In this episode we talk boundaries; arguably one of the most important tools for managing the many challenges that can present in blended families.
You’ll hear from Clinical Psychologist and Clinical Family Therapist, Dr Kate Owen, who provides some extremely useful clarity around 1) ‘what is a boundary’, 2) common challenges blended families face when it comes to setting (or not!) setting them and 3) tips to keep in mind when it comes to mastering boundaries, made even more challenging by blended family circumstances.
Dr Kate Owen (00:01): It’s okay to be firm and kind at the same time because that’s what kids need, is they need that really safe, secure adult to be there, to be guiding them in the moment.
Laura Jenkins (00:13): In The Blend is a podcast series that helps parents navigate life within a blended family. Join me as I speak with experts and guests to get practical advice on how to have a harmonious blended family life. This series dives deep into the unique dynamics, logistics and challenges of raising a blended family. From new partners to juggling mixed finances, we will help guide you through it.
(00:42): Hello, and welcome to In The Blend. Well, today we’re talking all about boundaries. Setting boundaries is probably one of the most important tools for managing the many challenges that can present in blended families and to help create a happy, healthy family unit.
(00:58): In today’s episode, we’ll clarify what is a boundary and how does it apply to family life, what are some of the common challenges and consequences blended families face when it comes to setting or not setting boundaries, and importantly how you can establish them and communicate them in an effective way.
(01:17): Today we’re joined by a clinical psychologist and clinical family therapist, Dr. Kate Owen, who is going to answer all of these questions and more. As well as specializing in helping families of all shapes and sizes, she also trains other professionals on the subject of family therapy. So you can rest assured we’re in very good hands.
(01:37): Before we start, please remember, this episode is educational in nature and does not constitute therapeutic advice and it is not a substitute for therapy. Please seek professional assistance if required. With that, please sit back, relax and let’s dive in. Good afternoon, Kate, and welcome to In The Blend.
Dr Kate Owen (01:59): Thanks, Laura.
Laura Jenkins (02:00): Thank you so much for being here today. I am very much looking forward to this conversation and for a little while, I’ve actually been thinking about who might be a suitable guest to come and talk to us about boundaries because I think it’s such an important topic, probably one of the most important topics in terms of creating harmony in that blended family environment. And have got a bunch of questions that I’m keen to explore with you. It certainly sounds like you’re the right woman for the job, given your background and experience. So looking forward to it.
Dr Kate Owen (02:32): Well, let’s see how we go. I might have some tips and tricks for people, but it is up to everyone listening today to decide what works for them.
Laura Jenkins (02:41): Perfect. Well, let’s do it. So let’s start off with the basics. So Kate, can you describe to me what is a boundary? And how does a boundary apply to family life?
Dr Kate Owen (02:55): So different helping professionals might have different definitions for boundaries. And so the definition that we might stick to today is knowing what is okay and what is not okay in family life. And so for your listeners, they might go, “Oh, well, I think of that as our family rules or our family expectations or our family principles.”
(03:22): So just for us to be on the same page around the language, but basically, we’ll be talking about, “Yes, this is okay in our family. No, this is not.” And sometimes people also think, “Well, how do develop that? How do boundaries come to be in the first place?” And so boundaries come along from multiple or lots of different factors, multitude of factors. Comes from our life experiences, it comes from our family experiences from when we’re growing up.
(03:53): It comes from our cultural background, our religious beliefs. It comes from society and what society tells us is okay and not okay. And then also boundaries do shift and change depending on where families are at in what we call the life cycle stage. So for example, boundaries will be different when you’re parenting young kids compared to the boundaries that are in place when you’re parenting teenagers.
(04:21): And so when we’re talking about boundaries today, then it could be anything related to emotional boundaries. So how we relate to each other, interact, communicate. It can be physical boundaries. So in terms of even physical space in the family home, what’s okay? What’s off limits? And it can be just practical boundaries like tech at the dinner table, not at the dinner table, all of those types of things.
(04:46): And then to answer your question about how it applies to family life. Well, boundaries really helps to provide this structure and a containment so people know what’s okay, what’s not okay. And that contributes to a sense of safety. So emotional safety, physical safety, psychological safety. But also, it holds people accountable for their actions as well. So when people know the boundaries, but then they cross the boundaries.
