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Creating and Responding to Healthy Boundaries

Dr. Chris and Alisa Grace pose for the cover of The Art of Relationships Podcast.

Mandy: Welcome to another Art of Relationships Podcast. We are grateful for listeners like you. Let's get right into it.

Alisa Grace: Hi everyone. Welcome back to another episode of The Art of Relationships Podcast. It's produced by the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships. I'm here today with my very good friend, Jennifer Jones. Jennifer, we've known each other for, gosh, like eight years?

Jennifer Jones: Yeah, several.

Alisa Grace: Seven or eight years. Jennifer is a licensed marriage and family therapist and she's going to be talking with us today about the issue of boundaries and how we navigate boundaries in our lives, why it's important. But just so you know a little bit about Jennifer and get to know her, tell us a little bit about yourself, Jennifer. You're married, you've got kids.

Jennifer Jones: Yes.

Alisa Grace: Right?

Jennifer Jones: Yes. I have a family. I am a clinical supervisor in community mental health agency and I also have a small private practice in Southern California.

Alisa Grace: Wonderful, wonderful. I actually met Jennifer, I think I was speaking at a women's retreat at your church, Englewood? What is it?

Jennifer Jones: Southside Christian.

Alisa Grace: That's right. Oh my gosh. And that was eight years ago. And we were actually seated at the same lunch table, or we happened to be sitting by each other. And I'm using air quotes, as I say, happen to, because I think it was definitely a God thing. I was speaking at the women's retreat and you were just finishing up your 3000 hours of clinical supervision, getting ready to sit for your boards to become a licensed therapist in Southern California. And we just started visiting about that. We were launching the Center for Marriage and Relationships at the same time. And I was like, oh wow. We are looking for really great, well trained therapists to come and join us at our conference that we put on each year, the Going Deeper Together Marriage Conference. We have licensed therapists that come in and do an hour free therapy, which is really awesome.

And you graciously agreed to give of your time and we're really grateful. And as a result, you've written blogs, you've recorded some video clips for us and it's been a great relationship.

Jennifer Jones: Yes, I have so enjoyed it. And I loved being here on campus last year too, to teach a course in the MFT program and just build relationships with the students. And I am so grateful for the fact that we did have that, I think you called it a divine appointment at that time. And I've always held onto that thought that things don't just happen, but there is a divine timing and it's all God's work.

Alisa Grace: That's right. What is it, that man makes his plans and the Lord laughs? I think I'm pretty sure that's in the Bible. Yeah, right? Well, today we wanted to do a quick podcast together where we had you in studio. Like you said, you're a licensed therapist and one population that you tend to work a lot with, you said are young adults. Is that right?

Jennifer Jones: Yes.

Alisa Grace: And as we talked about it, one of the areas that you said that they struggle with a lot is the topic of boundaries. And what do you mean when you say that?

Jennifer Jones: Boundaries are limits. So they are limits that we set with other people to enhance our relationships and to provide safety in our relationships. And that tends to be something that young adults really have a hard time navigating.

Alisa Grace: Why do you think they have such a hard time with that?

Jennifer Jones: Usually when I talk to clients about things like boundaries, it starts in childhood. There are relational issues or traumas or attachment challenges that have set them up to feel some kind of way about setting a boundary. It doesn't feel good to set a boundary.

It feels bad. It feels like it keeps people away.

Alisa Grace: Could you give an example that might be the situation from their childhood?

Jennifer Jones: Sure. If you have a situation where there's a young child who every time they make a mistake they are hit or sent away or yelled at, they then learn that their voice and their choice is something to be punished and they're going to be less likely to grow up and feel like they can vocalize their wants and needs to people for fear of punishment or rejection or disconnection in their relationship.

Alisa Grace: Gosh, that's really interesting. It just makes me think back to being a mom of not only young children, but even now. I mean, our youngest is a 19 year old, and so I could understand that what you're saying about maybe there's a choice they make or they do something that didn't turn out well. They had their third car accident this year or something.

It's like, really? Are you serious? Or you're doing what with your kids? That's not how I did it. And I can imagine, you want to express your viewpoint as a parent maybe, but you don't want to do it in a way that's damaging, but because it does have lifelong impact, right?

Jennifer Jones: Absolutely.

Alisa Grace: Wow. Okay, so talk to us a little bit about if it's important to set boundaries, you said, to create structure and safety in a relationship. Is that right?

Jennifer Jones: Yes.

Alisa Grace: Okay. So let me ask you this, what are some ideas, or what are some things that we should think about in terms of setting boundaries, healthy boundaries that honor not only you and the other person, but are God honoring as well? But what are some of the reasons we don't set boundaries?

