Sunday, September 10, 2006


The girls on our adolescent Girls’ Unit are having trouble with boundaries. This means they are always hugging and lying all over each other, that they are creating elaborate relationship structures of family relationships that often lead to anguish and conflict, and that some are in love and/or going out, breaking up, and over involved in each other’s issues. It means the girls “interfere” when one is having a crisis, often triggering more crises. In general, it means lots of touching and lots of drama.

Before we start talking about “you are here for your own issues, pay attention to yourself” and before we start making more rules, let’s think about boundaries.

Some part of what we are considering here is really just about love. These teen-aged girls are alone in the world or have very tenuous connections to families. Most adults have disappointed them. They do not know where they are going next. And they are shame-based, unsure of whether they are worthy of life. They have a desperate need for love- as we all do. And here is where they can most easily find it, among the other girls with whom they live.

Of course, trauma histories affect boundaries. These girls’ whole lives have been boundary violations. They have experienced the more blatant violations such as sexual abuse, and the more subtle such as being parentified and sharing mothers’ struggles with her boyfriend. They have no idea what boundaries should be, how to set or keep them, why one would want to do so, what would be the advantages of doing so. They also do not know how to stand up for themselves, and are quite sure that if they were assertive no one would ever be their friend again.

Then let’s take a moment to realize how hard boundaries are for us. They must be, or why are we always having discussions among ourselves about boundary issues? In both our personal and our professional lives, limits on love and friendships are hard to establish and maintain.

So, where does that leave us in our leadership of our girls?

1. We can model loving boundaries with each other, trying to make sure our relationships are straightforward, honest, affectionate and respectful.

2. We can offer the girls many legitimate ways to connect and care for each other. We can find positive ways they can help each other when one is in distress.

3. We can talk openly about the difficulties of love and friendship and limits, without sharing intimate personal information.

4. We can teach the DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, http://www.behavioraltech,com/) interpersonal skills

5. We can use every method we have to increase the girls’ competence and sense of their own worth.

6. And we can advocate hard for anything that increases their connections outside of the setting- out reach to families, getting them mentors, enabling participation in community activities, etc.

Negotiating connections with others will be a key issue for our girls throughout their lives. It is for all of us, and their histories leave them especially vulnerable. We cannot focus on separating the girls, and asking them to turn away from their only sources of love. It is essential that we use this laboratory of intense relationships that residential treatment provides as an opportunity to help them grow towards better connection skills.

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