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Boundary Dissolution

Boundary Dissolution

Boundary dissolution, also termed boundary confusion, distortion, diffusion, or violation, refers to a failure to recognize the psychological distinctiveness of individuals or a confusion of their interpersonal roles. The concept of boundaries has a rich history in family systems theory but also is important to psychodynamic explanations of childhood psychopathology. Indeed, the concept itself might be said to stand at the boundary between psycho-dynamic and family systems perspectives.

Salvador Minuchin (1974) argues that the maintenance of psychological boundaries in the family, particularly between children and their parents, is crucial to healthy development. Boundaries define appropriate family roles (e.g., by clarifying who is the parent and who is the child); demarcate developmental differences (e.g., by defining the special responsibilities or privileges of the eldest child); and ensure that parents meet their adult emotional needs in the marital relationship rather than through their children (e.g., by turning to the spouse for nurturance rather than the child). Ideally, boundaries are flexible, allowing family members to be close to one another and yet to have a sense of separateness. Kenji Kameguchi (1996) likens boundaries to a "membrane" that surrounds each individual and subsystem in the family. Like the membrane around a cell, boundaries need to be firm enough to ensure the integrity of the cell and yet permeable enough to allow communication between cells. Overly rigid boundaries might constrict family relationships and limit family members' access to one another (e.g., "children should be seen and not heard"), whereas overly permeable or blurred boundaries might lead to confusion between the generations (e.g., "who is the parent and who is the child?" [Hiester 1995]).

There are many different ways in which the psychological boundaries between one person and another might be blurred. Therefore, boundary dissolution is best conceptualized as a multifaceted phenomenon. The literature provides evidence for four dimensions of boundary dissolution— enmeshment, intrusiveness, role-reversal, and spousification—that research shows to have different correlates and consequences for child development (Brown and Kerig 1998; Rowa, Kerig, and Geller 2001).


Dimensions of Boundary Dissolution

Enmeshment. At the extreme of boundary dissolution is enmeshment, a lack of acknowledgement of the separateness between the self and other. Minuchin (1974) described the enmeshed family as one in which family members are overly involved with and reactive to one another, such that "a sneeze brings on a flurry of handkerchief offers." On the positive side, such families may provide feelings of mutuality, belonging, and emotional support. However, at the extreme, enmeshment interferes with the child's development of autonomy and individual agency. Changes in one family member quickly reverberate throughout the entire family system and may be perceived as threats to the family togetherness. For example, adolescence may precipitate a crisis when a young person begins to assert his or her own independence, such as by expressing the desire to go away for college (Kerig, in press-a).

In psychodynamic theory enmeshment is the initial state of being from which all children must wrest their sense of individual selfhood. According to separation-individual theory (Mahler, Pine, and Bergman 1975), infants originally experience themselves as part of a symbiotic relationship with their mothers. Over the course of infant development, inevitable failures in perfect empathy and wish-fulfillment help children to recognize that their mother is a separate individual with her own thoughts and feelings. However, in pathological development, emotionally deprived mothers may feel threatened by the infant's emergent sense of individuality and act in ways so as to promote and prolong this sense of parent-infant oneness. The consequences to the child can be severe, interfering with the ability to forge and assert a separate sense of identity. For example, enmeshment in the parent-child relationship is believed to be central to the development of borderline personality disorder, a syndrome characterized by the inability to preserve a cohesive sense of self and to maintain emotional boundaries between the self and other (Pine 1979). At a lesser extreme, childhood enmeshment predicts young adults' attachment insecurity and preoccupation with their families of origin (Allen and Hauser 1996).


