Have you ever wondered how your personal boundaries were established? Even the ones you aren’t conscious of? This is your chance to see how they were!
So much of what we learn about boundaries happens during childhood – a time when the brain is under development. And that makes setting or changing boundaries difficult in adulthood and then, in relationships.
I define personal boundaries as your body (touch, sex and possessions) and mind (mental and spiritual) and this excludes anything outside the law like physical and sexual assault.
I’m going to highlight the process of child development and you can reflect on how your immediate family, culture and society has influenced your current boundaries. Please note this does not take into account trauma during childhood and the age ranges are only guidelines.
When a baby is born, its first 3 months are quite unique. It doesn’t know that it has exited the womb. And after 3 months, it has the realisation that it has its own body. This separation is important in the infant establishing its own body and therefore, the ability to move it.
The infant spends, apart of eating and sleeping, its time getting to know its body by playing on the floor. Perhaps what is crucial in this stage is how much freedom an infant is given to explore its body and get to know it. This freedom or the lack of it begins to shape how we experience our body and its boundary with the world.
This eventually leads the baby from being horizontal with the ground to vertical as it learns to walk.
1,5 – 7 years
Exploration is the most significant thing about this phase. A toddler has taken shape, walking, talking and getting into things it probably shouldn’t but all in the name of getting to know its world.
They continue to learn about their body through movement. They can test their strength by throwing and kicking, they can refine their hands to pour water and draw. They are constantly testing their bodies in effort to know its capabilities.
How we get to know our body is profoundly developed here through movement. And how we establish how we feel about our bodies is growing with each movement we learn. Often, the freedom to explore their world and their bodies is quickly abated by caregivers in the name of protection and even, conforming to societal expectations – compromising the toddler’s sense of their own body (making them kiss or hug other family members).
If too little exploration is allowed children miss an opportunity to get to know their body, feel confident in it and set limits and boundaries around their body and possessions. Even to the point where we force children to share when really the need to establish boundaries around possessions is the more important lesson.
Hygiene (potty training) is taught and the notion of self care begins to take shape as well. Speaking develops throughout the years and their thoughts and stories become more refined. Again, how much space a child is given to participate in their own self care and learn how to communicate is related to the rules caregivers impose upon them and the lack of freedom given to develop these skills.
Usually before 7 years, a brain shift happens where contrasting thoughts can be held at one time – like I want to hit my younger sibling but won’t actually do it. Children have less tantrums and are more skilled in movements making activities like dance and sports easier.
Cognitive thinking is enhanced further allowing for learning of higher level subjects. Concepts that were so abstract, like time and money, begin to take shape, again, influencing how they view boundaries around their possessions.
Their world opens up through reading and more defined peer relationships. Their able to coordinate relationships in multiple friendships and begin to understand more that not everyone has the same boundaries and handling difficult situations where they feel theirs are crossed influence how we begin to navigate boundaries in relationships.
After just becoming more confident in their bodies, children then undergo a massive body change in puberty.
Intimacy comes into play where children begin to view intimacy as obtainable outside of the family. More intimate connection with another person is sought and touch then begins to take shape into a body boundary – what is comfortable and what is not.
This period is confusing and can be more so with how trusted adults in pre-adolescents’ lives approach it. How is sex and intimacy educated (not through the school system) but on a more personal level and how is this connected to each person’s boundaries – theirs and others. Conversations like these are absent in many cultures as often the uncomfortably of the caregiver takes precedence over lovingly educating a young adolescent so they can make more informed decisions.
Body boundaries with sexual intimacy as well as peer intimacy continue to take shape. Peers begin to influence how one sees the world and beliefs and values of their caregivers begin to be challenged.
This stage is more about separating from their family in more ways than one. Physical separation happens maybe for school reasons and then also mental separation in terms of establishing what they think and believe. They are no longer dependent on parents for small, everyday things and such a separation can feel jarring on both sides.
Even though it may seem that they are well on their way to adulthood, adolescents still need the underlying guidance of trusted adults to feel safe to explore new relationships and new ways of thinking – even if its contradictory to their caregivers.
The balance between freedom but not too much helps establish a base for the young adult and a testing ground to push and test more complex boundaries – what is absolutely not acceptable in terms of behaviours.
By 25 years of age our boundaries have been well established and most of them unconsciously – primarily because we learn them while our brain was being developed. Running through your own experiences / memories at each of these key developmental stages can help make the unconscious conscious so that you can start to set the boundaries you want to have today.