The Impact Setting Boundaries Had in My Neurodiverse Family
As I began to fight my way back from exhaustion and burnout, one of the first things I discovered was my boundaries were pretty much nonexistent. I had not realized the importance of staying true to myself or of prioritizing my needs so I could be healthy and happy. Nor did I envision my well-intentioned actions would have such a negative impact on my relationship and family life.
After all, I was a dedicated wife and mother! How could that cause problems?
I was fortunate to be a stay-at- home mum, but struggled with feelings of guilt around not contributing to the family’s income. Consequently, I set out on a mission to be Super Mum, Super Wife and Super Human. In essence, this meant I threw away all my personal boundaries and focused on meeting everyone else’s needs and keeping my family members happy.
My needs didn’t even feature on my radar. I forgot I mattered, too.
My husband worked long hours. He had his own business, and it was all-consuming and stressful. In my eagerness to reduce his burden, I took on more and more, trying to eliminate all additional demands on him from me or our four children. I didn’t ask for help or expect him to be home for meals, bath times or bedtimes. I didn’t ask him to pick up shopping or cook a meal or to take time off when I was sick. No matter what arose, I convinced myself I needed to cope.
Our eldest began to struggle with school, his mental health deteriorated and his ability to stay regulated dropped. Anxiety spread like wildfire through the family until everyone was struggling. Labels were handed out and neurodiversity became part of our family story. Now, I had an extra mission: To find my way through the maze of the special educational needs system and to understand a whole new culture of neurodiversity. And it was lonely. And hard on my own.
But it still didn’t occur to me I needed to ask for help.
I became hypervigilant, constantly looking out for triggers and trying to anticipate everyone’s needs. I began to feel like a traffic warden as I tried to keep the children apart and reduce the clash of emotions that escalated instantly into difficult behavior.
When I did eventually ask for help, I discovered I had effectively made my husband redundant from his role in the family. By not holding boundaries, I had made myself indispensable. I felt like a virtual single parent of four children, none of whom were OK.
By this point, I was finding it difficult to function. Taking a break felt impossible. I felt my only answer was to take medication to allow me to continue on the treadmill. I wasn’t getting enough sleep, I felt constantly sick and I was exhausted.
Sulking became my way of communicating my unhappiness. Walls were built. Resentment moved in. Exhaustion, anxiety and depression became regular visitors. Naturally, the more these visitors impacted me, the less I was able to provide the sense of safety and connection my children needed.
Nobody was OK. We were a family in crisis.
I am not saying boundaries were solely to blame for this outcome. My husband was also failing to hold his boundaries around work and family life; he could have made different choices. But I do now understand why we ended up where we did, and I can see the part we both played in it. I know our lack of understanding of our differences contributed to this — his assumption I would ask for help and my assumption he should be able to tell I needed help.
To be clear, it is not the differences in our neurotypes that were the issue, but our lack of awareness around them, as well as the assumptions we made about each other.
Gradually, I started a journey to rediscover my boundaries, to decide what was OK and what was not OK. To choose what was important to me and what I could let go. To learn to identify my needs and communicate them clearly. To discover what topped up my “bucket.” To start prioritizing my well-being so I could stay well and play my unique role in the family.
Starting to hold boundaries after years of not having any is hard. Healthy boundaries include recognizing what is and what is not OK for others as well as for yourself and finding ways where no one feels their boundaries have been trampled on. But by gently shifting my focus to increase my awareness of my boundaries and my own needs, I also gifted others the possibility of doing the same.
The changes I made felt like I was causing tsunamis, but eventually the waters settled, bridges were rebuilt, communication came online. Now, we model a healthy relationship and healthy boundaries for our children. I hope they will go into adult life confident of setting their own personal boundaries, fully aware of the importance of them for their own well-being, as well as those they love.
Original photo by author