Intrusiveness. Intrusiveness, also termed psychological control, is characterized by overly controlling and coercive parenting that intrudes into the child's thoughts and emotions and is not respectful of the autonomy of the child (Barber 1996). Whereas enmeshment is characterized by a seamless equality ("we feel alike"), the intrusive relationship is a hierarchical one in which the parent attempts to direct the child's inner life ("you feel as I say"). Psychological control may be carried out in ways that are more subtle than overt behavioral control. Rather than telling the child directly what to do or think, the parent may use indirect hints and respond with guilt induction or withdrawal of love if the child refuses to comply. In short, a psychologically controlling parent strives to manipulate the child's thoughts and feelings in such a way that the child's psyche will conform to the parent's wishes. Longitudinal data show that infants of intrusive mothers later demonstrate problems in academic, social, behavioral, and emotional adjustment in first and second grades (Egeland, Pianta, and O'Brien 1993). Psychological control also is predictive of anxiety and depression in children (see Barber 2002) and of delinquency, particularly in African-American youth (Walker-Barnes and Mason 2001).


Role-reversal. Role-reversal, also termed parentification, refers to a dynamic in which parents turn to children for emotional support (Boszormenyi-Nagy and Spark 1973; Jurkovic 1997). Although learning to be responsive and empathic to others' needs is a healthy part of child development, parentification involves an exploitative relationship in which the parents' expectations exceed the child's capacities, the parent ignores the child's developmental needs, or the parent expects nurturance but does not give it reciprocally (Chase 1999). A parent engaged in role-reversal may be ostensibly warm and solicitous to the child, but the relationship is not a truly supportive one because the parents' emotional needs are being met at the expense of the child's. Further, children are often unable to meet these developmentally inappropriate expectations, which may lead to frustration, disappointment, and even anger (Zeanah and Klitzke 1991). In fact, parents' inappropriate expectations for children, such that they provide nurturing to their parents, are a key predictor of child maltreatment (Azar 1997).

Research shows that, over the course of childhood, young children who fulfill their parents' need for intimacy have difficulty regulating their behavior and emotions (Carlson, Jacobvitz, and Sroufe 1995) and demonstrate a pseudomature, emotionally constricted interpersonal style ( Johnston 1990). In the longer term, childhood role reversal is associated with difficulties in young adults' ability to individuate from their families (Fullinwider-Bush and Jacobvitz 1993) and adjust to college (Chase, Deming, and Wells 1998). Parent-child role reversal also is associated with depression, low-self esteem, anxiety (Jacobvitz and Bush 1996), and eating disorders (Rowa, Kerig, and Geller 2001) in young women. Due to cultural expectations that associate caregiving with the feminine role, daughters may be particularly vulnerable to being pulled into the role of "mother's little helper" (Brody 1996; Chodorow 1978). Consistent with family systems theory (Minuchin 1974), boundary violations also are more likely to occur when the marital relationship is an unhappy one and the parent turns to the child for fulfillment of unmet emotional needs (Fish, Belsky, and Youngblade 1991; Jacobvitz and Bush 1996).

Role-reversal may take different forms, depending on the role the child is asked to play. Parents might behave in a child-like way, turning to the child to act as a parenting figure, termed parentification or child-as-parent (Walsh 1979; Goglia et al. 1992); or they may relate to the child as a peer, confidante, or friend (Brown and Kerig 1998), which might be termed adultification or child-as-peer. Although providing a parent with friendship, emotional intimacy, and companionship ultimately interferes with the child's individuation and social development outside the home, the negative implications of a peer-like parent-child relationship may be less severe than a complete reversal of roles in which the parent relinquishes all caregiving responsibilities. Role reversal can also occur between adults, such as when an adult turns to the spouse to act as a parent, seeking guidance and care instead of a mutually autonomous relationship, termed spouse-as-parent (Boszormenyi-Nagy and Spark 1973; Chase 1999). Another form of role reversal occurs when the parent behaves in a seductive manner toward the child, placing the child not in the role of parent or peer, but of romantic partner.


