The Effect of Trauma on Boundary Development Posted August 11, 2013 by Heal for Life

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Boundaries are largely formed in childhood. How a child is treated by others shapes how their boundaries are defined. When a young child’s needs are met appropriately and they feel safe and secure, the child develops and understands a healthy sense of personal boundaries. In stark contrast, abuse and trauma in early childhood can rob a child of the sense of safety and the need to explore their own identity.

Any type of abuse, physical, emotional, or sexual, is a boundary invasion. Victims of abuse experience a loss of control over their own bodies and lives. Children who grow up in homes that don’t function well in terms of communication or understanding where physical, mental, and emotional boundaries are not respected, often become confused, vulnerable, and insecure. Sadly, these children often do not even attempt to defend their rights to individuality as they have not learned they have any.

Violent acts of assault or trauma, and extended periods of emotional or sexual abuse, have significant enduring negative effects on the development of boundaries.  Children who have been abused often are not allowed to, or are never given the chance, to learn their boundaries. For example, when a child is sexually abused this leads to confusion over the very basic rules of ownership of the body. Instead of learning that their body is their own and no-one else is allowed to touch it without the child’s permission, they learn that their body is to be hurt, abused or manipulated by others. They learn that their bodies are not their own. Their boundaries are variable or non-existent.

The most extreme representations of inadequate boundary formation often come in the form of mental illness. Frederick and McNeal (1999) describes clients diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder, Schizophrenia or personality disorders as fundamentally needing help to repair, form and manage their boundaries. However, symptoms of boundary injury can be less dramatic or obvious, but nonetheless damaging. Survivors can be highly functioning individuals in society and simply not be aware of boundary issues that subtly impact on their lives. Below is a list of examples of how damaged boundaries can be experienced by an individual:

1.  It is difficult for you to ask for what you want and need and hard to say ‘NO’ to
others when you would like to.

2.  It is easier to take care of other people’s needs and desires than your own.  It is also easier to go along with them than express your own opinions.

3.  Other people seem to know you better than you know yourself.  They also seem to know what is best for you.

4.  It is hard to make decisions because you frequently don’t know how you are feeling or what you think about important things.

5.  When feelings are present they are so strong that they are overwhelming. It is difficult to control the ‘volume’, to turn feelings up or down and still be in touch with them.

6.  Relationships seem to be one-way and you always put more into them than you get out of them. But even though you’re not getting what you want, you stay with them just the same.

7.  Other people’s moods have a big effect on you because you feel responsible for them. When they are happy, you are happy. When they are sad or angry, you blame yourself!

8.  Disturbing thoughts or memories keep popping into your awareness and sensations occur in parts of your body for no apparent reason.

9.  Concentrating and paying attention are often difficult. You are too easily distracted or influenced by things going on around you.

10.  Learning from your own mistakes is not easy. You seem to keep making the same errors in judgment repeatedly, and you have little confidence in your own experience.

11.  Other people seem to have a better grasp on reality than you do, so you depend on them to tell you what is true and real.

12.  People can take or borrow things from you without returning them or repaying you. What’s theirs is theirs and what’s yours is theirs.

(Friedman and Boumil, 1995)

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