“Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins..."
Questions about personal boundaries take center stage when sibling sexual trauma is disclosed, at any age. By definition, the survivor’s boundaries have already been severely violated. This is the center of a whole web of boundary issues. In some cases, insufficient or inappropriate boundaries in the family were a contributing factor towards the sexual trauma. Now there are endless questions of who needs to know what, and who wants to tell what to whom. New guidelines are needed for physical space and physical contact. Many parents find themselves caught in the middle of this web, at a loss for how to navigate it.
A family who has been affected by sibling sexual trauma will have to be especially careful about boundaries. They can no longer look to the families around them for guidance on how to navigate the logistics of family life. Everything from who sits where in the car, to what is posted on social media, to who is going to Grandma’s holiday celebration needs to be re-examined. It is worth it to devote time to understanding, redefining, and thinking through boundaries. The work of Cloud and Townsend is a good place to start. (Note: Cloud and Townsend are a pair of psychologists who write from a Christian perspective, but whose general framing and understanding of boundaries have been widely applied.)
A few tips on where to begin:
Err on the side of too many boundaries.
Put the survivor’s requested boundaries above all others.
If in doubt, don’t share information with other family members or friends. You can always tell more later, but once you’ve said something, you can’t take it back.
Ask your children what mode of communication they prefer, and respect that.
Respect the decisions of adult children.
When sharing information about younger children, particularly online, keep in mind that they will become teens and adults soon. Err on the side of protecting their future privacy.
Skilled therapists, who exist outside the family’s web, can help guide family members toward appropriate boundaries. This is one reason that finding good individual and family therapists should be a top priority after disclosure of sexual trauma. Unfortunately it can be very hard to find a specialized therapist in this area and it may take time, but it's worth it to keep trying.
Social workers are often given the task of setting and/or enforcing boundaries for a family. Ideally, social workers, therapists, and parents would work together to develop safety plans and guidelines around mental, emotional and physical boundaries. In practice, this coordination tends to be limited by lack of time, training, trust, or by logistical issues.
Whenever possible, therapists and social workers should treat sibling sexual trauma as a family issue. Ideally, each individual would have their own therapist, each with a release to coordinate with a family therapist who brings together the family in an appropriate way. When this ideal is not met, parents or courts or social workers have to make decisions about boundaries, with limited information.
Learn more about boundaries in Cloud & Townsends's Boundaries Books.
Example for Parents: What Do You Mean “Boundaries”? Blog by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend
Boundaries and Therapy
Therapists bring their own set of boundaries. Many therapists who specialize in sexual abuse set even stricter boundaries than legally necessary with child or teen clients, in order to protect the child’s emotional safety and gain the confidence necessary to provide theraputic change. Most children do not feel comfortable sharing information with their parents about awkward subjects or personal information. This is normal; it does not mean you are a bad parent.
Therapists in the US are bound by HIPPA medical privacy guidelines, which are intended to protect the client. However, the HIPPA laws can restrict information flowing from therapists to parents, starting when children are as young as 12. But parents can still give information to a therapist when the child is any age, even an adult. For example, a parent who has noticed worrisome behavior in their child can and should report that behavior to the therapist. The therapist can use the information to inform their care, but will be bound by HIPPA mental health rules on whether they can give any response or advice to a concerned parent.
If the child is a minor, parents do need enough information to guide them on how to relate to the child, how to support the child in healing, what changes may need to happen in the family overall. How this is handled will depend on the age of the child and the overall situation.
Parents of a child who is legally an adult (18 or over) can request their child to sign a release allowing their therapist to disclose some information, the extent of which would be outlined in the release. At the most basic level, if a young adult child is on the parents’ insurance, a release may be needed simply for the office to contact the parents regarding billing. A step further would be the ability to discuss information regarding family boundaries. Releases are given for a specific time, up to a year, and can be changed or revoked at any time.