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You /Me / Us: Thoughts on boundary management in Child and Youth Care

Varda R Mann-Feder

Abstract: The literature of child and youth care has stressed relatedness and being with the client as critical for therapeutic interactions. This article emphasizes the importance of boundary management and outlines three important aspects of intervention: appropriate limit setting, use of separations and reunions, and awareness of one’s own boundary issues.

Boundaries, the way in which each one of us organizes the distinction between self and others, are a critical dimension of personality (Hartmann, 1997). They make autonomous functioning possible, and are expressed in our needs for privacy and individuality. Boundaries also function actively to preserve our sense of identity and uniqueness. Much of the traditional literature of helping has stressed extreme boundedness, even to the point of detachment, as central to psychotherapeutic intervention (Gatrell & Sanderson, 1994). This reflects the assumption that a separate sense of self is central to well-being.

Child and youth care has rejected the tendency for distancing from (VanderVen, 1992) and objectifying the client in favour of an approach that stresses relatedness as the key to psychological growth (Maier, 1994). Our literature has emphasized “we-ness” (Garfat, 1998), rhythmicity (Maier, 1992), and the provision of authentic relationships that stimulate attachment formation. This is an intensely personal and demanding endeavour because, while we aspire to remain present in the interaction, we also must suspend our own needs in favour of growth facilitation in the client. In this sense, we strive for a mutually enriching relationship that, at the same time, can never be reciprocal. The challenges of this task can be overwhelming. How can the need for boundary management be reconciled with the goal of becoming an “us” with our clients? What are appropriate boundaries in child and youth care? What does this require of practitioners in their daily work?

To complicate matters further, the children, youth, and families with whom we work have been wounded in ways that manifest particularly in the interpersonal sphere. The lack of security and safety in their early lives makes trusting us a daunting and, at times, a life-threatening prospect. Being with these clients is difficult and uncomfortable. Past hurts are played out in the current relationship, and our attempts to make contact can be met with aggression, fear, or insatiable dinginess. Our own interpersonal boundaries are pushed to the limit because this is precisely what our clients need to relearn. If we do not stay aware and active in setting boundaries, we miss an opportunity to help clients revise their sense of self. This does not contradict relatedness. In fact, intentional boundary management promotes the development of appropriate, close, interpersonal relationships (Maier, 1993).

Boundaries constitute one of the basic building blocks of identity that are acquired early on in the course of psychological development. Our self-concept and self-esteem are derived from an awareness of our existence as separate people who can act on the world as autonomous selves. The degree to which we see ourselves as separate from others varies for each one of us and reflects our earliest relationships. How thin and permeable or thick and firmly differentiated our boundaries are can impact on many aspects of our functioning, especially our capacity for independence and our need for intimacy (Hartmann, 1997). Neither extreme (very thin or thick boundaries) is optimal. For example, very thin boundaries can result in the loss of individuality and a reduced capacity for self-determination, while thick boundaries block closeness and interpersonal communication. Research has suggested that situational factors can cause temporary shifts in our interpersonal boundaries, but in general we each have a characteristic style of defining where we end and other people begin.

Experiences in infancy are critical for the evolution of our individual sense of interpersonal boundaries. Object relations theory (Mahler, Pine, & Bergman, 1975) has outlined a complex sequence of developmental stages whereby the very young baby progresses from a state of psychological symbiosis to an awareness of separateness and the possibility of independent action. This begins in the latter part of the first year of life. Infants then enter a separation-individuation phase during which a sense of self begins to emerge. Cognitive and motor skills contribute, but a vital ingredient is the existence of an attachment to a consistent and reliable parental figure. If this relationship is secure enough, the child can begin to explore the environment and therefore experience him/herself as an independent agent in the world. Accepting separateness from others evolves gradually and is an ambivalent accomplishment at best. The establishment of a separate self is not totally complete in infancy and is reworked later, most powerfully at adolescence. However, if the earliest caretakers can encourage the child’s tentative moves toward autonomy and provide consistent support and emotional refuelling, small physical moves away (as well as subsequent reunions) can result in a growing capacity for independence.

Some caretakers are threatened by the child’s experiments with separation and insist on continued control and symbiosis (Kreisman & Straus, 1989). Others may be so inconsistent or absent that the child never has a secure base from which to experience differentiation. “Either extreme of parental behaviour can eventuate in the child’s failure to develop a positive, stable sense of self and may lead to a constant, intense need for attachment and chronic fears of abandonment. In many cases the disturbed parent-child relationship takes the more severe form of early parental loss or prolonged, traumatic separation, or both” (Kreisman & Straus, 1989, p. 48).

This is the situation of many of the children, youth, and adults we work with. Their early attempts to stand alone have left them insecure and vulnerable. This can manifest in an addiction to contact and an intense fear of abandonment, or a tendency to constantly test our trustworthiness by pushing for the rejection that is feared. Such individuals may also search for reassurance through compliance and the adoption of behaviours they believe are expected of them, even while they harbour intense anger and the conviction that no one will care for them as they really are.

