Setting Boundaries with Parents Who Have None


Working with children in a therapeutic setting can be very rewarding and can prevent further problems with mental health and behavioral issues down the road. Most therapists that choose to work with kids are comfortable sitting on the floor, engage easily with children and are comfortable setting boundaries around safety in the play therapy room. Engaging and setting boundaries with parents can be an entirely different ball game. And unfortunately, establishing a supportive and collaborative relationship where firm boundaries are set in place with the caregivers may be as important as your relationship with the child in order to facilitate positive change. If you are in a private practice setting, there is another layer of importance to engaging parents. Your income depends on you maintaining a caseload of happy parents, as well as children who are improving.

You and the child can do great work in the play therapy room, improving self-regulation, verbalization of feelings, and allowing for an unconditional, child-centered relationship to allow the child to process the most difficult situations and it can be completely unraveled once the child returns home for the week if they are not set up for success at home. Taking two steps forward and then one or two steps back each and every week can be disheartening for the child, caregivers and us as therapists. This is why it is paramount to engage your parents to be a helpful partner in this process. So what do you do if a caregiver to one of your kids is unwilling to make changes or is so stuck in their trauma or emotions regarding a divorce that they are not acting as your partner in the therapeutic process? What if all they are looking for is for you to provide testimony in family court that supports their beliefs about the family situation? How can we as therapists, advocates, and potentially the only objective person in the situation bring about positive change in the lives of these children?

Thorough Preparation is Key

In my twelve years of experience working with children and teens in a therapeutic setting, I have learned that the most important aspect of creating an appropriate and collaborative relationship with caregivers where boundaries are respected and maintained starts before your first interaction. It is important to have a clear understanding of your scope of practice, what you are or are not willing to provide for families, the laws around decision-making and custody in your state, the laws of age to consent to mental health services in your state, and the policies and procedures for your practice or the agency you work for before you call that parent back to set up an initial session. If you are not clear in your own mind of these things, you are more likely to set up a relationship where you have to back track or get stuck in a situation later on.  For example, if a parent calls to get their child in for counseling with you and you do not inquire if there are any issues with custody or if any other parent shares decision making responsibilities in that initial phone call, you do not know if you are able to see that child. You are putting yourself and credentials at risk by not asking the right questions during that initial phone call. If there is shared decision making responsibilities, then you can educate the parent about the laws of your state and request the appropriate court documents to show any current orders in place. Along with having clarification in your own mind about these issues, you also have to have them represented in your initial paperwork so that you have a way to discuss all of these issues with the caregiver. It is important to have fees, policies around communication, policies around providing court summaries or court testimony (including fees), and the rights of the child in your disclosure and consent. This way, the parent has the information upfront and has signed in agreement that this is in fact how you will be running the show. And then, it’s up to you to put it into practice.


How do you engage parents and maintain this engagement even when they do not agree with you or have a specific agenda they expect from you? Even if you have started off the relationship with strong boundaries, many parents are still so stuck in their own stuff that they will test your boundaries. Working with these parents is frustrating to say the least.  You see the positive changes that the child is making in session and know that they could improve significantly more if the parent followed your recommendations or if they weren’t so focused on making the other parent look bad. Two things…continue making the recommendations that will benefit your kiddo, continue being their advocate, and document, document, document. Unfortunately in our very litigious culture, you will need to have good documentation of what was recommended and why, as well as if caregivers followed through with the recommendations. If you are ever grieved, you have everything you need documented to show appropriate care.  It can also be helpful for you to keep track of specific recommendations that were attempted, versus the ones that are not. This can inform the recommendations you make in the future.

Communication Strategies

Another area that I have consulted with many child therapists on is how to manage parents going through a conflictual divorce, specifically so that they are not being triangulated into the relationship and can continue to focus on the best interest of the child. Again, the importance of having the discussions around your policies is paramount. I typically have two separate intake sessions if I have the chance, so that I can go through the information thoroughly and so that there is not the perception that I have a better relationship with one parent or the other. I also recommend that most correspondence is done through email (if both parties agree to using email for therapeutic information after understanding the possible issues with confidentiality), and that all correspondence is sent to both parties. This way there is less possibility for he-said-she-said concerns about what your recommendations are. I stick to this policy unless there is a significant safety concern or if there is a no-contact or restraining order in place between parents. I ask that caregivers put the other parent on any emails sent directly to me, however this boundary is always broken. I have already let parents know that anything I send out will go to both parents, so if they need a reply, it will get sent to both parents. If it does not need a reply, I keep the emails as documentation, reply that it is important that all emails go to both parties unless there is a safety issue, and use it as data for my own conceptualization of the case.

There are many other logistical tips that could be provided to working with difficult parents. The tip that I have found the most helpful in maintaining positive relationships with parents that I have to continually challenge or set firmer boundaries is to remember that they are human beings with their own histories. I believe that most parents are doing the best they can with what they’ve got at the time. This may not be very good at all, but there are reasons for their behavior. Remembering this allows me to be personable with them even when extremely frustrated. And remembering that you may be the only safe person in your child’s world at this moment, provides enough incentive to do the hard work of managing their caregivers.

Guest post written by Sybil Cummin, MA, LPC, ACS

Guest post written by Sybil Cummin, MA, LPC, ACS

Sybil Cummin, MA, LPC, ACS is the owner and clinical director of Arvada Therapy Solutions, PLLC. Sybil's specialties include working with children, teens and families dealing with family trauma including conflictual divorce, child abuse and neglect, sexual abuse, and domestic violence. As an Approved Clinical Supervisor, she also supervises Master's level interns and clinicians working towards licensure, as well as providing business consultation to therapists embarking on the world of private practice.

