Boundaries and Expectations: Finding the Sweet Spot

I will be the first to admit that I expect a lot of my children. Even at three and five, I expect them to be contributing members of the household. No, I don’t expect them to go out and get jobs to make a financial contribution. I do, however, expect that they take some responsibility for themselves. I expect that they put away their toys when they’re done playing and clear their plates from the table after meals. I am also trying to guide them towards independent conflict resolution and developing the ability to entertain themselves so that I can have a few minutes of uninterrupted time to take care of myself or get some work done.

Sounds good right? But it isn’t easy to get there. It is so hard to know if you’re parenting right as you wade through the swamp of unsolicited advice. It feels as if parents, and perhaps this is especially true for mothers, can’t express or even feel any inkling of frustration or exasperation without being inundated with a stream of conflicting comments like “you expect too much–they’re just kids” and “you need to put your foot down.” Then there are the raised eyebrows and shaking heads directed at either your kids’ behavior or your reaction to said behavior.

It is especially difficult for those of us with PTSD unique to the trauma of abuse. I experienced things like my father actually questioning a 12 year old me who had just worked to raise my D in science to a B+ why it wasn’t an A. Even after nearly six years of no contact with him, I can still hear his criticism. The PTSD convinces me that I am not doing enough, that I am doing it wrong, that I am not enough because I am wrong. When I finish cleaning the kitchen I hear him reminding me that I haven’t yet finished the laundry and that the toilets are dirty. When my kids act up and I respond with anything other than perfect calm, I hear more of his criticism. Worse yet is when I reach the boiling point and yell, then I feel gross as if I have become him.

The PTSD has also severely altered my ability to set and maintain boundaries. I struggle to communicate what my boundaries are to others because I wasn’t allowed to have boundaries as a child. Then, when someone oversteps my boundaries, I struggle to appropriately enforce my boundaries. I revert to that flight or fight mode and I either roll over and let people walk all over me (then cry about it later) or I lash out by yelling, stomping, or slamming a door. In other words, my children don’t always know what the limits are because I didn’t communicate what they are. Then, when they step out of line, I might snap, which from their perspective is alarming and unwarranted because they weren’t intentionally stepping out of line.

This is where my difficulties really lie. I don’t like yelling at my kids. They really don’t deserve it, even if I have already asked nicely what feels like a million times. I also want my children to have a solid example on how to set and maintain their own boundaries. If this sounds familiar to you and you found a way to overcome the PTSD and learn how to teach your children how to have boundaries while learning how yourself: what helped you get there? How did you find the sweet spot between acting like frightened prey or aggressive and threatened predator?

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