Boundaries, parentification and emotions

I learned from an early age that my family needed to be protected.  In my childlike way, I saw them as being unable to handle the secrets I held, or even to be able to deal with daily problems.  I saw the family around me, as being a swirling mass of chaos, and the only way to bring some control and calm to the situation, was for me to be a silent rock.

While this sounds very egocentric, it meshes with some of the basic principles of childhood development.  Dunn (1991, as cited in Claiborne & Drewery, 2010, p. 157), discuss how children as young as two attempt to comfort their mother when they see her distressed.  While Lewis (2002, as cited in Santrock, 2007, p. 340), talk about the development of shame and guilt for not meeting societal expectations in children as young as two and a half.  So it makes developmental sense, that by the time I was first abused at the age of three (nearly four), I could understand (in a childlike way) the implications of telling.  I could grasp the idea that it might either hurt someone else, or bring shame on myself for not meeting my mothers expectations – after all I was told at the event that it was “bad”, “dirty”, “wrong” and “naughty”… all very emotive words to a sensitive child.

Reading the literature on dysfunctional families, it also becomes clear that the need to protect my family meant that I lost sense of appropriate boundaries (Kerig, 2005).  It meant that I became enmeshed in the problems of some of my family (father, sister and one of my brothers) and held other members of my family quite distant from myself (mother and other brother).  Throughout the family, there was almost no boundaries where I was concerned.  My other siblings were able to create some sense of boundaries, but I seemed unable to do so.  This is possibly because of the age gap between us  – there is a five year age gap between myself and the next oldest child, but only four years difference between my other siblings combined.  It could also be because I was a difficult baby/child and I didn’t emotionally attach securely to anyone, with the associated developmental impact (Claiborne & Drewery, 2010, p. 49-51).

At this point, the intellectual part of me is happy with the theory as it helps to explain why we got where we did… the cynical part of me notes that we never had a chance… while the emotional part is screaming in pain…

So what does all this theory mean?  On one level, it helps to explain why we ended up in a dysfunctional family and were an easy target for abuse… we had no concept of what an appropriate boundary was; we were used to protecting others; and we didn’t really understand that it was wrong, because we didn’t understand where we ended and the rest of the world began.  On another level, there’s pain… total and utter pain… it doesn’t matter why it happened, it happened and it hurt.

In the midst of writing this post, I’ve seen the work place therapist.  In that one hour “talk” we did a sociogram of three people – my neighbour, the mother and sister.  It was incredible and awful…  On the floor we placed whiteboard magnets for each person in relation to myself…

First, was my neighbour, who was placed about 5cm from my marker… she was safety, freedom and acceptance.  But she was also shame and pain… I once overheard my neighbour, the mother, the sister and my neighbours daughter discussing how good it was that I wasn’t around because I was so annoying.  She was the safest thing I had outside of the teachers at school.

Second to be placed, was a marker for the mother, who was about 15cm away from my marker… she was not to be trusted, to be protected, consumed with the problems of my sister and joked about me being the mistake at the end.

Third to be placed, was my sister’s marker… this is where the lack of boundaries really showed… I told the work place therapist that she should be placed on the other side of the room, and on top of my marker.  There was nothing in-between, she was either invading my space or ignoring me.  She controlled many aspects of my life.  We shared a room for many years and she invaded my space so often, in so many ways.

This seemingly simple task brought up so much… W filled in the rest of the memory surrounding what happened after we overheard the discussion about us being so annoying – we got down off the fence and went inside the house to be hurt… We realised how young we dissociated, as we remembered getting a hug from a teacher for correcting a story; but we were depersonalised at the time, as we were so terrified that we hadn’t corrected the story “properly”.

Sophie cried… W was tough… Little Michelle stuttered…

Our work place therapist kept bringing us back to the emotions…

It was difficult, but not overwhelming.

What does all of this mean?  Well, for once I can understand the theory and associate some of the emotions with it.  Yes, I parented/protected those around me… I looked after my family’s needs before my own, I kept the secrets, all the while learning to cope and adapt through the gift/curse of dissociation.  I failed to learn and understand what appropriate boundaries were – physically, sexually, psychologically and emotionally.  I learned to lock away my emotions, and although these emotions hurt to look at and experience, they won’t destroy me – unless I let them.

My work place therapist said today that I was a strong child… Right now, that statement is enough for me to believe that I can heal and grow beyond the confined world I find myself in.


Claiborne, L., & Drewery, W. (2010). Human development: Family, place, culture. North Ryde, New South Wales, Australia: McGraw-Hill Australia.

Kerig, P. (2005). Revisiting the construct of boundary dissolution: A multidimensional perspective. Journal of Emotional Abuse 5(2/3), 5-42. doi: 10.1300/J135v05n02•02

Santrock, J. (2007). Child development (11th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.


17 thoughts on “Boundaries, parentification and emotions

  1. You wrote it so beautifully… says one part of me and there’s another non-verbal one making gulp

    Thank you for writing CG!

