Our kids can push our buttons in all of the worst ways, and when a child has an eating disorder, it can feel impossible to impose rules and standards of behavior, because we are so focused on healing their disorder. 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.
Always check with your child’s therapist to ensure that the boundaries you are setting are appropriate given the treatment they are undergoing.
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. 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.
To be clear: 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.
What parents can and can’t do
We can’t force our child to do something (get a certain grade, be home on time, clean their room, do their laundry) but we can establish boundaries about what we will/won’t do if they do not do what we asked them to do. For example, we will not give them certain privileges, let them drive our car, drive them somewhere, pay for extra phone data, pay for driving lessons, pay for extracurricular activities, pay for a night out with their friends, etc.
Luckily, once boundaries are clearly established, we rarely need to rely on consequences like these, because clear, respectful boundaries typically are followed once it is understood that they are not up for debate.
We can’t force our child to treat us with respect, but we can clearly define what “being respectful” means to us, 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 tell them they are rude and end the conversation until we have calmed down enough to re-engage. We can commit to never yell back, argue or debate when we feel our child has been disrespectful. This boundary protects us from acting like children ourselves when our kids start to push 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.
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 part of yourself vs. the unhealthy, scarred 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 trained professional who can help you process them and move on with more clarity and strength.
Learn to be assertive
Most of us, especially women, do not learn how to be assertive. Assertiveness is a critical skill in establishing healthy boundaries and, when it is not practiced, we often fall back on instinctual aggressive or passive-aggressive behavior with our children, which are 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. 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.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.
She’s the editor of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.