(05:13): And in thinking about this podcast, I was thinking, what about blended families in particular? Why are boundaries super important for blended families? And it’s because the blended family has to really put a line around what’s okay and what’s not okay in this particular family, in this particular household.
(05:35): And so it would be helpful maybe to say that across the different households, if there’s kids involved, the boundaries might be different. And so it’s great to have continuity and consistency, but it’s often a bit unrealistic. And so boundaries in blended families is really setting up what’s okay in this family unit here.
Laura Jenkins (05:56): I think that’s super advice, reflecting on my own circumstance. It’s not physically possible to control what’s going on in someone else’s home. And you can try all you like, but you’re not going to be able to do that. So I think that idea of just focusing on what you can control and making those boundaries very clear in your home is great advice.
(06:23): And thinking about then some of the common challenges that blended families might face when it comes to setting boundaries, having different sets of boundaries in two different homes is certainly going to be one. And I’d love to hear your thoughts on how people might get around that and also any other common challenges that they might typically face.
Dr Kate Owen (06:44): Well, let’s start with the common challenges and then we can move across to some practical tips because I love giving practical tips. But if we start with the common challenges, let’s go just global, universal in terms of common challenges in any family when it comes to boundaries. And then I’ll talk about one common challenge for blended families in particular.
(07:08): So when it comes to boundaries in any family, two common challenges are the family either inconsistently apply the boundary so that it’s a mixed message, the boundaries are blurred, or the family rigidly applies the boundaries with no flexibility at all. So for example, let’s just say dinnertime is family time, no tech at the table, TV’s off. This is the only time we’re getting together because everybody’s running around doing all sorts of things.
(07:46): Now, if the family inconsistently apply that boundary to say, “Oh, yeah. All right, let’s not worry about it today, we’ve had a hard day. Let’s turn the TV on and just sit in front of the TV and eat dinner.” But then the very next day they’re like, “No, TV off. This is really important in our family.” It’s confusing. And then what happens is that the family, they don’t really know, “Well, what is the boundary? Is it okay? Is it not okay?”
(08:13): And it can lead to conflict. And then for the family that rigidly apply the boundary, so no tech at the table, you know what the rules are here, it’s time for connection. But then let’s just say one of the kids has a friend in hospital and they say, “Look, I know we don’t have tech at the table, but my friend’s going to message me. They’re in hospital, I’m just really worried about them.” And the family don’t take into account that one particular situation. They go, “No, that’s not the rule in our family.” Well, then that’s going to lead to tensions and conflict.
(08:48): And so just starting out broadly, common challenges, putting boundaries in place but not applying them. And then rigidly applying them without really thinking about specific situations that pop up. So nice healthy boundaries, you’ve got them in place, but there’s a little bit of flex when it’s needed. So when it comes to then the blended families, the biggest challenge… Well, no. Sorry, not the biggest challenge. One of the challenges in family life is that the family tries to integrate or blend quickly.
(09:28): So the families come in going, “We really want to make this work.” And they have such good intentions, and they really want it to be a good experience for everyone. So they try to establish the boundaries really quickly and the rules really quickly and try to set the scene for family life. A lot of blended families don’t realize it takes a minimum of two to three years for the new workable structure to fall into place.
(10:02): And it can take up to five years before precaution even find their groove. And so you’re couple of years in, and everyone’s going, “Ah, what’s going on here?” And it’s because everyone has these good intentions, but it just takes time to really get the new blended boundaries known and then in place. And I’m a little bit geeky, so Laura, do you mind if I geek out just for a minute?
Laura Jenkins (10:31): Go for it. Geek away.
Dr Kate Owen (10:35): One of the big labels in terms of family therapy is we talk about homeostasis. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of that word before?
Laura Jenkins (10:47): No.
Dr Kate Owen (10:47): Homeostasis is when humans in the world, family systems, work systems, any system, we always want to pull back to what’s familiar. So that’s the homeostasis, it’s the status quo, it’s the, “Oh, I know what to do here.” So then when you’ve got two families, got their own familiar grooves on and then they come together and they’re trying to blend, each of the families will want to go back to the way that things were.
(11:21): And so that’s why it takes a long time because they need to have enough experiences together, enough interactions together so that they start to get their own homeostasis happening, their own status quo. And so just to hold in mind, everyone out there, change is scary and everyone resists change. And then just to add to that, and once you think you’ve got it down pat, then the kids become teenagers and then you go change all your boundaries once again, right?