Jennifer Jones: Yeah, that's a good question. I think it's really the root of why people don't, is that typically people feel bad. That's a very simple word, but I hear it a lot. I just feel bad.

Alisa Grace: And what makes them feel bad about it though?

Jennifer Jones: What makes people feel bad about setting boundaries is that somewhere along the line they learn that setting boundaries keeps people away. So they think, oh, if I set a boundary so and so's not going to like me anymore. So and so is not going to want to be in relationship with me anymore, or they're going to be upset with me. We can't tolerate that if we do set a boundary, there is a possibility that someone won't be on board with that and they won't be okay with our boundary. And so we have to think about it differently instead of thinking, okay, if I set a boundary and they don't like it and they choose to adjust their relationship with me, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Alisa Grace: Oh yeah, go ahead with that. That's interesting, go ahead. So just because they may not, it doesn't mean that you're wrong.

Jennifer Jones: Absolutely. If I say every night I have to go to bed by eight o'clock because of my schedule and the way my life is set up right now, and you have a friend who texts you or calls you every night at nine and you say, "I love talking to you. I just really need to get my rest with the schedule that I have right now and I won't be accepting your texts or calls after eight o'clock." And let's say they aren't happy about it and they stop talking to you or block you or they're rude to you, that's good information for you. It's not like...

Alisa Grace: What kind of, when you say it's good information, what is that telling you if they get upset?

Jennifer Jones: Yeah, that's telling you that they have feelings like humans do. It's okay that they can be upset about that and that they may need to work through that. It's not an indication that you need to change your boundary though.

Alisa Grace: Ooh, that's going to be really hard for people that are people pleasers.

Jennifer Jones: Yes.

Alisa Grace: And I'm raising my hand on that one. That is really hard when you want people to like you.

Jennifer Jones: Yes it is.

Alisa Grace: So how do you change? What do we need to change in our thinking about that?

Jennifer Jones: I think it's really a basic human need that we have and we like to call it being liked. I think it's that we all need to have a sense of belonging and setting boundaries that help us create a place for people in our lives that help us adjust where they go in our lives is actually really helpful that everybody doesn't have to like us. But when we set boundaries, it does lend itself to people respecting us no matter what.

Because now we respect ourselves and we let them know what it is we want and need and expect in that relationship, whatever it might be.

Alisa Grace: I like that. I like that. So if you're a young adult and you're trying to set some loving boundaries with your parents, so say that maybe your parents expect you to come by the house more often than you really want to. You love your parents, but you don't want to spend every weekend. Maybe you're a college student and they expect you to come home every weekend, or you're a young adult and you're living on your own, but they want to hear from you more. You don't call me enough, you don't come by enough. How do you have that conversation with them?

Jennifer Jones: That would be a really hard conversation for a people pleaser. But there is a way to have that conversation and it's important to have those kinds of hard conversations. And so something that I talk to my clients a lot about is the cognitive triangle. And that is that thoughts proceed feelings proceed behavior. So if you have a thought, it's going to influence your feelings and then your feelings influence your behavior. Sometimes people think their feelings alone influence their behavior, but our minds are very powerful. And the Bible talks a lot about mindset, capturing our thoughts, transforming our minds for a reason. So we really need to look at what we're thinking and how we're thinking about certain situations.

So it would make sense that a young adult would feel bad that their parents want to see them more and they are trying to grow and become more independent and set different boundaries. There's a transition, there's an adjustment period. So if your thought is, ugh, I'm going to feel bad, they're going to be really upset with me, they're really not going to want to hear that I want to spend less time here. Maybe they're going to take away some privileges, whatever your thought is. And then if you have those kinds of thoughts, you are going to feel bad. You're going to feel anxious about bringing it up. And ultimately your behavior is probably going to be to stop doing anything at all. You're not going to speak up, you're not going to say anything, you're just going to be upset. You're probably going to continue doing this thing you don't actually really want to do.

And that is not conducive to a healthy relationship. So the way that you would change that is start at your thoughts. Instead of they're going to feel bad, think about I want to honor my parents and I want to gain independence and I want to grow and this is a time in my life that's really important for me to start setting some limits. Then I'm going to feel more empowered to then speak up. So my behavior's going to change because I'm going to feel more assured. I'm going to be clear on why I need to set this boundary. And then you go to the person in love and kindness because your mindset is now different. And another thing that I talk about with people a lot is something called the feedback sandwich. So you have the bun, nice and soft, and then you have the meat and the pickles and the lettuce and the tomatoes. That's all the good stuff that's harder for your body to digest in the middle, and then you have another bun.