Spousification. Of particular concern to Minuchin (1974) was the blurring of the boundary between the marital and child subsystem, which can lead children to become inappropriately involved in their parents' marital problems. This may take the form of a compensatory closeness between an unhappily married parent and a child of the other sex, termed spousification (Sroufe and Ward 1980) or child-as-mate (Walsh 1979; Goglia et al. 1992). Although spousification is often considered to be a form of role-reversal, it is distinguished by the fact that the parent is seeking a special kind of intimacy—perhaps even including sexual gratification (Jacobvitz, Riggs, and Johnson 1999). For example, Sroufe and colleagues (1985) found that emotionally troubled mothers, many of whom were survivors of incest, engaged in seductive behaviors with their young sons while responding in a hostile way toward daughters. However, the relationship between spousification and gender may be more complex. When marital conflict spills over onto parent-child relationships it also may take a hostile form, termed negative spousification or spillover (Kerig, Cowan, and Cowan 1993). Spillover of marital tensions may cause a parent to view a child in the same negative terms as the spouse, thus blurring the boundaries between them (e.g., "You sound just like your father"; "You're your mother's daughter, aren't you?") (Kerig, in press-b). Research has shown that maternal stress and depression increase the risk of negative spousification that, in turn, predicts anxiety and depression in school-age children (Brown and Kerig 1998).


Is Boundary Dissolution a Whole-Family or Dyadic Phenomenon?

Minuchin (1974) proposed that entire families could be characterized with qualities such as enmeshment. However, although the whole family system might be characterized by a particular type of boundary rigidity or permeability, it is also possible for there to be multiple kinds of boundaries in a family. Philip and Carolyn Cowan (1990) point out that an enmeshed mother-child relationship, for example, is usually counterbalanced by detachment in the relationship between father and the child. If different forms of boundaries exist simultaneously, Cowan and Cowan ask, "How, then, are we to describe the family?" (p. 42).

To address the dilemma of multiple relationships, many family systems investigators assess the boundaries between each dyad in the family (Kerig 2001b). For example, a commonly used clinical method of assessing multiple relationships in the family is the genogram (McGoldrick, Gerson, and Shellenberger 1997), which depicts the quality of the relationship between each pair of family members. A dotted line may be used to depict a disengaged relationship, a solid line a close relationship, and a double line an enmeshed relationship. By examining the constellation of relationships within a family, a clinician is able to discern where boundary violations have occurred and whether enmeshment in one relationship interferes with closeness between other family members. By the same token, the majority of questionnaire measures used to assess boundary dissolution inquire separately about the mother-child and father-child relationships.

Is Boundary Dissolution a Culturally Bounded Phenomenon?

Western psychology has been criticized for treating psychological constructs derived from the standards of industrialized, European societies as normative (Anderson 1999). A number of critics have argued that Western psychology promotes a highly individualistic, autonomous self as the ideal, whereas other societies value a more communal and interdependent sense of self (Markus and Kitayama 1991; Sampson 1993). Therefore, Western psychologists might perceive pathological boundary dissolution among family members who are reflecting their own culture's healthy norms of communality.

For example, Nancy Boyd-Franklin (1989) argues that African-American families developed flexible roles in order to respond to the challenges of poverty and racism. Extended kinships involve many different, sometimes biologically unrelated, adults in the rearing of children, so that there is role diffusion in parenting. Additionally, the common necessity for both parents to work outside the home has meant that "Black women have sometimes had to act as the 'father' and Black men as the 'mother' . . . while children are often required to assume 'parental child' roles necessary for family survival" (p. 64). Boyd-Franklin identifies the "parental child" as a common experience in the African-American family, where working single mothers often assign the task of caring for younger children to the oldest child, placing that child in a parental role. As long as the responsibilities assigned to the eldest are clear and well-defined, with the parent remaining "in charge" and parenting functions "delegated and not abdicated," the parental child family structure may be adaptive. However, a mother who is so overburdened that she begins to rely on her eldest child as her "right-hand man" places unreasonable responsibilities on the child, interfering with the child's social and emotional development. In addition, high rates of teenage pregnancy require many older women to take on the burden of caring not only for their children but for the children of their children. With the blurring of family roles in the three-generational family, "the mother of the female adolescent with a baby never fully becomes a grandmother while her daughter is never allowed to fully function as a mother to her own child" (p. 74). Therefore, although flexible boundaries can be a source of strength, they also can leave families vulnerable to role confusion and boundary dissolution.

