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To the Limit

How to set behavior boundaries— and enforce them

As a young teenager, Jennifer Erp’s son Braden loved to ride the train at the mall. But when the train malfunctioned one day, Erp was reminded of the challenges of setting appropriate boundaries for a child with developmental disabilities—like her son, who has autism.

“Braden started screaming right there in the middle of the mall, and no matter what I said, he wouldn’t stop,” the Plano mom recalls. “For the next 30 minutes, I just stood there while he screamed and screamed.”

Erp admits she is still honing how she communicates boundaries to her son, now 18. Until recently, Erp would let his tantrums happen, refusing to leave restaurants or events whenever Braden threw a fit.

“When children exhibit challenging behavior, there is something occurring in the environment that reinforces those behaviors,” says Kristi Cortez, a behavior analyst at the University of North Texas’ Kristin Farmer Autism Center. This could be a pattern of behavior they see in their siblings or on TV, or simply a behavior that is going uncorrected—like Braden’s tantrums.

“Once they figure out what is reinforcing those behaviors, parents can begin to set boundaries and teach them another way to communicate what they need or want,” Cortez explains.


Setting boundaries is crucial for a happy and healthy relationship with your child, says Nagla Moussa, president of Moussa Autism Consulting.

“A lack of boundaries and structure might cause your child more stress and feelings of being out of control,” she says. “Make the rules and boundaries as concrete as possible, use simple language and no more than two or three steps at a time.”

Moussa explains that breaking down a request such as “Don’t yell” by repeatedly explaining why it’s important not to yell goes a long way toward rectifying the behavior.

For Erp, being intentional about how she communicated boundaries meant getting accustomed to the language that developed between her and Braden. Phrases like “That’s too bad,” for example, reinforce her position that something is the way it is so it’s inappropriate to protest. Repeating these key phrases is essential—and Moussa agrees.

“Following boundaries is like learning to ride a bike,” Moussa says. “It takes practice and repetition: Your child may fall off several times, and you have to be patient and loving.”


When boundaries are breached, Erp believes in “finding their currency of the moment”—in other words, discerning which toy or activity your child cares about the most, then taking it away.

“Currently, Braden’s currency is his iPad,” she says. “If he ignores what I ask, then I take away that currency momentarily.”

Moussa believes in using “currency” as a reward too.

“Use a token system and reinforcers (favorite outing, favorite toys, favorite entertainment) to reward your child for following the rules and doing chores,” she says. But, don’t assume he or she will immediately pick up on the nuances of a changed routine.

“If there is a change in routine, let your child know in advance and remind your child of the behavior expectations,” Moussa advises.

Plano mom Jeanmarie Beno, whose son Joseph, now 21, has autism, set the same expectations for her typical children as she did for Joseph.

“The rules, consequences and punishments were the same for him as they were for his siblings,” Beno says. She believes this consistency played a big part in Joseph’s ability to learn good behavior over time.

Think Small

If your child’s problems persist despite clear expectations and repetition, Nadia Suckarieh, a behavior analyst at Hope Center for Autism in Fort Worth, says to keep trying—and think small.

 “If parents try to target all the behavior issues, they will get overwhelmed and it can be a frustrating experience for them and their children,” Suckarieh explains. “Look at what is doable or most important to their family and lifestyle, and start with small goals. Once the child masters a small goal, parents can build on this and teach them the next step.”

Erp’s relationship with Braden is proof that starting small works.

“It can still get overwhelming,” she says. “But if you keep trucking and embrace your successes, you will find your groove.”