So you might start off by saying something like, "Mom and Dad, I really love all of the time that we spend together and how much you've poured into me all of these years, it really just brightens my day that you want to talk to me and that you reach out to me and check on me and I've been thinking I and really want to be more independent. I want to grow and I want to spend time with you. But instead of coming every weekend, I'm going to start coming every other weekend. And I just want you to know how much I really love and appreciate you guys and want to continue to always have a good relationship with you. And that's why I'm sharing this with you."

Alisa Grace: Oh, that I love that. That's a great word picture. So the feedback sandwich, so you have the affirmation, which is the bun. Then you have the meat, which is kind of the hard statement, but put in a positive verbiage.

Jennifer Jones: Yes, positively stated.

Alisa Grace: And then the bun is another affirmation at the end. That's beautiful. I really like that. That's a good word picture. Something that I noticed a couple of times as we were talking about this, when you made that transition from the bun to the meat.

You're moving from the affirmation, Mom and Dad, I love you, I love that you want to spend time with me. I love my time with you because it always makes me feel bright and sunny and I want to be more independent. What I noticed is, you didn't use the word but. But I want to be more independent. Was that intentional?

Jennifer Jones: Yes. And I'm proud of myself for using it, because it is something that I do also like to key into, that but sounds negative. And as you mentioned, you want to state things in the positive opposite. So tell people what it is you want them to hear, not what you don't want them to hear.

Alisa Grace: Okay. Give us an example of how you would say it negatively and instead how you would do a positive opposite.

Jennifer Jones: So negatively would be, I don't want to spend as much time with you as I used to because I'm growing up and I want to find my independence, so I'm going to be coming around less.

And the positive opposite was that you are loving spending time with them and, not but, and you want to find your independence and you will be spending a little less time with them than usual. So the message still gets across, but it is easier for someone to take in and digest.

Alisa Grace: I love that. It's almost like when you say but, it cancels out the affirmation.

Jennifer Jones: Yes, yes.

Alisa Grace: Even like in an apology, I'm really sorry, but. Well then that just cancels out everything you just apologized for.

Jennifer Jones: Exactly.

Alisa Grace: So that's really good. Boy, that's something really practical that I identify as you're talking, that I can work on in putting that positive, this is the positive that I need or that I'm looking for, the positive change. I love that. And then the affirmation at the bottom of that. Let me ask you this, Jennifer, as our kids are getting older, and I have grown kids and my youngest is still a sophomore in college here at Biola.

You have younger kids. How old are your kids?

Jennifer Jones: They're twelve, seven and four.

Alisa Grace: Oh, you are in the throes of it. Oh my gosh. Okay. So sometimes as a parent, as our kids are getting older and they legitimately set boundaries with us, that can be hard. That can be so hard as a parent because it almost comes across as rejection. And that's interesting. So as a parent, if I have a child, an adult child, so right? A young adult child and they're starting to set boundaries with me, "Mom, I'm going to be becoming more independent. So I probably won't be coming home as more," my first inclination is to, well why don't you want to be with me? Why do you not like us anymore? You just don't want to be with us anymore? So how, as parents, can we reframe what we're hearing from our kids from being negative? How can we view that in the positive opposite as the recipient of someone setting a boundary with us?

Jennifer Jones: Yeah, that's a really good question. And I think the first thing that I think of is it's okay to feel how you feel about your child setting a boundary. It is hard to change or adjust to a transition like that. It's a huge transition that maybe you feel less needed.

Alisa Grace: What do you mean they have their own lives? They're supposed to always need me. I'm their mom [crosstalk].

Jennifer Jones: And they will.

Alisa Grace: Well, I guess they will. Just that it-

Jennifer Jones: It'll look different. It'll look different. So I think it's to validate that it is okay that you feel that way about your child setting a boundary. That's human, you guys have a bond, you have a relationship, and when it changes it's hard and that's okay.

And that you also don't want to take away from their desire to grow or thrive and that you acknowledge. I hear you, I hear you saying that you want some more independence and that means that you're going to be coming around less. And I do feel sad about it. I do feel sad about it, but I'm really proud of you for making that choice.

Alisa Grace: So that feedback, what I hear you saying too is, as a parent or the person on the receiving end of the boundary being set, is to try to respond as well with that same feedback sandwich.

Jennifer Jones: Yes. Yes.

