• Brandon Joffe, LCSW

The Black Bag Boundary


As I have mentioned before boundaries are often seen as a way to change your teen, usually through punishment and reward. Theoretically this makes sense and we have been conditioned to think that this is the only way to parent. I have also mentioned before that a truly healthy boundary is not about changing someone. A healthy boundary is one that is concrete, protective of yourself, your home, your morals, or your values. A healthy boundary is one that you control. This unfortunately means that you cannot set boundaries in every parenting situation.

Truly getting the hang of setting boundaries takes practice. It is not easy to undo decades of conditioning. One example I like to use to illustrate a healthy boundary is what I call “The Black Bag Boundary”. One thing most parents struggling with a teenager have in common is that they cannot get their teen to pick up their things around the house or that the teen’s room is a mess, and you have tried everything to change this behavior. Common sense tells us that if we yell enough and take enough important things away from the teen, they will eventually change. Experience tells us that this is simply not true and almost never works. The boundary goes something like this: if your mess is around the house, including my room that you are using, I will take a black bag and put everything in that black bag because I do not want to dedicate too much of my time to cleaning up your mess around my house. I will place that bag in a place that is out of sight and out of mind, so that I can maintain my peace of mind.

Before you set a boundary you have got to ask yourself what you are controlling. It is so important that you don’t just technically set boundaries in a healthy way. Your actual spirit behind the boundary is crucial. If you don’t truly get out of the mindset of needing to change your teen you are going to continue down the same old path. In the case of messy houses and messy rooms, you are protecting your home, your own mood, and if you are like me, your own peace of mind and comfort. I am sorry to say but no matter how much you yell your teen is not going to hold cleanliness as important as you do. “The Black Bag Boundary” is concrete, relevant, and you control what I call “the follow through.” I know it is not fair or just that your teen makes a mess, but at least you can now protect your time and your home. It takes far more time, effort, and energy to yell, lecture, and nag. You are not punishing, however there may be consequences for your teen. The beauty in setting healthy boundaries in this way is that you are not responsible for consequences. The teen now has full control, as do you.

Now having said that, it is important not to focus on punishment and changing your teen. I know that in the end change is something you are hoping for. When boundaries are set in this way, the influence you have on your teen increases drastically in the long run. If you are consistent and you eliminate your lectures, anger, and nagging, you will find that in time your teen begins to change.

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