Only by experiencing reliable connections to role models who support and demonstrate appropriate separateness can our clients begin to individuate (Maier, 1993). Some approaches to helping have formulated hard and fast rules for boundary setting between professionals and clients. If we are to truly serve as attachment resources and provide meaningful interactions, we must recognize that such an approach is rigid and fails to address the uniqueness of each client. Given the range of experiences and backgrounds of the people we work with (taking into account race, class, gender, and culture), what some individuals experience as invasive may feel like indifference to others (Gatrell & Sanderson, 1994). It is, however, appropriate that we explicitly address issues of separateness and closeness. It may well be that in reacting against approaches that advocate therapeutic neutrality and emotional distance, child and youth care has stressed being and without always clearly articulating the “you” versus the “me” in the relationship. Managing boundaries need not contradict the need to connect but requires first and foremost that we remain aware of boundary issues. Knowledge of each client’s early history is critical in understanding how they will position themselves in relation to others. Clarifying boundaries to enhance development also requires that we attend to three important aspects of our interventions: relevant limit setting; separations and reunions; and observing our own boundaries as they inevitably emerge in our interactions with clients.

Both behavioural limits and realistic relationship limits are required for therapeutic boundary management. Establishing limits for behaviour is a common part of child and youth care practice (Bath, 1995). We often see ourselves as socializing agents who have a responsibility to teach clients how to function in ways that promote adjustment. At the same time, however, it is important that we not mistake attempts at individuation as acting out. There are times when our clients will resist authority when it is actually positive for them to do so developmentally, and when, in fact, they are experimenting with the “edges” of their relationships (Gatrell & Sanderson, 1994). Rather than press for them to submit at all costs, we need to attend to the healthy expressions of self, however buried, and try to acknowledge individuality whenever possible. This does not mean that negative behaviour is okay, but that a refusal to conform may also be a sign of healthy development. As stated by Fox, “Kids practicing assertion often sound aggressive” (1994, p. 18). We need to try to support self-assertion, even in its clumsiest and most provocative forms. This can be done by identifying and praising the underlying message.

Although we may err on the side of consequencing attempts at boundary formation, child and youth care workers often tolerate significant boundary violations from clients at the same time. This is because we are motivated to be helpful and supportive in our work, and may feel uncomfortable setting limits on our relationship with a given client. It has been suggested that therapists may have thinner than average boundaries. They can thus be more sensitive but are vulnerable to over-identification and being tormented by the neediest of their clients (Hartmann, 1997). The same may be true in our profession. The cost of allowing our boundaries to be violated is high —both for us and for our clients. It perpetuates enmeshment and blocks growth, even though it may feel like we are being supportive and generous (Kreisman & Straus, 1989). We may also end up depleted and wishing to avoid contact. Putting limits on inappropriate demands, whether they are expressed as requests, questions, comments, or physical contact, is actually essential and ultimately helpful.

Separations and reunions, enacted in the smallest everyday comings and goings, stimulate acute awareness of interpersonal boundaries. These are particularly opportune moments for teaching and learning about boundaries (Maier, 1993). Child and youth care practitioners often minimize the meaning of these events, perhaps because we take the pace of our work day for granted and forget that our clients are perpetually experiencing being left. At the same time, we may not always say goodbye for fear of stimulating feelings of abandonment. However, it is possible to do so in a way that reaffirms both the relationship and the boundaries. It is important that we leave having reflected on the time we have spent together and indicating clearly when we will return (Maier, 1993). Clients who have a history of painful separations may often appear to ignore our movements and may not even respond verbally to a goodbye, but it is our responsibility to initiate endings. Well-managed departures eventually build trust and security and establish synchrony in a relationship that includes a “rhythm of approach and withdrawal” (Maier, 1992, p. 10).

The same is true of longer term separations. When terminations of any kind are anticipated, they should be explained and discussed often and well ahead of time. The way in which terminations are handled can “pave the way for participation in, and use of future satisfying relationships” (Brill, 1990, p. 101). It is helpful to acknowledge our own feelings and thoughts, and to encourage the client to both express and understand their emotional reactions. Sometimes clients are unable to acknowledge our importance to them, especially when we are leaving them. This needs to be accepted as well and does not in any way diminish the need for an articulated termination.

Boundary issues are not unique to clients and are never totally resolved for any of us. It is vital that we try to stay aware of our own style of handling boundaries so that we do not inadvertently recruit our clients to act out our issues with intimacy or differentiation. We may find ourselves ignoring some clients (to avoid their pathology or to avoid our own strong feelings about them) and giving special time and attention to others. While it is natural to feel more affinity with some individuals than others, empathy “is a process of understanding feelings rather than a feeling” (Hartmann, 1997, p. 156). If we find ourselves suddenly more or less interested than usual; experiencing intense feelings toward a client; doing special things for them; or preoccupied with them during our time away from work, it may be a warning sign of unresolved conflicts that have been activated. It is inevitable that at some time all of us will experience this with one or more of our clients (Hartmann, 1997); however, professional isolation has been found to exacerbate such boundary problems (Schetky, 1995). Being aware of “me” in the relationship is fundamental to effective child and youth care. If we can know our own part in the equation, we are better equipped to help others define themselves. This becomes a strong foundation for creating an "us" that can be an effective agent for development.

The author wishes to acknowledge the invaluable input of Dr. Andrea D’elia.


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This feature: Mann-Feder, V. R. (1999). You/me/us: Thoughts on boundary management in Child and Youth Care. Journal of Child and Youth Care. Vol. 13 No.2 pp 93-98