Setting Effective Boundaries with Children on the Autism Spectrum

“I have a 6-year-old daughter, Kayla, with HFA. My husband and I are having a terrible time knowing when to set limits with her. She is often critical of herself (and me) …is a very sensitive child …it doesn’t take much to get her very upset and then she becomes aggressive. Sometimes I feel I’m being too hard on her and damaging her self-esteem. But other times I feel I’m not being tough enough which is spoiling her. How do I walk the fine line between too much punishment and not enough?”

Being empathetic doesn't mean always giving your high functioning autistic daughter what she wants. But when she is being refused another handful of candy, or disciplined for pushing her brother, or trying to scratch you, the limit-setting needs to be done in a firm, but very gentle, manner. Gentle boundaries coupled with empathy and flexibility will gradually help your “sensitive” daughter be less critical of you and herself.

Expand your daughter's dialogue about what comforts and what bothers her. For instance, say she doesn't like the way you put her dress on. So you try again, only this time you ask her to help direct you so that you are exchanging lots of words and gestures and, at the same time, following her general guidelines. This tends to ease the tension.

Trying too hard to get it "right," or putting the dress on her in a forceful or irritated fashion, will start a power struggle. As you build your daughter’s trust and confidence in you, she begins to see you as a colleague who can help her, rather than as an adversary out to get her.

In response to the advice above, parents often tell me they fear they will overindulge or spoil their son or daughter and worsen the demanding behavior by being so understanding. I tell them that “you can't spoil ‘special needs’ children by helping them to feel more secure. Instead, you spoil them by not setting boundaries.”

Underneath your “spoiled” daughter is a girl who thinks, "I can't get the boundaries I need. I have to push more and more and more because nothing works." But you need to set boundaries on her aggression, not on her need for comfort and security. You don't set boundaries and soothe at the same time. And you need a lot of patience (not an easy task to accomplish).

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

In setting boundaries, take advantage of your daughter's debating skills to hash-out rules, rewards, and consequences in advance together. Try to avoid surprises – and avoid throwing a temper tantrum yourself. Also, it is best to try to avoid situations where the family becomes so stressed and exhausted that you and your husband stop nurturing each other and a great deal of anger develops in the family.

Under those conditions, one parent commonly tries to overprotect the child in an anxious, hovering way, unsettling the child with needy intrusiveness. And the other parent, feeling deprived and jealous, often becomes overly punitive with the child. It's only when you and your husband have your own needs met that you can be truly gentle and collaborative in setting the required boundaries.

For young people on the autism spectrum, the general parenting-goal is to be warm, soothing, and respectful as much as possible. Meet your daughter’s inflexibility with flexibility. For example, you're helping tie her shoes. She pulls her foot away and says, "That’s too tight, stupid. That hurts my foot!" Instead of saying, "Don't talk to me that way!" …you can pause and say, "I guess your foot is a bit sensitive," as you tie her shoe one more time, saying, "Is this way better?"

At another time (when she isn't feeling so fussy), you can raise the more general issue of why she gets so angry at you and calls you "stupid" whenever you're not "perfect." Here, you can help her reflect on the fact that maybe she is being extra hard on you. As you help her see this pattern and encourage her to become more flexible, remember that she is probably being harder on herself, calling herself "stupid" or worse.

For this reason, your defensive stance (e.g., "Don’t talk to me that way!"), and then getting angry over your daughter’s spoiled, insensitive behavior not only doesn't work, but actually strengthens her rebelliousness. Whatever your daughter is doing to you, she is probably doing worse to herself. When you come down on her too hard, you may only intensify her self-criticism – and probably even self-hatred. Empathy and flexibility, coupled with quiet explanations, help her see that she is being hard on both you and herself.