Laura Jenkins (11:49): Yeah, true. Everything shifts.
Dr Kate Owen (11:49): That’s right.
Laura Jenkins (11:54): That description you just gave there was reminding me of another guest we had on the show who talked about traditions and when two families merge, hanging on to some of those old traditions or original traditions for either family, but then over time, creating new traditions as the blended family unit. So I think that’s very much in line with what you’ve described there as well.
Dr Kate Owen (12:18): Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
Laura Jenkins (12:21): So let’s talk about consequences then of not having boundaries in place. So it sounds from what you’ve described, boundaries are something that’s going to help the smooth functioning of any family with healthy boundaries in place. So what are the consequences of not having healthy boundaries in place?
Dr Kate Owen (12:44): Well, if you don’t know what’s okay and you don’t know what’s not okay, it’s just way too much ambiguity. And as humans, when we have too much ambiguity, it creates stress for us. And so there’d be confusion for everyone, adults, the kids. Even the extended family, if they don’t know what the boundaries are, that’s going to be confusing for everyone.
(13:06): And so then people will get resentful, they’ll get worried, they’ll feel like they’re being taken for granted. They might act out in passive-aggressive ways, they might shut down. And it’s all because there’s just no certainty, there’s no containment that’s happening. Now, the challenge is that that can then ripple into the couple relationship.
(13:33): And so that can sow seeds of doubt, “Oh gosh, how are we traveling? Why isn’t this working?” And then it can raise doubts about how the couple are going. But then also, more broadly, in terms of family life, as a family therapist, we think of people as being barometers and thermometers for what’s going on around them.
(13:56): And so when there’s a family and there’s no boundaries in place, people don’t know what’s expected of them, then sometimes that can manifest in someone having behavioral challenges or emotional challenges because the stress of that impacts them. And so it then comes out in lots of different ways.
Laura Jenkins (14:17): No, that makes total sense. Makes total sense. And I think without having any firm boundary there, you open yourself up for all of those things and more. So let’s pivot now to tips. And I know you mentioned earlier you love to share lots of tips and tricks. So I’m eager to learn, Kate. Teach me. What are some practical tips for establishing boundaries, let’s say, within a blended family?
Dr Kate Owen (14:48): Well, the internet has lots of tips out there. And so you can get on and you can look at what can we do, and 10 tips to do this et cetera. So I’m just really thinking today, what could I speak to that might be a little bit different? So I thought about four guiding principles or four tips that may or may not be helpful. We’ll see.
(15:11): So tip number one is patience. And the reason I start with that is because like we said before, it takes time for the blended family to find its groove. And so really thinking about blended family life as a marathon and not as a sprint. And so really practicing a lot of acceptance when things aren’t going the right way and reminding yourself that it will take time, and having that patience to know there’s bumps in the road. And so that would be tip number one.
Laura Jenkins (15:50): Very good.
Dr Kate Owen (15:51): Tip number two, and it’s a bit of a no-brainer, but I have to talk about it. It’s around communication. And the communication is on a few different layers. But number one, the couple relationship in the blended family is so important. It’s the sanctuary. And so really talking things through around, “Well, what was okay and not okay for you and your family before we met?” “Oh, geez. Wow. Okay, tell me more about that.”
(16:28): And then finding out where’s the overlap, because when there’s similarities, fantastic. That’s familiar to both sets of families. And so great, let’s amplify what’s already going to work. But then really drilling down on where the clear differences are.
(16:43): And it’s really important that the couple talk through those things and navigate it and think about how to problem-solve it together first and foremost, because they’re the adults of the family, they’re steering the ship. And so they’ve got to have good communication and work it out, right?
Laura Jenkins (17:01): Definitely.
Dr Kate Owen (17:02): And then it’s about the communication with the rest of the family. What I’d really like to emphasize on this point is it’s not about communication in terms of talking at or talking to. But if it’s age appropriate, really having collaborative conversations and getting kids involved and being able to talk through their ideas, and then the adults take it on board.
(17:27): But ultimately, it’s the adults that think about what’s best for family life. But then the layer that not a lot of people think about is around the communication with the extended family and the extended network. Because they’ve known the separate families for a while, maybe all their lives.
