Boundaries: Setting Our Children Up for Success

By Beth Ayn Stansfield

Boundaries are essential for respecting our own and others’ needs. For children in treatment, appropriate boundaries will only enhance their recovery. Here are practical suggestions for setting up boundaries that parents can follow.

With love, understanding and kindness, parents need to be in charge to create a secure and stable environment for their child. Setting boundaries fosters an environment where children can grow in resiliency, adaptability, confidence, connection and so much more. At the same time, children will find freedom to try new things, make mistakes and develop their independence. Stephanie Dowd, PsyD, explains, “Boundaries are essentially about understanding and respecting our own needs and being respectful and understanding of the needs of others.”

Cognitive functioning

Every child is different, but experts have a clear understanding about the range of normal development and the impact that a mental illness can have on that development. We know that our brains are not fully developed until the age of 26 years. And it is only after age 12 years that a child begins to develop more abstract complex thinking skills. Add to this normal brain development the complexities of an eating disorder. These children are at a disadvantage, working with a brain that is not adequately functioning; they struggle with decision making, problem solving and emotion regulation. Parental guidance and support are even more critical during this period of recovery.

However, parents need to be alert. This needed support when establishing firm boundaries will most likely be met with resistance from the child either by way of fight or flight. Some of the hardest conversations around rules, boundaries and restrictions may turn into conflict or heated debate. Your child may even present as being logical, but you are observing behaviors or hearing things from them that stem from their intense emotions and inability to self-regulate. Keep in mind the impact of the eating disorder on brain development. Stay the course. Know that these new boundaries will help your child in a variety of ways, especially with recovery.

Establishing boundaries

As you prepare to set boundaries with your child, remember to keep the end goal in mind.  This should not be an exercise in control.  It is an opportunity to teach your child so that they will learn long-term lessons. Demands such as “do as I say” most likely yield short-term results with little carry-over. Concrete and concise expectations along with some collaboration with your child will ease the tension, strengthen the relationship and allow for growth.

Clearly identify the boundary.
Be clear with yourself about what the boundary is that you need to set. If you aren’t clear, you won’t be able to communicate your expectations.

Understand the why.

This is the motivation for setting the boundary. If you don’t have a reason, why are you putting guardrails in place?

Consider the timing

Set aside a time to talk when everyone is feeling rested, calm and free from distractions. Share in advance the purpose of the conversation so all parties are prepared.

Come from a place of love.

Start with a positive. Let them know that you care about them and their well-being. Provide a direct, clear and concise message around expectations. Work together to discuss consequences.

Start with tighter boundaries.

It is easier to loosen up tight boundaries than it is to tighten loose boundaries. Set the expectations and stay the course.

Explain the meaning of privileges.

Basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter are a given. They are not to be used as leverage. Privileges, however, can effectively be withheld or allowed. Cell phones, staying out late, use of the car are examples.

Enforce consequences (positive and negative).

Remain consistent and timely with consequences. Include both positive and negative.


It may be appropriate on most occasions to include your child in creating boundaries. Parents can request their input around consequences. Make it a teachable moment around ownership and responsibility.

Circle back.

Once the child understands the consequences, demonstrates self-control and respects the rules, loosening of boundaries can take place.

Support for the parent

Boundaries are difficult not only for the child but for the caregiver. Find someone you can talk to for encouragement and support when maintaining and enforcing the defined boundaries. Another support item is a contract.  Creating a contract keeps everyone on course with what was agreed upon.

Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Family and Caregiver Virtual Support Group
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Thursday 6pm MT 
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ERC Family and Caregivers of Adults Virtual Support Group 
Thursday 7:30pm MT
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ERC Family and Caregivers of Children & Adolescents Virtual Support Group 
Wednesday at 4pm MT
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ERC Family and Caregivers of Children & Adolescents Virtual Support Group 
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Set the stage.

Make it clear that you want to work together to build a plan. This allows for open communication.  It respects the child’s need for independence. It focuses on the positive.  It teaches exactly why rules are in place.

Develop the contract.

Target one goal at a time for ideal results. Initially, adjustments may need to be made throughout the first week of implementation due to oversights or overreaching.

Encourage involvement.

After the goal and expectations are established, encourage your child to share privileges they wish to receive. Narrow the list down to include realistic privileges that they can handle and that are appropriate for the goal.

Establish a timeline.

Schedule a regular weekly meeting to review progress. Allow ample time for the child to demonstrate success; then consider tackling the next goal.  Time will vary depending on the age of the child and the type of goal.

Although working with your treatment team is highly recommended, you know your child best. You will know what goal to identify and what boundaries and consequences are appropriate. In addition, you will want to offer extra support by identifying and removing unhealthy influences and triggers that may interfere with success.

Of course, there will be setbacks and times that your child will fail. Keep in mind that these are learning opportunities for everyone.  Reset. Revisit the contract. Make any needed revisions and continue onward.  

Whether it be verbal or by way of a contract, boundary setting is necessary for any child and during treatment it will only enhance their recovery. Locate support. Create a plan. Stay the course.

Written by

Beth Ayn Stansfield

Beth Ayn Stansfield, M.Ed. brings a unique skill-set to her role as the National Family Advocate. She has worked with educators, students and families for over thirty-five years as an educator,…

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