“Ever since the eating disorder showed up, I feel like I can’t set healthy boundaries with Vaughn,” says Juliet. “It just seems as if he’s so fragile, and I’m walking on eggshells all the time.”
This is a common challenge. After all, boundaries are essential parenting skills. But when a kid has an eating disorder, it can feel as if imposing our will is fraught with danger. “What if setting a boundary triggers eating disorder behaviors?” asks Juliet. “What if my boundaries make the eating disorder worse? I just can’t deal with the risk.”
These are understandable fears. Setting and holding family boundaries when there’s an eating disorder is often hard for parents. But maintaining healthy boundaries with our children, especially when they are in treatment for an eating disorder, is a critical element of raising strong, healthy humans.
Even though boundaries are a critical parenting skill, very few of us are explicitly taught how to do it or are even told how important boundary-setting is. Establishing boundaries is time-consuming, difficult, and energetically and emotionally taxing on parents.
What typically happens
Typically what I see parents do is swing between permissiveness and over-correction. This is frustrating for everyone. Rarely do parents who swing back and forth on boundaries feel good about their parenting. And it’s not helpful to kids either. The truth is that our kids desperately need boundaries from us. Healthy boundaries are particularly important when there’s an eating disorder.
The secret is to set boundaries, hold them consistently, and allow kids to have a negative reaction. The mistake most parents make is trying to get kids to like the boundaries we set. But that’s simply unrealistic. It’s also unnecessary. Kids don’t have to like our boundaries for them to improve our kids’ safety and security.
Most parents are afraid that setting boundaries will hurt their relationship with their child. But in fact, setting firm and compassionate boundaries will deepen your connection with your child.
It often seems much easier to give in and let our children have their way. But despite the difficulty, the long-term effects of having firm boundaries with your children will make life much easier and more fulfilling for your entire family.
What are boundaries?
Having clear boundaries means that you have defined what you are willing to tolerate and have communicated this clearly and consistently. Boundaries mean that you set your expectations for how your child will behave, what you will accept and will not accept, and you stick to those expectations without debate.
Boundaries are not the same as rules. The difference is that boundaries are about the behaviors that we are willing to tolerate as parents. They are even more important than rules, because every year, our children outgrow our ability to control their behavior. The fact is: we can’t control our growing kids, we can only control ourselves.
A violation of your boundaries should never result in a loss of love and admiration for your child. In fact, healthy boundaries are set with the explicit understanding that you love your child no matter what they do, but you do have preferences about their behavior. This may seem like a fine line, but it is critical. Nothing is more important to a child than your unconditional positive regard, no matter what they do.
This is why healthy boundaries are so helpful when your child has an eating disorder. It’s a way to show your child that you love them enough to set and hold healthy boundaries and tolerate your child’s feelings about them.
Force vs. influence
Rules are about force, but boundaries are about influence. We can’t force our child to do something. We can’t force them to get a certain grade, be home on time, speak respectfully, or be nice to their sister. Boundaries are about telling our kids what we expect and focusing on how we will respond when our boundaries are violated.
The best way to enforce boundaries is to talk about them a lot. Most of us say something once and then expect our kids to follow through. But that’s not how boundaries work. Think of it like a fence between you and your neighbors’ house. Your neighbors are great, but the fence helps keep their Golden Retriever off your lawn. You don’t put it up one day, show your neighbors, and then take it down. That wouldn’t make sense. The fence has to stay up in order to work.
Similarly, you have to repeat your boundaries in order for them to work. You should regularly mention your boundaries. When your child breaches a boundary, you need to talk about it. Don’t throw your hands up and either ignore it or criticize them. Just remind them of your boundary.
Believe me. This is often enough to keep the boundary in place. We forget that the power of relationships lies in our everyday actions. Very little about relationships is about a one-time event. Influence is something we need to nurture.
What parents can and can’t do
In some cases you may need to go beyond words. For example, you may need to establish physical boundaries like not giving them the keys to your car, giving them a cash clothing budget, or removing their phones at bedtime. Physical boundaries are perfectly acceptable. Just remember to talk about it, don’t debate it, and allow your child to not like your boundary.
