Drawing the Line: A Teenager’s quick guide to setting Boundaries

You might perhaps be familiar with an awkward, sinking feeling that begins as an ‘oh no’ in your tummy and comes out as a feeble ‘yes’. 

It could be a last-minute invite to crash a party you knew nothing about. It could be a hand yanking you into a picture with people you’d rather not hang with. Heck, it could be even mum asking you to smile at a relative like nothing ever happened, even though plenty did.

Though teens tend to have a bad rep for being ‘difficult’, the fact is that door-slamming, ghosting and sullen silences can often stem from an inability to set and articulate boundaries. Wanting to not offend, wanting to please or even keep the peace- can all easily lead to a slippery slope down to discomfort and compromised safety. Figuring out what your boundaries are, and learning to communicate is foundational in living life on your terms! 

What Are Boundaries?

Simply put, boundaries are lines that you draw – to help you and those around you understand what feels safe and comfortable to you, and what doesn’t. A lot of the power struggles that play out in homes and schools are actually attempts to create, bypass or negotiate boundaries. As an educator, I often see first-hand how adults often intrude on or push the boundaries of their students- from reading diaries, going through their personal stuff, casually putting out sensitive information, or sometimes even inappropriately getting too familiar or personal in situations. Ideally, no one has the right to define your boundaries but you, because you are the only one who knows what it feels like to be but you. But adolescence is a strange ‘in-between’ time, where you are suspended between the rights of a child and some of the duties of an adult. Well-meaning adults in your family, cultural community or school community may have defined or reinforced your boundaries till now. The good news is, your boundaries are still yours.

Outlining Physical Boundaries

Physical boundaries are often easy to identify- both relating to your body or your personal space. Your body gives you cues when a physical boundary is violated- it could be a shot of adrenaline, goosebumps, a dry mouth or even just a feeling of obvious discomfort. These questions can help you make your physical boundaries clearer:
– Whom am I comfortable giving access to my personal spaces (room, desk, lockers, gadgets, diaries) and in what ways?
– What kinds of touch am I comfortable with and from whom? How is a friendly touch different from a romantic touch for me? In what ways are family members allowed to touch me and not?
– Whom am I comfortable with being alone, and whom not?
– What measures help me feel comfortable in terms of physical safety? Does an open door help while having a private conversation? Does it feel safer to meet someone in a public space rather than a private one?
– Have I discussed what physical safety means to me with my friends and/or significant other?
– Have I spent time with my significant other discussing what I am ready for and comfortable with and what I am not in terms of intimacy? Do I need to revisit or reframe these?

Delineating Your Emotional Boundaries

Our first friendships and relationships often help us practice and learn what feels emotionally nurturing to us, and what feels risky. Here are some prompts that could help you calibrate your emotional boundaries:
* What does trust mean to me? What actions do I plan to take if someone breaks my trust?
* What does privacy mean to me? Who is allowed access to my feelings, how and under what circumstances?
* What kind of emotional closeness am I okay with, in my friendships and relationships?
* What are emotionally loaded questions I can deny answering to a teacher, or peers?
* What makes me feel safe, emotionally speaking, in my friendships and relationships?
* Who are safe, reliable and trusted people or spaces for me to share my feelings with?

Establishing Your Social Boundaries

High schools can be a strange training ground of sorts. It’s where we have our first challenging social encounters as well as our first experiences of groups and conflicts. Many students have shared with me how vulnerable they feel in social interactions- the pressure to sit at a certain table, the pressure to avoid certain people and so on. Your social boundaries can help you maintain a strong sense of self, while also helping you simultaneously stay open to safe social experiences. Reflecting on these prompts can help:
– What kind of relationships do I feel ready for?
– What kind of group dynamics make me feel comfortable/ uncomfortable?
– What kind of social interactions leave me feeling drained or conflicted?
– How can I stand up for myself in a social situation I feel pressured in?
– What social spaces (online/offline) am I comfortable interacting with others in?
– How can I protect my physical and emotional boundaries in difficult social interactions?

Communicating Your Boundaries

Boundaries can be tricky to define-they usually take a lot of time, practice and even heartbreak to get right. Once you get the hang of your boundaries, the real challenge then lies in learning to communicate them gently, yet firmly. The trick is to not sound accusatory and focus on your needs instead, as psychologists like Dr Anne Katherine (Katherine, A., 1993. Boundaries. Simon and Schuster) recommend. It always helps to keep in mind that our boundaries don’t necessarily have to be hurtful to others like Jaiya John noted in this tweet: Here are some ‘I’ statements that might help with keeping your ‘consistent light’:

It would really help me feel safe if you could…
I would rather not…
I actually don’t feel very comfortable with…
I would be more comfortable if we could…
This is not something I am ready for now…
I would prefer it if we …

There’s always the option of saying a simple yet powerful ‘no’ too. It’s highly effective, especially when there’s direct danger, and doesn’t always need to be accompanied by an explanation. From my experience as an educator though, I’ve come to appreciate that explanations do help from time to time! When we offer explanations along with our boundaries, we allow those around us to understand us, as well as their behaviour better. Not communicating our boundaries to those we care about, often leaves us feeling resentful, frustrated and angry inside. The fear of losing those we love, however, can hold us back from doing so.

I like to think of boundaries as a litmus test of sorts. It’s always interesting to see how those around us react to our boundaries. When done right, respectful conversations about boundaries can be an invitation to deepen friendships and relationships healthily. At the same time, when people react strongly or in ‘punishing’ ways when we share our boundaries, it can be a big red flag that something’s just not right.

About The Author

Ferzine is an IB & Cambridge Educator & Practitioner based in South India. She believes in grounding learning and leading with authenticity and empathy. Besides leading IBDP programme implementation, she is an IB examiner, and also facilitates Psychology, Global Perspectives and Theory of Knowledge for 16-18 year olds. She has led professional development for facilitators in schools across India, and has worked with CBSE, India’s national level board of education, to develop the ‘Critical & Creative Thinking Skills -Training Manual for Master Trainers’ in 2020. Her academic training in Philosophy, Psychology and Sociology, as well as insight gleaned from her work as a reflective practitioner make her passionate about creating safe spaces in schools. Her schooling, life and work experiences in the Middle East and across India have additionally given her a deep appreciation for diverse perspectives. She can be found online at her website, thedpdiaries

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