Setting Tough Boundaries

Yes, no, maybe. Setting boundaries is more complicated than giving or denying permission. It’s when, how, how much. And communicating in ways that work.

We think of setting boundaries with toddlers and young children who test our limits, as is natural at various stages. Adolescents test limits as well, and ‘no’ is often the response we give and they don’t like.

Not long ago, one of my sons asked for something I couldn’t give. I was too preoccupied, too stressed, too tired to take on one more worry.

I didn’t want to say no. I wanted to say yes though everything in me was screaming don’t do it, don’t agree to it, it’s too much – even as I was running through the options in my head, and the choices – yes, no, maybe… If only…

So I set boundaries. I didn’t say no to my son, but I laid out a number of conditions for my yes, were I to give it, which I hoped would clarify the reasons that combined to make for very poor timing.

Conditions: if this, then that, and that, and that. The details are unimportant, but the list of conditions was eactly what I needed to specify. Desperately.

He withdrew his request.

I would like nothing more than to push a key on my phone and talk to him, smile as I say “yes, of course, it’s fine,” be the good mother as I envision her, happy to do what seems like a small thing (to him).

I know that my yes would give him pleasure.

But it’s not that simple.

Life, for some of us, is not that simple.

I am still feeling conflicted, wanting what he wants (for both of us) and saddened that I hurt his feelings at a moment when he has earned some fun, relaxation, and even – celebration.

To him, I can only imagine the request could not have seemed difficult, yet I’m not able to facilitate what he would like, in the way that he would like.

I know myself well. If I gave in to a “yes” without the conditions, I would set aside what I need – for what he wants.

The distinction between need and want is important here.

And I feel guilty. Terribly guilty, though this is old guilt, guilt I am familiar with, single parent guilt that is relived periodically and it does indeed stem from years of what I could not give versus what I can, and do, and always will, which is love.

The guilt persists, though I know these are necessary boundaries. I will talk to my son, try to explain, and hope he understands.