(17:49): And so they already have these assumptions about how they do family life. And so then, when the family’s blending, the extended family’s probably running off the old scripts and the old assumptions. And so then, at times, it’s going to be really important to have that communication with the extended networks to let them know, “Hey, in this family unit, this is what’s okay, and this is what is not okay.”
Laura Jenkins (18:18): That’s a really good point. So I’m thinking about grandparents, I’m thinking about family friends, cousins, you name it. Those people in your close circle who are used to things being done a certain way and then might have to get used to the new way that things are done.
Dr Kate Owen (18:36): Yeah, that’s it. That’s right. And so then tip number three is it’s more like a guiding principle, content and process. Now, what I mean by that is the content is pretty easy to determine. What is the boundary? How do we share it? How do we phrase it? How do we talk about it? And there’s lots of tips on the internet around that. Don’t forget the process.
(19:06): So again, it comes back to the adults in the family really thinking through, “Well, how do we want this to look?” If we had a bit of a roadmap of how we want to set up the boundaries in family life, what does that even mean? Does it mean we have to have regular catch-ups and talk things through? Yeah, probably. And then what does that look like with the kids? Are we having family meetings? Are we having walks on the beach and talking about these things?
(19:35): How are we going to do that? And then, “Oh, my gosh. Are we the type of family that writes stuff down and puts it on the fridge so everybody sees?” And then the process: how do we know if it’s working well? How do we know if it’s not? What are we going to do if it’s not? And so thinking content and process. And every blended family has their own unique way of doing things.
Laura Jenkins (19:59): And so with the communication piece, and I might be leading into my next question here actually. But in terms of blended families effectively communicating boundaries to their children and stepchildren, how can they do that and enforce them, but do it in a way that still maintains a positive relationship with them?
Dr Kate Owen (20:24): Yeah, that’s really key. And so one of the other tips I was thinking about, which really ties in with this question is around roles in the family. And look, it’s just a bit of a rule of thumb based on literature and research. But your listeners today, they might have a very different experience, and that is totally okay.
(20:48): The rule of thumb is that when kids are really young, when the family comes together, then they’re more likely to accept the stepparent in a traditional parenting role. When kids are older, school age, teenagers, et cetera, then the best role that the stepparent can have is one of an additional adult who’s there to have a relationship with them, to support them et cetera.
(21:20): And so when thinking about how to communicate the boundaries, establish the boundaries et cetera, if the birth parents… So we’re talking about older kids here. If the birth parent can take more of a lead role with their birth children, then the children may be more receptive to being able to listen and maybe then talk through their concerns and their fears. Now, that’s not to say the stepparent is not equally as important; it’s just about what is their role in terms of communicating the boundaries and enforcing them.
(21:58): And it might be that support person to the birth parent in terms of what that might look like in family life. Now, that’s ideal, that would be great. That’s not always the case. And so as soon as you put a boundary in place, kids will want to test it. That’s what they do. That’s how they learn what the edge of the boundary is in the first place.
(22:24): So if the stepparent does have to be the adult in the family and communicate the boundary or enforce the boundary because the birth parent is not there in that moment, then just a few things that may be helpful is that it’s okay to be firm and kind at the same time. Because that’s what kids need is they need that really safe, secure adult to be there, to be guiding them in the moment.
(22:54): So all adults need to stay calm as much as possible, even if they’re simmering on the inside. And so being that really calm, centered, grounded person, super important. So really checking in with your verbal language, your non-verbal language. Do you have the smiling eyes? Do you have the tone of voice that has the melody? Do you have an open body posture? Because you are the adult and you are modelling healthy communication and relationship templates. Another thing to hold in mind is if you’re trying to communicate and, “Oh gosh. Ah, this kid’s not listening to me,” then take a moment to pause, get curious.
(23:39): What’s going on for this kid right now? What’s happening for them? Are they in fight, flight mode? Has something happened today and that’s why we’re butting heads right now? And so being really curious about the experience of the child in the moment as opposed to really thinking, “I have to make sure that they really respect this boundary.”
(24:03): And then just lastly, relationship is the key. And so really think about the strength of the relationship as it builds over time will have the flow-on effect to then helping with communicating boundaries, reminding about boundaries and enforcing boundaries. So relationship is the key. You can’t have boundaries in place if you don’t have a relationship to support it.
