CYC-Online 138 AUGUST 2010
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Boundary management: The key to preventive work

Alistair Lindsay (1977)

For children who are emotionally disturbed, membership of a small group working within clearly defined boundaries may succeed where other forms of intervention have failed.

Why does group work so often fail with disadvantaged young people? Why do we find “they won’t come,” or “they stopped coming”, or “they upset everyone else”? I suggest this is not because group work is inappropriate but because the form it takes has not been adapted to the particular needs of the group members. For children who are very emotionally deprived it is difficult to begin to meet their needs without limiting and controlling the dynamics within and around the group to manageable proportions. Boundary management is a skill which helps to achieve this.

This article describes the particular form boundary management takes in the Eastern Ravens Trust in Stockton on Tees. Established 16 years ago, the Trust is independent but its support from the local authority includes the salary of a full-time worker. It operates through the use of groups, and possible members are identified by schools and the social services department. This liaison continues during the life of the group. The group work, carried out by voluntary leaders, is preventive and therefore long-term and is designed to meet the needs of the most emotionally deprived young people (probably between 10 per cent and 15 per cent of the young population). Small groups of six to eight boys or girls are formed before the children reach the age of 12, sometimes much younger. They meet weekly and continue for at least five years. Over the years we have set up 14 groups, six of which are currently in operation. Two of our group leaders were previously group members.

Principles and method
The group work method is based on principles of acceptance, self-determination, controlled emotional involvement, individualisation and being non-judgemental. These principles require that the group leaders operate on the young people’s terms rather than their own. All the institutional provisions that the young person has experienced so far (e.g. school, family, social services, youth clubs etc.) operate on their own institutional terms, making enormous emotional demands with which the emotionally deprived child is unable to cope. These demands are not only strong but are frequently in conflict with each other: demands within the family often conflict with each other, and home demands may conflict with demands of the school.

The leader must become familiar with these demands if he is to help the individual to cope better with them, and home visiting and liaison with schools and social services therefore form an important part of the method. Group and individual activities form the main vehicles for building relationships and enabling emotional growth to occur. The remaining ingredients have to do with boundary management around the formation of the group and the operating of the group during its dependency phase – usually the first two or three years of its life.

Boundary management
To demonstrate the need for boundaries, let us consider a family on whom I used to call at 8.30 a.m. to help the seven children, all chronic truanters aged between six to 13, to get to school. The children would creep one by one into the living room. One would open the cupboard to be enveloped in an avalanche of clothes. Each child might or might not find his clothes. They might or might not be clean. The food cupboard might or might not be empty. At school the child might or might not be late and might or might not get the cane. At lunch time Mam might or might not be at home and so on.

Each “might or might not” represents a missing boundary. Eastern Ravens job is, on group nights, to replace these “mights or might nots” by “wills”, not in the compulsory sense but in the predictable sense. For example: “you will be a member of this group"; “the group will meet every Wednesday"; “you can be as naughty as you like, you will always be welcome”.

Harry, a member of this family, was 12 and had been a member of my group for two years. He was very emotionally deprived. His needs to love and be loved, to belong, to feel important and to feel that someone understood his problems had been met only very slightly. For Harry to grow emotionally and for his identity to strengthen, the forces which have been preventing emotional growth need to be replaced by those which will help. This means replacing unpredictability by predictability, failure by success, confusion by clarity and inconsistent treatment by consistent treatment.

Group leaders see members for only a few hours each week, mainly at group meetings. It is vital to take every opportunity to maximise group conditions which will help emotional growth and to minimise those which won’t. Major opportunities present themselves when the group is being formed and throughout the dependency phase (usually until the children are 14 and not less than two or three years). These opportunities are to identify, create and maintain certain critical boundaries around the life of the group.

Forming the group
As a new group is formed a number of decisions have to be made. Should it be just boys, just girls or mixed? What should be the size of the group, (usually between five and eight and never more than eight)? What ages are the children (usually between seven and 11 and never more than 12 years old; with no more than two years between them)? And finally what is the area from which the group members will come? In an area with a concentration of problem families, we ensure that the group members live within about 200 yards of each other. Since families know each other very well, the community becomes sympathetic to Eastern Ravens and supportive of resulting behaviour and life-style changes among group members. This is necessary to avoid alienation or reversion and our experience is that we successfully avoid both.

These decisions provide a number of fixes (or boundaries) between the group and its environment. They enable the boundaries to be clear and they reduce to a manageable level the number of dynamics within the group. Many groups founder because they try to deal with far too many dynamics at once.

Operating the group
To give the youngsters the opportunity to grow emotionally it is necessary to erect a structure around the group and maintain it rigidly; initially helping the children to adapt to it; then helping them to grow within it. The structure consists of seven key boundaries, five of which are mechanical to apply, two requiring a high degree of social skill.

Membership boundary. Once members have joined they cannot be exchanged for others. The group membership is kept constant. Compare the fixed group with the home where there is a continual change of family as relatives or neighbours or even Mam move in and out.