Alisa Grace: So I really like that. So if let's say my 19 year old's coming home saying she's not going to be coming home as much, and that makes me sad, and she's expressing her need for independence. I like the way you said, you know what, I really appreciate that you are growing up to become an independent adult.

I can really appreciate and admire that about you. That means that I'm doing my job as a parent. You're actually becoming an independent adult. Darn it, that's what I raised you to do and you're doing it. I hate that. I leave that part out. That's just in the little thought bubble above my head. But I can really appreciate that you want to spread your wings, you're growing, you're becoming independent. And that's really hard for me. That's really hard because there's a little part of me that feels a little bit rejected even though I know you're not meaning to, you're not saying that, but sometimes that's how it feels. So I'm going to try really hard to recognize that independence and view it from a healthy perspective. And I appreciate that you still want to come home, maybe not as frequently, and I appreciate that you want to come home still.

So I'm going to try really hard to acknowledge and to appreciate that independence of you. So thank you for letting me know.

Jennifer Jones: Yes, perfect. Aw, I can see how emotional that is for you.

Alisa Grace: [Crosstalk].

Jennifer Jones: It is, oh my goodness. My children aren't that age yet, but I know I'll feel the same way. I think the beautiful thing about that kind of response is that it's very validating and it also models for your child that they can talk about hard things and it doesn't have to be so scary. That they can set boundaries with you and they're still going to maintain a connection with you.

Alisa Grace: I think your kid's age, where they're getting, Nina is in what grade?

Jennifer Jones: She's in eighth grade.

Alisa Grace: So she's in eighth grade. Is she at that place yet where she doesn't want to hold your hand in public anymore?

Jennifer Jones: Yeah, she definitely has more boundaries than she did before and I can feel it.

Alisa Grace: Yeah, I had one that would hold my hand anytime, that was never an issue, out of the three. And I had one that wasn't necessarily a hand holder as much anyway, but there was one that clearly set boundaries with me. Mom, you're not holding my hand after sixth grade. And then it's weird as they got older and into high school and college, then they came back and they would hold my hand again. But it was like that middle school age. So maybe they don't have those relationship skills to do the feedback sandwich yet, and they're just pulling away. And as a parent you feel that rejection. How do you have that conversation when they can't do the feedback sandwich yet or they don't have that skill? How do you do role model that and acknowledge their feelings and have that conversation with them? What does that sound like?

Jennifer Jones: That might sound like talking to them about what you observe or what you notice. So I know sometimes my 12 year old, she does want to spend more time on her own. We're watching a kid's movie that it's not that she doesn't like it, but she wants to go paint her nails or do something more to herself. And in my brain I'm thinking, okay, is this healthy? Does she need to be separated from us right now? Does she need to be isolated? But there is a part of our children at certain stages, it's not isolation, is that they are figuring some things out and they do need that time to be 12, she's 12 now, to be 12, whereas her brother and sister are seven and four. So it makes sense that she wants to paint her nails while we watch Lion King.

And so I think to talk about that would just be to acknowledge it kind of like we talked about the feedback sandwich.

Alisa Grace: So pretend I'm Nina, what would you say?

Jennifer Jones: Okay, so I would say something like, "I noticed that you chose to paint your nails while we watched the movie today and we missed you. We missed having you in the living room with us. But I can also see that you needed that time to yourself. And I appreciate the fact that you are making some choices that you feel are maybe better for you right now at this stage or this phase." I may not say it exactly like that, but something like that. So I wouldn't have a long drawn out feedback sandwich, but I also wouldn't ignore it or bypass what's happening or bypass the feelings around it. I think that's something that happens with maybe people pleasers or with parents in general when we don't know what to do, we just don't do anything at all.

And so it is really important to have these kinds of skills, like the feedback sandwich, how to set a boundary, the cognitive triangle. They really can come in handy when you just don't know what to do and you can just fall back on those things that for sure.

Alisa Grace: Wow, that's a really good point. And so it's better to even stumble through the conversation than to ignore it.

Jennifer Jones: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. Because kids are so resilient and they're so forgiving and it's okay if you stumble because that's another teaching opportunity. It's another way to model for them. I'm figuring out how to talk about this too.

Alisa Grace: And speak to that parent that maybe they're hearing this and they're going, oh, I did everything wrong that she's describing and I'm feeling really guilty, I'm feeling really bad. What do you say to that parent right now?