Louis Anderson (1999) also acknowledges the negative implications of a reversal of roles in the African-American family, such as when the child is forced to "parent the parent." However, in the context of African-American culture, flexible family roles and interdependence are the norm, and children are socialized to advance quickly through development in order to become contributors to the family's welfare. Anderson argues that, before taking on responsibilities such as the care of younger siblings, African-American children go through an extended apprenticeship and are provided with supervision and instruction so that they are developmentally prepared for the tasks they are to assume. What most clearly differentiates pathological parentification from healthy socialization is that, although children are given responsibilities in the normative African-American family, they are still allowed to be children and "are not elevated to the executive structure of the household" (p. 164).

The concept of boundary dissolution also has been found to be relevant in family research outside the United States. For example, Kenji Kameguchi and Stephen Murphy-Shigetmatsu (2001) use the concept of boundary dissolution to understand the pervasive problem of Japanese children refusing to go to school. Following Minuchin (1974), they argue that a strong membrane around the parental subsystem is essential to the healthy organization of the family. However, among Japanese families of school-refusing children, Kameguchi and his colleagues observe a common pattern of boundary dissolution characterized by an undifferentiated mother-child relationship. The membrane separating the mother and child is diffuse, whereas the mother-father and father-child relationships are disengaged and easily disrupted. "Weakness in a parental membrane leads to vague generational boundaries between a parental dyad and a child [and] interferes with the developmental tasks of adolescen[ce]. . . . The child is thus deprived of experiences that accelerate his or her psychological separation from the parents and that also assist the parents in separating from the adolescent" (Kameguchi and Murphy-Shigetmatsu 2001, p. 68). Ultimately, both parents and child collude in behaviors that interfere with individuation, such as the child's staying home from school.

Interventions for Boundary Dissolution

Interventions may focus on the individual parent, the marital relationship, the family system, or the child. For example, Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy and Geraldine Spark (1973) recommend helping individual parents to resolve issues from their own childhoods so as to refrain from attempting to redress old grievances in their relationship with their children. In her work with divorcing parents, Janet Johnston (1999) averts role reversal by encouraging parents to seek sources of social support outside of their relationships with children. Family systems therapists, in turn, focus on strengthening the parental coalition so as to help parents get their needs met in the marital relationship or else attempt to directly change the dynamics of the parent-child relationship. Boyd-Franklin (1989) uses Minuchin's (1974) family systems approach as an intervention for boundary dissolution in the African-American family, as does Kameguchi (1998) in the Japanese context. For example, in the case of the multigenerational family, a new alliance of executives can be fostered between the grandmother and her daughter that encourages the grandmother to support her daughter's learning to be an effective parent. In the case of the parentalized child in a single mother household, the goal is to allow the child to continue being helpful to the mother, but to return the child to the sibling subsystem in which he or she can exercise a developmentally appropriate level of leadership and junior executive power. Using strategic family therapy techniques, Helen Coale (1999) describes techniques for countering boundary dissolution such as creating rituals that shift parents and children into more appropriate roles. In turn, individual work with children can provide better coping strategies that de-triangulate the child from parental or interparental problems (Kerig 2001a). In psychoanalytic treatment, Marolyn Wells and Rebecca Jones (1999) provide a corrective emotional experience to help adults who were parentified as children to overcome their shame, defensiveness, difficulty tolerating interpersonal disappointments, and compulsion to recreate in the present the kinds of relationships they experienced in the past.

See also:Attachment: Parent-Child Relationships; Boundary Ambiguity; Development: Self; Family Diagrammatic Assessment: Genogram; Family Systems Theory; Parenting Styles; Separation-Individuation; Therapy: Family Relationships; Therapy: Parent-Child Relationships; Triangulation


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patricia k. kerig

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