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My father isn't respecting my personal boundaries.

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Halia asks:

My father and I don't have the best relationship but he continually forces me to give him hugs, kisses, etc. even after I say no. It really bothers me, even if it is just a kiss on the cheek. He also comes in my room a lot (without knocking) and lays down in my TWIN size bed with me and wont leave even after I tell him to get up. I don't know what to do anymore and I don't feel like I can trust him anymore because he never respects what I want to do. What should I do about this?

Heather Corinna replies:

As we go through childhood and our teens, our boundaries tend to change.

It's typical for young people growing up to want increasing privacy and also to have an expanding personal space bubble: to want your family and other people close to you to support you feeling like your body is absolutely your own, and that it's not touched without invitation or permission. When you were little, you might have been more open to hugs and kisses, or to a parent being in your bed. It's normal that as you grow older, though, you'll tend to feel differently. That's both sound and smart: having our own boundaries and expecting them to be respected is part of how we keep ourselves safe in the world.

It's so important that parents are sensitive to all of that, aware of it and are adjusting their own behavior to account for these changes as they happen. Good parenting involves respecting the personal space of one's children, whatever their age, respecting childrens' stated boundaries but also includes parents teaching their children about their right to boundaries -- both with parents and with everyone else -- through their own behavior with their children. We all first learn about boundaries at home, so if they aren't respected for us there, we can often have a hard time asserting them in other places and relationships in our lives.

It's tough for me to have a clear sense of what's going on here without a bigger picture of your household and family as a whole; without knowing what your overall family and household dynamic is like, what your childhood has been like, what kind of parents your parents are. So, I'm going to explain some basics briefly on this issue, and then give you a few different options to consider. Which is right for you will really depend on the big picture, something I don't know, but which you certainly do.

A parent smooching on you or demanding that of you when you say no is not healthy, and it's not any more healthy when a child is three than when they're 13 or 23. A parent who isn't knocking on a closed door before they come into a young person's room isn't being respectful of that person's privacy. A parent laying down in bed with you when you've made clear that's not okay with you just isn't okay. Those ways of behaving just aren't recognized as being healthy or sound ways of parenting by many people. They aren't sound in any kind of relationship, and family relationships are not an exception.

At the same time, many parents learned how to parent only from their parents. In other words, a lot of how people parent is often either an imitation of what they learned parenting involved from their parents, or a reaction to how they were parented. So, some parents earnestly just may now know about the kinds of things I mentioned above and understand those are parts of sound parenting. A lot of people have grown up with a lack of good boundaries in their homes. It may be that this is how things were in your father's house growing up, and he just doesn't get that while that was what went on there, it's not what should be going on here.

Ideally, it shouldn't be up to children to let their parents know how to parent, but your communication with them is part of the learning process with any parent. It's always good to remember that a parent is always in the process of learning how to parent, and that that can also be a bit different with any given child, since all people aren't the same.

It sounds like someone needs to get the message through here, though, and you could be the best person to do that if your relationship is generally healthy. So, if you haven't already, a first step is to ask your father if you can talk with him, and then to tell him, calmly and plainly, all of that you have said here. You might try laying it out something like this:

Hey, Dad? I don't mean to hurt your feelings, but I need more personal space than you're giving me. I feel uncomfortable when you make me hug or kiss you at times I don't want to, when you don't knock before opening my door and when you get into my bed. It makes me feel like my privacy isn't respected, and also like I can't have any personal space or boundaries about my own body, all things I need to feel comfortable, just like you probably do. It's not that I don't love you or don't like being close to you, I just need some space. I feel like not having it is also impacting our relationship badly and making me feel like I can't trust you, which I don't like.

See how something like that goes. Listen to what he has to say. Sometimes, this can be as simple as a parent just not fully parsing that you're not the little kid you once were, or about them overstepping your boundaries because they feel like you're becoming further away from them as you grow up -- which you likely are, and that's a healthy part of development, but it can be emotionally rough on parents. Some parents take teens wanting more privacy and space personally, even though it really isn't personal or about them, it's about you and your own growth and development into your own person.

After he says whatever he does, you two can potentially just make some solid agreements around these things, like that he'll try and remember to knock, and that he won't lay down with you unless you ask him to. If he expresses that he didn't mean to overstep, but is just feeling a distance growing between the two of you, you two can perhaps come up with some ways to spend more time together that you both like and feel good about.

In the case that a conversation like that doesn't go well, or you don't feel comfortable having it with him at all, another option is to talk to another family member about it, like your mother, if she's in the household, a sibling, or an extended family member. Perhaps one of those people can talk to him about this if you don't feel able to yourself. It may be that your whole family needs to sit down and have a family meeting about this stuff, with everyone laying out their feelings, then making group agreements about needed changes so everyone feels comfortable, safe and respected.

If none of this feels doable to you, that suggests to me that this may be bigger than a parent simply accidentally or good-naturedly crossing lines. If you feel really intimidated here, if your household or your relationship with your Dad simply is unsupportive of you having personal space and boundaries that suggests an unhealthy dynamic, perhaps even a potentially unsafe or abusive one. The best expert on this is going to be you and your gut feelings: if you feel like you are unsafe in any way, or that your father is deeply crossing lines, my best advice is for you to trust that instinct. Our own feelings of personal safety -- and when we don't have it -- are meaningful.

So, if things are like that, if you don't feel at all able to have a real talk about it, if you have but your dad wasn't responsive, if reaching out to other family members about this for help doesn't feel doable or hasn't been fruitful, I'd suggest you talk to someone outside your family. Someone like a trusted teacher, a family doctor, a neighbor or maybe you have a friend who has a parent you like a lot and trust. Just identify some trusted adult to talk to and fill them in. That person can help by either being with you with your family to have this conversation, or talking to your father for you. That person can also get a good sense of what the dynamic really is here, and in the case that it is unhealthy or unsafe, can take the proper next steps to ensure your safety in your home.

I want to leave this making sure that you know that no matter your age, you are absolutely entitled to healthy boundaries and to a full ownership of your own body. Every person has the right to their own personal space, the right to basic privacy, the right not to be touched by anyone unless we want to be touched. No matter who it is, if ever someone is not respecting that, we all have the right to call that out, to uphold and insist on our need for personal space and privacy, and the right to outside help if ever anyone is refusing to honor our boundaries.

written 08 Feb 2010 . updated 21 Jan 2014

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