Laura Jenkins (24:31): No. So you’re saying after a number of years, a stepparent will be in a better position as well to be able to help perhaps shape and enforce those boundaries, but they’re not doing that on day one.
Dr Kate Owen (24:44): That’s so good, Laura. Yes, day one, don’t take on the job description of being the one who enforces the boundaries with your stepkids. That’s right. Love that.
Laura Jenkins (24:56): So helpful. So Kate, what can parents do or stepparents if they’re struggling to establish and maintain boundaries in their stepfamily?
Dr Kate Owen (25:06): That’s a really good question because that is very real. And there’s a lot of stepparents out there who are trying the best that they can, trying the hardest that they can. And they feel like things aren’t working and they feel like they’re banging their head against a brick wall. And so thinking in advance, “How do I, as the adult, want to approach the kids in the family and to be consistent and to be predictable in how they’re going to handle those situations?”
(25:39): But on top of that, everyone’s human and the stepparent really needs to look after themselves. And so thinking about what are your coping strategies? What do you need to sustain yourself and keep yourself going? And that could be finding the sanctuary in the couple relationship. Not to split between kids and birth parents, but to just be able to get that support that’s needed. It might be around having contact with your friends, getting on the internet, getting some tips and tricks, all sorts of different things.
(26:13): So let’s talk about something that’s called rupture and repair, because stepparents will be coming up against multiple ruptures all the time. That’s really normal. That’s really just normal in life. And so if the stepparent is thinking, “Oh my gosh, we’ve had this rupture yesterday, we’ve had this rupture today,” then hold onto the hope that it’s all about the repair process that will be the most useful for strengthening relationships in the blended family across time.
(26:49): And so for the stepparent to think, “After we have the rupture, how do I do repair? How do I approach the young person once I’m calm and they’re calm? How do we talk it out?” And even if it’s not about a resolution, it’s about being able to connect once again in the relationship. Because it’s always the repair process that contributes to trust, contributes to a sense of safety and actually strengthens the relationship across time.
(27:21): And so a really important phrase that your listeners might hold onto is that when they’re doing a repair process with the child, it’s okay that what happened was not okay, because they crossed the boundary or the boundary wasn’t respected. But we are okay, which then really focuses on the relationship because that’s really important. So I’ll just say that again, what happened was not okay, but we are okay.
Laura Jenkins (27:53): I love that. That is such a good one. I’m going to use that myself. And I think just reflecting on what you said there, I like the idea of the repair as well. Because I think many people, in the heat of the moment, when the rupture occurs, think, “Oh, it’s all too hard,” or “I’ve ruined my relationship,” or “I’m never going to be able to connect with X, Y, or Z person.” But having that mindset of, “Okay, there can always be a repair after a rupture,” I think helps to put that positive or optimistic lens on whatever problems occurred.
Dr Kate Owen (28:31): Absolutely, the repair. Ruptures will happen. It’s all about the repair. Yeah, love that.
Laura Jenkins (28:36): Very good. Well, Kate, I have so enjoyed our chat today. Thank you very much for all of the wonderful tips and insight that you have shared. Just lastly, I wanted to ask you where can listeners go to connect with you and find out more about the work that you’re doing as well in this space?
Dr Kate Owen (28:54): Thanks, Laura. And I’ve really enjoyed being on the podcast with you today as well. So thank you. I have a couple of different hats. So if people want to find more resources and connect with me then Dr. Kate Owen, drkateowen.com. Take you to my website, and then it’s got all the links to everything, my YouTube channel, all the socials et cetera.
(29:19): If there is anyone listening who is interested in family therapy training, if there’re a helping professional, a counselling or mental health person, then pop across to my other company, which is Queensland Institute of Family Therapy, and the website is qldfamilytherapy.com.
Laura Jenkins (29:38): Very good. And we will link to all of that in the show notes as well. Well, once again, thanks so much for your time, Kate. And hope we can have you back on the show another time.
Dr Kate Owen (29:47): Thanks, Laura.
Laura Jenkins (29:48): Bye now. Thanks for listening to In The Blend podcast. The show notes for this episode are available at intheblend.com.au. And if you like what you heard, be sure to subscribe and please rate and review in your podcasting app. You can also follow me on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.