Luckily, once boundaries are clearly established, they get easier. We’re afraid people won’t like us when we set boundaries, but in fact people respect us when we set and hold boundaries.
Speaking of respect … we can’t force our child to treat us with respect, but we can clearly define what “being respectful” means to us. We can define how we expect to be treated and explain what we will do when we sense disrespect. For example, if our child talks back to us or speaks rudely, we can remind them that we expect them to speak with kindness to us. And if they won’t do that, we can leave the conversation. Then later we’ll circle back and talk to them about the importance of kindness.
Doing this requires us to maintain healthy boundaries with ourselves, too. We must commit to never yell back, argue or be rude when we feel our child has been disrespectful. This boundary protects us from acting like children ourselves when our kids start to push our buttons.
Get a life
A key part of establishing boundaries is making sure that we have a defined sense of our own identity. It’s impossible to establish boundaries if we have no sense of who we are as a person, separate from the ones we love.
It’s so easy to get caught up in our childrens’ lives and forget to nurture our own needs. We love them so much and get so much out of them, but it is to our detriment if we also fail to identify what we need for ourselves. We need to have hobbies, passions, and friends who help us develop as individuals outside of parenthood.
We need to have expectations about how we want to be treated. And we need to actively decide how we choose to treat our loved ones.
Many parents, especially mothers, find they stall in their self-development with the birth of their children, but we must make it a priority to continue growing and pursuing our dreams. We cannot be whole people if we always live through others, and, frankly, it’s just too much pressure for kids when they realize that they are the central figure in their parents’ lives. It’s understandable, but unhealthy to be wrapped up in our children at the expense of our selves.
Work out your problems
When setting boundaries, it’s important to determine what is important to you, and to separate the actions you are taking from the healthy, adult, parent part of yourself vs. the unhealthy, more childlike part of your psyche.
Very few adults don’t have some emotional scars that they live with. These scars can be fine if our children grow along typical paths, but if we have a child who has problems, like an eating disorder, then we need to take some time to reflect on how our scars may be impacting our ability to parent.
Parents who have trouble setting healthy boundaries with their children often have scars in their background that require healing. Whether you suffer from insecure attachment with your own parents, experienced trauma as a child, or struggle to manage your anger, it is a good idea to work these issues out with a coach or therapist who can help you process them and move on with more clarity and strength.
Learn to be assertive
Assertiveness is a critical skill in establishing healthy boundaries. When it is not practiced, we often fall back on instinctual aggressive or passive-aggressive behavior with our children, which is not healthy for anyone involved. Here is what each of these three styles looks like:
Aggressive: I can’t believe you forgot! The whole house stinks now!
Passive-Aggressive: I guess I just can’t count on you to do anything around here. (SIGH!) I guess I’ll just take care of it (SIGH!).
Assertive: When you forget to take out the trash, I feel frustrated, because it seems as if you aren’t participating in the household. Please take it out now.
When you make an assertive statement like the one above, you are communicating your boundary clearly and non-defensively. You are letting your child know how their behavior impacts you, and you are making a direct request.
Heads Up: The most common response to an assertive statement is that your child will try to engage you in a fight. This would distract you and beat you down, which would let the child off the hook for bad behavior.
Don’t fall for it!
Just repeat the assertive statement calmly and consistently, no matter what your child says back. It can be very difficult but pays off in magical dividends when your child begins to learn that when you make a request, you expect them to follow through on the action.
Learning to be assertive takes time and patience, but the more assertive you are with your needs, the more respect you will get automatically from others in your family. With assertive boundaries, we can abandon the need to nag, yell, or cajole our children.
Checking back in with Juliet
Juliet recognized herself immediately as someone who swings between being aggressive and passive aggressive. “I feel like a bad parent almost all the time,” she says. “But nobody has ever explained it to me quite like this before.” While it’s hard to set boundaries when your child has an eating disorder, it’s also healthy to have boundaries.
She’s still nervous about triggering the eating disorder, which I understand. I encouraged Juliet to check in with Vaughan’s treatment team and, as I suspected, they wholeheartedly support Juliet in establishing clear and compassionate boundaries. “They were so relieved when I said I was going to work on this,” she says. “After all my worries, it turns out that it’s something they really want me to do for Vaughan’s sake!”
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders. She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery.