Long before an eating disorder entered our lives good boundaries were important to me. They were something that I observed as a child and this carried with me into adulthood. I have tried to impart them to my children over the years and insisted that they be observed in our home. Never was I so grateful for this than when our son became ill with an eating disorder. These boundaries were very helpful to his recovery and to the recovery of the rest of us as well.
When I refer to boundaries, it is a bit of a broad term for me. Boundaries are more than just rules of behavior. That is important and certainly where things begin, but many things flow from setting a foundation of good boundaries. Good boundaries set the stage in many areas of our lives. They teach us how to control our behavior, they teach us appropriate communication skills, they teach us to love and respect others, they teach us to love and respect ourselves, to have healthy relationships, how to lead and how to take direction, conflict resolution, and humility. They help us develop a strong sense of self. Boundaries help us to properly read people and situations. If we know what appropriate boundaries are we readily recognize when they are absent. Parents with good boundaries set a very good example for their children.
In the chaos of an eating disorder, boundaries can be blown to pieces. The eating disorder loves nothing more than to completely undo any boundaries that are in place. The constant whirlwind, disorganization, conflict, and confusion that they cause can dismantle boundaries and make you wonder if they ever existed. They make everyone in the house feel disorganized and anxious and that is the goal.
The most obvious boundary we all think of is behavioral. In my house there have always been rules for behavior. They included normal house rules regarding bedtime, TV time, curfew, etc., but they also included rules for speaking, resolving conflict, and relating to each other. We certainly have had our share of angry outbursts, disobedience, sibling rivalry, arguing, and the like. It was made clear that this was to be the exception and not the rule. My children are not spoken to disrespectfully by their father and I and I don’t tolerate disrespectful speech in return. Throwing things, swearing at us, screaming things that are intended to be hurtful, lying, deception, etc., have always been met with consequences and the eating disorder would not change this. I do not personally subscribe to the philosophy that the eating disorder is to be treated as a separate individual with separate rules and expectations. The messages that my son received from the eating disorder were certainly distorted and I am fine with the idea that they drive his behavior regarding his inability to eat or his drive to over exercise, body image, and the like. I am fine with the fact that irritability, anxiety, and depression would come along with that. I was not fine with extending that to becoming an excuse for any and all unpleasant behavior. That, to me, is a slippery and dangerous slope, especially in the presence of his brothers and sisters who were watching very closely. If I am expecting my son to follow the rules for his recovery and be present at meals: three meals and three snacks, no exercise, no exceptions, I also expected that to apply elsewhere and I was not willing to make exceptions there either. I did not believe that my child could learn to behave appropriately and effectively in the situations outside of our home which he would most certainly encounter (work, social settings, relationships, college, etc.) if this was not taught inside our home. Things were not mechanical or cold. Expression of feelings, even angry feelings, was encouraged. Angry outbursts occur in every home and ours was not different. There was an identified point where that would cross the line though.
Boundaries are more than just behavioral as I stated earlier. We teach our children boundaries when they see their parents work together and support each other. Parents who take their disagreements outside the ears of their children are teaching the skill of conflict resolution. They are also setting a boundary between a marital relationship and the relationship with their children. That boundary makes it clear that there is a difference in those relationships and that there are things that parents discuss that are between the parents only. That boundary teaches the child privacy, prevents splitting between the parents, and defines the hierarchy in the home.
Parents and caregivers who take time for themselves, meet the needs of their other children, and ask for help especially in the midst of the eating disorder are also teaching and setting a good example. Obviously, a parent is going to do whatever is necessary to take care of their child. That child also needs to see that the parent is taking care of their own needs as well. Asking for help, seeing the doctor, taking time out, needing some time alone are all good examples. They are setting a limit and establishing a boundary. It teaches that the caregiver has needs as well and that those needs must be met in order to continue to be an effective caregiver. It helps teach that sense of self; that sense that you are important too. This is so difficult for eating disorder patients who are harming their bodies and whose self-esteem is often so fragile.
Boundaries are set in saying “no” or being assertive. As parents of a child suffering with an eating disorder, we are often their spokesperson. We are the advocates, the tenacious seekers of treatment, the one who speaks up and fights stigma and says no when too much is demanded of our already overburdened child. That self-respect can be taught by example in other ways too. Parents who say no to requests of additional work, volunteering, social activities that are too demanding are setting a boundary for themselves and a good example to their child.
The boundaries that were established in our home became my ally. My son was lying to me and deceiving me. He was harming his health. He was well aware that this was a violation of the boundaries that we established in our home. He understood that very clearly and didn’t feel good about this. It pricked his conscience. While I understood clearly what was driving his behavior and it was not my desire to cause guilt, we were able to talk about the fact that this was still lying and deception and that his behavior was causing harm to his body. We were able to talk about the fact that if he had to lie about this and hide from friends and family, where was this coming from? In other words, what was lying to and deceiving him? I was able to ally myself with that part of him that knew this was not Ok, at least in the context of what he had been taught throughout his life. He was able to at least acknowledge that this might be the case. If he needed to lie and deceive, he might also be getting lied to and deceived. Did it mean that he jumped up, proclaiming my wisdom and began gaining weight? Wouldn’t that be a fairy tale ending? No, he continued to struggle and things were very difficult. The small victory that I had was an ally, an opening. I was allied with those boundaries that had been in place before the eating disorder came into his life. They were still there, but they were weak and the eating disorder was strong. With time and treatment he was able to see that his lies were fueled by the lies that he was being told by the eating disorder, a disorder which had most certainly violated a boundary!
This list and these examples are by no means comprehensive. I could probably subject you to another three pages of examples and you could probably educate me with another three pages of your own. There are so many ways that this is carried out in our lives.
Our son is well into recovery and will likely continue to struggle with self-esteem issues related to his eating disorder. It is hard and I understand. He has done very well making the transition to college and is working as well. He is respected and well-received by his classmates and his co-workers and I am proud of him. It is hard though, and there are setbacks along the way. I can only hope that I have done my job teaching and setting boundaries in our home along with his dad. I am not suggesting it was or is perfect; nothing ever is, but I sincerely hope that we have laid the foundation to serve him well as he continues his recovery. I want that “sense of self” for my son and all of my children that comes with learning and living those boundaries.