Leadership boundary. The leaders work only with their own group. This avoids the question, “Is he really interested in us or does he like them more ?” How many insecure children ask that question of their parents? In some homes the source of affection and being wanted is far from clear from the child's point of view. We intend that there is no doubt at all in the group.

End-point boundary. This boundary is important because it does not exist. There is no finishing time for the group. It continues for as many years as members want it to. Many children have deep anxieties about rejection. How often do they get kicked out of their own homes? We make sure that there are no grounds for anxiety about rejection from the group. The emotional significance of these three boundaries to the members, through their experience of the group becomes: “This is our group; they are our leaders; we do belong to this group; we have tested the leaders and we know that they won’t reject us”. These are all fundamental “emotional needs” issues satisfied by simple boundary management.

Time boundaries. By ensuring that the group meets at the same time on the same evening of each week, a regular, predictable and enjoyable influence is introduced into the lives of the members. This contrasts with the lack of such influences in their home environment. Their inability to capture a sense of time interferes with their ability to fit in with others and their ability to influence for themselves predictable events in their lives.

Space boundaries. It is important that the group is clear what space it has at its disposal. We achieve this in two ways: with a small clubhouse where one group on its own will use the whole building, and with a minibus. Compare clear space boundaries with the children's homes, where they often don’t know which bedroom (or bed) they will sleep in. They can’t look after their own clothes or toys because others in the family do not accept it is his drawer or his cupboard. The minibus, late at night, gives rise to feelings of warmth and security triggering some very significant discussions. Space boundaries in that situation are crystal clear.

The remaining two boundaries require a lot of sensitivity and skill to apply.

Behavioural boundaries (usually called rules). Deeply engrained in our group members is a dislike and a resentment of rules. There are probably only three rules of any real importance: don’t put yourself or anyone else in danger; don’t damage property; and don’t damage the relationship between the group and the outside world, for example damaging the fence belonging to the farmer on whose land you are camping. Any rules over and above these are likely to hinder emotional growth, and there are many silly rules which should be avoided, especially those designed to meet the needs of the leaders rather than the members, such as no running, no shouting, you must pay to get into the club, you must not wear boots, you must be on time.

Relationship boundaries. Emotional growth is maximised by establishing as close a relationship as possible between leader and member. To what extent can the leader accept the members' behaviour, or feel he has got to lay down rules, and what is his attitude to what is right and wrong? The relationship is less close if a leader finds eating habits distasteful, or if he d0esn’t allow group members to eat chips in his car, or if he believes it is in some way “wrong” for members of his group to visit his own home, or regards it as right to know group members' incomes but wrong for them to know his.

If we assume that young people who cause trouble (either to themselves or to others) form roughly one third of the young population, and if we eliminate the two to three per cent who have personality disorders and need specialised professional help, we are left with about 30 per cent of young people who have problems. The commonest cause is emotional deprivation, ranging from slight to very severe. I believe this group can be split roughly in half down the middle. The top half – the more emotionally secure half – can receive and are able to benefit from the help they can find in existing facilities such as schools, youth clubs, and sports clubs. They will be disruptive and need extra leadership attention, but normally continue to attend and gain more emotional strength from the experience.

The bottom half – the more emotionally insecure half – are quite different. If they attend these existing facilities they are usually very disruptive indeed or leave. In either case they don’t receive the help they need. Their needs cannot be met by existing facilities and it is with this group that existing facilities substantially fail. Special facilities also frequently fail unless they are structured properly. This is where group structuring and boundary management is not only relevant but essential.

If as a society we are serious about helping that group out of its “problems” orientation, I believe it essential to adopt a preventive approach. Beginning to help a 14-year-old (the peak age for court appearance) does not leave enough time to work through a dependency phase during which his emotional needs would begin to be met. Starting at that age and being successful requires individual work or intensive residential work, both of which are contrary to the broad objectives of intermediate treatment. If a preventive approach is needed, and I believe it is, this means beginning before the age of 12, working long-term with regular small groups within the community and applying rigorously the group structuring and boundary management techniques described in this article. Success with this group depends on the extent to which the boundary management thinking is applied. Where intermediate treatment groups succeed they are dealing with the top half of the 30 per cent problem group, and where they fail they are dealing with the bottom half. If we are clear about which half of the group we are dealing with, we can design group work accordingly.

I believe long-term preventive group work is more feasible than is generally realised. The main problems are identification (referral), staffing and finance. Since the peak age of referral to the educational psychological service is nine, most primary school teachers could readily identify children who are the biggest problem some three or four years before they start offending. Staffing is only possible if much greater use is made of volunteers, when the cost of running such a group can be as little as $500 per year. Compare that with the savings if only one group member is prevented from going into care.


This feature: Lindsay, A. (1977). Boundary management: The key to preventive work. Concern, 24. London. National Children's Bureau. pp. 19-23.

*This is the nineteenth in a series of chapters which the authors have permission to publish separately and which they have now contributed to CYC-Online. Read more about this program.

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