Jennifer Jones: Yeah, you know what, no one's perfect. I know that sounds cliche, but I think that when we get to a place where we allow guilt to take root and then shame to grow, then we stay stuck. And we don't do something different. So if you're hearing these things, instead of thinking, oh, I really messed up, what's the positive opposite? It's wow, I have some new things that I can try. I can take this and I can try to apply it now and see a change. So you're not stuck in any mistakes that you may have made. It's that now that you know better, you're going to do better. And it should really motivate you. It should motivate you instead of discourage you from doing something different because it's really never too late to do something different.

Alisa Grace: I love that. You may not be able to go back and change the past, but you can change the future starting today.

Jennifer Jones: Absolutely.

Alisa Grace: And you can choose to do differently and grow and praying through that too, and being a praying parent. I think one of the practical things we do spiritually in our parenting, Jennifer, that I know that you'll agree with, is inviting the Lord into that situation. One of my favorite verses is Romans 8:7. It says, "If the flesh controls your mind, it leads to death. But if the Holy Spirit controls your mind, then it leads to life and peace." And when we think about our parenting, we think about our families and at home, don't we want life and peace with our kids, right? And so practically that involves a daily surrender to the Lord. The battle for our families, for our marriages, for our relationships is going to be won or lost on our knees. And so to come in and invite the Lord.

Lord, I don't want the flesh to control my mind and my tongue and my behavior because it doesn't go well when I do that. And so, Lord, I'm going to be bold. You made a bold promise here in your scripture. And so I'm going to be bold and I'm going to claim that promise that if I give you control, then the result in my heart, in my mind, in my relationships, as far as it depends on me, it's going to be life and peace. And so in faith, I'm going to claim that and in faith I'm going to step out in that. And Lord, where I can't do it, I'm going to trust that you will come in and do it in me and through me and for me.

Jennifer Jones: Amen.

Alisa Grace: And so I love just that saying that when the Lord hears us, say, "Help me Lord," he hears faith. When we say help, he hears dependence and surrender and trust. We take that as a sign of weakness, but he says, "It's in your weakness that I'm strong. I can come in and do it in you. The only question is, are you going to cooperate with me? Are you going to strive against me."

And so that's that daily decision, daily surrenders. We get out of bed every day, Lord, I am yours and I need you. I am utterly unable to parent and be the wife or the sister, the friend that you have called me to be. I can't do it without your help. And I want to acknowledge that and articulate that and ask for your help. And so we've got to be praying parents, we got to be praying spouses, we got to be praying people of prayer, right?

Jennifer Jones: Yeah, definitely. That's beautiful because it's such an example to our children as well, that relationship is a priority.

Alisa Grace: I love that.

Jennifer Jones: That we go to God, we can't do it without him because relationship is so important. So if you're feeling discouraged, get back in there. We are not without hope.

Alisa Grace: That's right. That's exactly right. And what a great teaching moment for your child. Maybe you're having that disagreement, maybe you're in the middle of that conflict. And if you, as the adult can say, you as the mom or dad, just say, "You know what, can we just push the pause button? Because I don't think this conversation's going very well. Let's just invite Jesus into this and let's ask him to help us in our conversation with each other to give us understanding, to be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to get angry." Right? James 1:19. And they're learning scripture, you're role modeling it for us. That hey, I make mistakes too. Mommy's not perfect. Here's times that I need to apologize and say, "You know what? I messed up. I really approached our conversation in a way that I wish I could go back and do it differently. So can we just invite Jesus into this conversation and let's start over."

Jennifer Jones: Yeah, really. And that's really how boundaries start.

Alisa Grace: Divine do-overs, right?

Jennifer Jones: Yeah. You're showing them that boundaries work and they're important to set limits and to contain a relationship for safety. And you can circle back around when things are more cooled off or more settled, but it really is the beginning of someone being able to learn how to set boundaries without feeling bad.

Alisa Grace: I love that. Oh gosh, Jennifer, I feel like we could talk all day about this. We're going to have to have you back on the podcast another time. I just love the wisdom, the expertise that you have, the godly perspective, and just the life experience that you bring to your counseling, your therapy. It's awesome. If somebody is listening and they wanted to get in touch with you, how could they best do that?

Jennifer Jones: Sure. Thank you so much for that. You can find me on Jennifer J. Jones, and I'm LMFT 97584. Should be easy to find me.

Alisa Grace: All right. Very good. Well, we want to thank you for joining us here on The Art of Relationships. I hope that if you know somebody and maybe another parent that's struggling in this area, maybe another young adult that might be working on learning how to set good, clear, healthy boundaries that honor both you and the other person and God in your relationship, I hope you'll share this podcast with them. Click the subscribe button, give us five stars, all that good stuff, and we'll see you next time on The Art of Relationships. Bye-bye.

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