Why Step One Shouldn’t Be “Setting Boundaries” for your Troubled Teen

A young person comes into treatment with the following presenting issues. They are exploding, angry, shutting down, lying, possibly doing drugs, excessive gaming, depressed, and, poor school performance. Parents also inform the therapist that they feel like they have no control anymore. Their child is out of control and they have lost all parental influence. They describe how they won’t listen to them and they are being yelled at and being held hostage in their own home. We find out that at school he is not showing any acting out behaviors and when the therapist first meets him he is quiet but is mildly cooperative and not showing any of the behaviors parents are describing.

Now the therapist is asked to make a snap decision about what is going on and what types of interventions will be the most effective. Stop for a minute if you are a therapist or if you are another type of professional. Also, stop for a minute if you are a parent yourself. What is our usual judgment/assessment? In my experience, both hearing therapists and hearing parents talk about their therapists, the number one response is to do something to increase “boundaries.” Boundaries is a very broad and in my opinion overused term in psychology. I won’t go into the history and the basic premises of the term in this article. I will say that now it is used to describe, rules, structure, control, saying no, healthy relationship structures, punishment, consequences, and just about everything else under the sun in psychology.

The question I pose is this the first place we should go? Is this the most helpful term and set of ideas to help a family and the individual in the above situation? We now need to stop and think through the consequences of that direction. If my child is engaged in the above behaviors 2 things are clear. 1. There is something going on in their life that isn’t working and we need to figure out what that is (don’t be confused thinking it is one thing, a person’s life is much more complex than one “cause” that is part of the reason why this is so complex a step). 2. As a parent, I have lost all influence. Influence is a term meant to describe the power that adults can have in an adolescent’s life through the quality of their attachment. We all know what that is like because we have someone in our life that still has tremendous influence 5,10,20… years after they are out of our lives. We still think about them when making decisions and their influence is a part of us.

So, what do I propose? I propose that we all (parents, teachers, therapists, mentors, friends, etc….) stop having the term and idea of boundaries be the first thing that comes to our mind when helping. I invite that we all consider first, what is really going on for the adolescent? And second what is the quality of our influence via our attachment relationship? Then once we have don our best to honestly figure out those 2 things then we go to boundaries. Now, some people will say… Sure, but what is everything going on above? To that I would say, do you really think that applying better boundaries is going to do anything to stop and change the above list? Look at it again and ask that honestly. Then focus on 1 and 2.

Having said all that, I understand that this is about as oversimplified as it gets. The art of influence and attachment oriented parenting is not easy. Also, I want to put a disclaimer that I am not talking about just loving your children more and hoping that that love will change them. I am talking about gaining a deep understanding and regaining influence and power. In future posts, I will share how to do that. It won’t be easy and this also doesn’t just apply to kids having severe problems. It applies to all adult-child relationships. So please stop to consider your first thought when you think about your child, client, student, etc… when you think about helping, guiding, and just in general being with them. You and they are all worth it.

Greg, clinical director headshot and Outback Wilderness Therapy for Troubled TeensGreg Burnham, LMFT
Clinical Director
Outback Therapeutic Expeditions


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