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:


•    Anonymous said... Been there, did some damage to that self esteem and it took years to get it back! Good luck, every child is different, just hang in there!!
•    Anonymous said... I feel the same way. It's like groundhogs day every day with my 3 on the Spectrum. I'm so tired of it all.
•    Anonymous said... Our best line is First this then you get to do this... most times it goes like this, "First you listen and obey and go get redy for bed, then you can come back and watch 10 minutes of TV. most times it is also smaller conversations. He usually need it broken down into small small tasks. First you apoligize then you can..... do......etc etc
•    Anonymous said... remeber that asperger kids are VERY literal and consitance is one of the most important factors! We have an 8 year old who is High Functioning Autisum (Aspergers), ADHD and Anexity disorder. We are very strict with what behavior is aceptable and what is not. We have a 9 year old with no issues and what rules I have for him I have for my 8 year old as well. I think where the big difference is when my 8 year old has a tantrum I am more understanding where my 9 year old it doesnt fly. When ever Jake gets upset we very comly tell him to go to his room and get himself under control. Sometimes It takes 10 min other times he throws such a fit he falls asleep. Now we have been doing this ever sicne he was about 4 and didnt get his diagnoses until he was 6 almost 7. Once he calms down we try to talk about what happened. He got upset the other night because his brother asked for ice cream and served him self and he was man because I didnt remind him that he could have ice cream. So he comes up with the solution the next night he gets to have ice cream and his brother doesnt. I just laugh and he goes about his merry way. You have to remember when you are discussing things their perception of this will be different but hearing their side of things makes them feel better. We work with a therapist every other week on the really hard issues Like Hitting when he gets upset and yelling at teachers or adults. Remember they live in a black and white world and they do not understand gray areas. I guess the best we can do is try to teach them to reconise the gray area and maybe things will be better. Hang in there, I have found that with the strick guidelines he is much happier!!!
•    Anonymous said... This is an excellent post! I especially like: "But you need to set boundaries on her aggression, not on her need for comfort and security." The author's ideas and examples of Authoritative parenting (high warmth, appropriate discipline) are not only good for special needs children but for any parent.
•    Anonymous said... This is exactly how I used to feel, don't get me wrong I still feel feel like this sometimes. It's a tough situation to be in. One thing I have learnt is I have to be strict, otherwise it confuses my 8 year old son who has suspected aspergers. He can't think outside of the box, so if I was to tell him after he had done something wrong "don't do that again please" he wouldn't learn from it unless I give him a consequence and follow through with whatever punishment I have told him he will get the next time he does it. There was one time where I felt like all I was doing was telling him off constantly, it used to make me feel so depressed and full of guilt, but I new that I had to be strict otherwise he will grow up and think it's ok to behave badly wherever he goes. Eventually overtime it does comes right. I felt awful at first being so strict, I felt like I was knocking my child self esteem. But if I didn't follow through with what I had told my child, all it does is create mixed messages for him in an already confusing world and makes all the long term situations a million times harder to deal with because he doesn't know where the boundaries are. Things are a lot more better now and I'm so glad I stuck to my guns with my son (even though it hurt me at the time to have to be so strict) I hardly ever need to tell him off anymore and my relationship just feels a lot more calmer/closer towards my son now.
•    Anonymous said... This is my God-daughter every day. She makes big strides to have good behavior, but she has a least one meltdown a day. And then once she calms down, she gets worked up again because she couldn't control herself. The more stressed she gets, the more aggressive she gets. The more you try to correct or punish her the worse she feels. It's like a never ending spiral. *sigh* But she handles it with as much grace as possible. And I'm so proud of her, she still tries to make her own coping skills and to work on her temper. She's only 7! Great post, keep hanging in there, keep your patience, and breathe! Lol
•    Anonymous said... When my son starts to get aggressively angry, I reiterate that this conversation has ended when we start yelling. So time out, think it through and when you decide you can calmly have this conversation we will pick it back up but until then..this is going nowhere fast. Trying to be assertive without coming across demanding. Sometimes time to calm down and think things through helps my son. Not always but.. Sometimes it works.
*   Anonymous said... This is an excellent post! I especially like: "But you need to set boundaries on her aggression, not on her need for comfort and security." Your sensitive ideas and examples of Authoritative (high warmth and appropriate discipline) are excellent for all parents, not just parents of children with special needs. Well done!

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