triggers for unhealthy behavior. These triggers often stem from dysfunctional boundaries.  

However, our boundaries are formed in childhood. Thus, our dysfunctional behaviors related to boundaries are well established. Therefore, it takes time to change them. Recreating the boundary system and structure requires practice, guidance, and compassion. 

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: Healthy Boundaries

Approaches for Healing 

Therapeutic modalities for treating dysfunctional boundaries and relational trauma include the following: 

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. People form deeper awareness of self, their environment, and others. Moreover, they learn to stay in the present moment. 

Somatic therapies: 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. 

A Range of Therapeutic Approaches 

Therapists use multiple modalities to find the right one for each individual. Furthermore, different interventions may be helpful in different areas.  

Those 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.  

Mindfulness can help people protect themselves emotionally from others. Specifically, if they become disturbed by others’ moods. Hence, mindfulness is a way to stay calm.  

Consequently, this can help them to stay centered and grounded. Subsequently, they learn not to take on too much responsibility for other people’s feelings. 

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: Healthy Boundaries

What Healthy Boundaries Look Like 

A healthy boundary system allows us to be flexible. It also allows us to be adaptable. Moreover, when we have healthy relationships, we are able to protect ourselves. In addition, we understand that we are worthy of protection.  

Furthermore, this awareness helps us respect others. We gain humility and learn to admit when we are wrong. As a result, we become happier and gain a stronger self of self. 

In conclusion, boundaries are essential. They help us create healthy relationships with self and with others. When we learn to balance appropriate vulnerability and appropriate protection it is an important step toward building authentic connection.