    • Thank you my friend… I’m glad it helped in some way 🙂

      It is odd looking at this post now, as to us it is so obvious that there is more than one author and that the two writing styles don’t meld correctly. Usually we take our time to change one of the styles and tones so that it matches the other, but we couldn’t for this one. I’m not sure why, may be the space we were in after seeing the work place therapist?

      (((warm and safe hugs))) to those who want them 🙂

      Take care,

    • Hi Kerro,

      Ok, now I’m curious… I really thought this post was a messy and silly half attempt at writing something serious, yet I’m getting compliments??? Either you are all being WAY too polite, or I’m not reading the post with the right frame of mind.

      It was an interesting session with the work place therapist… I can’t believe I cried. I’m paying the price though, as last night and today I’m very switchy and it feels like the teen parts are wanting control – always an interesting experience 🙂

      Take care,

      • LOL CG – of course it’s “messy and silly” – you wrote it and you are viewing it through your own (sometimes screwed up) lens. *eye rolling man*

        Seriously, I like the post because you rationalise, research and understand what you went through. At the same time you blend that with your emotions. Wonder Therapist says this bringing together of cognitive and emotional is when true healing can take place. 🙂

        I also like the post because of workplace therapy guy – he sounds great. I like that he uses different techniques that seem to work for you. I like that in just a couple of sessions he seems to be really helping you in ways that other therapists haven’t been able to. And I like the whiteboard magnet activity – made me think about my own “magnets”. 🙂

  2. Thanks for starting the subject of child development. I am working on some T issues from a very early age and I need to look into some of these things.

    Hey, I just realized today that this week marks the 4-year anniversary of THE BLOG CARNIVAL AGAINST CHILD ABUSE. I’m hosting it at my blog Friday. Got a post to submit? I’d love it if you joined us. Thanks!

  3. hi castorgirl~ i’m glad to see you post. i’d been hoping you were ok.

    sounds like a very productive session with the workplace therapist. and sounds like you’re in a good space emotionally, feeling your feelings, but not too overwhelmed. you sound like you’re experiencing some empowerment.

    i can relate to many of the issues you had to deal with. and one thing you wrote stuck out to me especially, you said “i failed to learn and understand what appropriate boundaries were”. but it wasn’t as though healthy boundaries were presented to you as a child and you failed and didn’t learn them, as though there was something wrong with you. also, i felt concerned for you at the notion of having been called a “difficult” child. my brother was labelled this, and i think it’s such an unhealthy thing for parents to look at a child this way, and to tell them they are this. children are just children. they don’t come into the world self-sufficient, they are babies with needs. it is natural for them to be this way. they need adults to love and protect them and teach them healthy boundaries. and parents need to be able to take care of themselves. but so many don’t because of their own undealt with abuse issues. so the child ends up adapting to the deficiency the parent presents. and the child becomes the parent. the protector. to survive. i don’t think you failed at anything.

    i heard once that those of us who grew up in dysfunctional families are not broken or crazy. we are sane healthy people, who responded and adapted to an insane situation.

    you sound like you were a sensitive, strong and loving child. you looked out for those you loved. you did your best to take care of yourself. you did what you had to do to survive and get what bit of love you could.

    since you’re reading about boundaries, here is a really good summary page about boundary issues that i could relate a lot to, if you’re interested in another resource. i found it helpful and illuminating.

    as always, i hope i’m not saying anything out of line. and that my attempts to be supportive to you here actually feel supportive.

    you deserve to feel good about yourself~ that’s what i mean overall 🙂

    ~~~safe hugs, if you want them~~~

    • Hi Katie,

      Just to let you know, I’m still thinking over your comment – not in a bad way, but because I realise what you are saying and need to put it into context before I respond.

      Thanks for making me think, I appreciate the comment.

      Be back soon…

  4. the work place therapist seems like the BEST one you have had to date. i assume she is also free of charge. maybe you could stay with her a while. seems like a good set up.

    • Hi Grace,

      Yes, he’s free of charge and I can see him during work time easily. The only issue I had with seeing him, was that things were so unsettled as a result. I was really switchy, with the teen and young parts coming forward frequently because of the emotions that were stirred up. I’m not sure if that is a good or a bad thing, but it was a totally different experience working with him.

      Take care,

  5. the only time i started making any positive head-way was when i started seeing my male psychiatrist. prior to that i had seen only women [except for one man who i had to leave for reasons beyond my control]. for some reason a male has been more helkpful to me than any female – and i saw at least 10 female counsellors / therapists / psychologists / psychiatrists prior to the male i now see.

    • It different seeing a male… he has quite a different approach to the other people I’ve seen. Whether that’s because of his gender or his skill/approach, I don’t know. But it’s working seeing him, so I’m not going to question it too much 🙂

      He’s also very aware I’m working with Allison, so doesn’t want to do anything too heavy – yesterday a good ten minutes was spent in a guided relaxation exercise.

      Take care,

  6. Pingback: Red dog | Scattered pieces

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