Navigating the World of Public Schools

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“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

-Nelson Mandela

As a therapist and school counselor, I would like to provide some resources for those of you who work with school-aged children. The main questions I’ll attempt to answer are: Why would you need resources; What resources might be helpful; and How would you access the resources available.

First, Why would you, as a non-school based therapist need to worry about what is happening for your client at school? Your child client likely spends a great deal of time at school. This is a very different environment from home, and children’s behavior sometimes looks quite different between the two settings. For example, a child may be described as displaying difficult, acting-out behaviors at home but quiet and well-behaved at school.

There are also plenty of cases where a child might not display any distressing behaviors in the home environment but is struggling at school. You may get children referred to you because of their school behavior, so in that case you would have an easier time treating your client by finding out first-hand about the school and child’s experience there.

Even if school does not appear to be the issue for your client, it can be helpful to find out about their experience of their school environment and what is working well. This gives a more complete picture for you as you set out to determine best practices for working with them.

Through my years of work in schools, I have seen a variety of behaviors. There are some patterns of behaviors to look out for because they happen more frequently for some individuals in schools. For example, staff tend to grow alarmed when they see children running out of the classroom, throwing objects (sometimes very large such as desks and sometimes in a dangerous way such as at other people), and yelling or causing general disruptions or defiance within the classroom. Other common concerns include children who do not speak at all, who sleep during the class day, and those who hide under desks. Social skills are put to the test in a major way at school, so this is another area where some children get identified as having concerning behavior. This could include sexualized or aggressive behavior towards other students.  

For middle school students, behavior may include a greater frequency or intensity of defiance and aggression within the classroom or with peers. Suicidal ideation and other mental health concerns may be noticed more as the child grows older. In high school, mental health concerns may become a more common factor causing children to seek treatment with you.  

At any level, children who act out and externalize their feelings with uncontrolled body movements and/or verbalizations will more likely get noticed. Adults may not so easily recognize the needs of students who internalize their feelings and do not act out.

When school staff or parents are at a loss for what to do, they often turn to therapy in the hopes that this could help change a child’s behavior. Sometimes, they are at a loss to explain the child’s behavior and are hoping the therapist will be able to uncover the true secrets as to what is going on with the child. This is where you might get involved.

As an outsider to the school community, there are some helpful things to keep in mind as you are working with the child and family. A child’s behavior is a function of his or her environment, so it will help you to get to know the child’s school for yourself. For example, some school staff or faculty have a pattern of engaging in power struggles with students, but this is likely not the information you will receive just by talking to the adults in the child’s life. You will have to dig deeper by looking at data or making your own observations at the school. Through this kind of investigation, you might find the true reason for the child’s behavior really has to do with someone else’s behavior. Finding out this information will give you a better chance at coming up with effective interventions that align with your client’s experience.

This leads us to the next question topic: what information might you look for within the school setting?  Some basic questions you might do well to ask include the following:

  1. What is the child’s behavior at different points throughout the day? There are grids that staff use to denote what a child was doing every 5 or 10 seconds for a 20 minute period. That child’s behavior is compared to a variety of peers and what they are doing at the same time as the client. If this is done at a variety of times, subjects, and settings, it can give you good information about potential reasons for your client’s behavior. Ask someone at school if you can have a copy of this information or if the information hasn’t yet been collected, see if they would be willing to do so.
  2. After identifying a particular behavior you want to learn more about, find out what happens just before the behavior occurs (antecedent) and what happens just after (consequence). This may inform you as to why the child is behaving as s/he is. For example, many times in school settings a child is inadvertently rewarded for behavior that the school staff actually wish to extinguish. Examples of this include when a child leaves the classroom, they might be allowed to go to a different setting, spend time with a preferred adult, or not be required to do the classroom work; or, if a child makes noise or otherwise disrupts in the classroom, perhaps they receive attention from staff or students.
  3. What are the goals that the child has and how do those goals compare to the goals of school staff and caregivers? If you are able to speak to staff at the school where your client attends, you could learn a lot about what is working well and where some potential difficulties are arising just by talking to people and gathering anecdotal information.

If you work exclusively outside of a school setting, you may be wondering how you would go about navigating the system to get the information you are looking for. One good place to start would be with your client and/or their caregivers. Ask them to set up a meeting between you and school personnel so that you can begin getting to know the people in your client’s school environment.

Once you build relationships with some school staff, you could ask for some help gathering the more time-intensive data that is involved in tracking a student. If the student’s behavior is especially troublesome for the school, they likely will already have this type of data on hand as it is required for moving forward in a process of getting a student more intensive resources.

In your efforts to help a client make changes in their life, gathering more information about their experience in the school setting will better inform you and your practices. It will take time, but may well hold some keys as to what is really motivating your client’s behavior. In that way, learning more about your client’s school setting can be well worth the extra time and energy you put into it.

Guest post written by Jenny Pelo, MA, LPC, NCC

Guest post written by Jenny Pelo, MA, LPC, NCC

Jenny Pelo, MA, LPC, NCC is a school counselor and community-based therapist in the Denver area. She has worked with children and adults at a variety of ages and developmental levels. She enjoys helping others heal from trauma and finding meaning in their lives. Spending time outdoors, rock climbing, and being involved with a meditation community bring her great joy in her own life.