The Fine Line Between Freedom & Limits

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Before even becoming a parent, you probably heard that children need limits and boundaries. It is not a secret that disciplining and setting boundaries for toddlers and preschoolers is no walk in the park. When it feels like everything you say and do is met with a whine, a tantrum, or your child doing the exact opposite of what you asked, it can feel terribly overwhelming. You may ask yourself why you need to put yourself through this in the first place. Well, when children are faced with the necessity to rein in their impulse towards something they want (a new toy at the store, for instance), so they can have something they want more (a warm, happy connection with you), they learn and develop self-control. So these limits and boundaries we set for our children actually teach them to set limits for themselves and learn to control their reactions, which is otherwise known as self-discipline! This is definitely a skill we want our children to have!

However, there is a sweet spot between being permissive (low demands with high responsiveness, i.e. letting them do whatever they want) and authoritarian (high demands with low responsiveness, i.e. forcing your child to obey your every command). This ideal middle ground is when we set limits as necessary, but do so with love and  empathy. Empathy makes the limit much more acceptable to your child so he/she doesn’t resist it as much. They internalize what you are trying to teach them. It’s how you set the limit that counts.

So, how do you set a limit with empathy? First, you start with a strong, supportive connection so your child knows that you are always on their side. Look at the situation from their point of view and always offer genuine empathy that your child can feel. Resist the temptation to be punitive in any way because setting the limit and following through teaches the lesson. Anything more may backfire. Pick and choose your battles wisely–only set the limits that you really need to set. Make life more about connection and discovery rather than about limits and frustration. Saying “no” too often will undermine its meaning and your relationship.

It may seem hard at first to figure out which limits are really necessary. If you think about it, you already know the answer to this! Safety — for themselves and others — is non-negotiable. Treating others with respect is very important, although always a work in progress, as you teach your child that he/she can advocate for his/her own needs without attacking anyone else. All other rules will change over time — for example, they will have to learn to clean up their own messes and not to interrupt you mid-sentence — but if you’re seeing things from the child’s perspective, and keeping in mind what’s age-appropriate, you will know what they are ready to handle. You will also see what he/she needs — for instance, regular meals and a good night’s sleep — and be prepared to enforce your child in getting those things.

In short, just make sure that you have a wonderful connection with your child so that you can offer genuine empathy, and he/she can feel it, while the limit setting is taking place.

Here are some strategies to help…

Set clear expectations. Before you set expectations for your child, you need to prioritize which ones are most significant. Make sure the expectations you set for your children reflect your values — and consistently help your kids understand how these values govern your day-to-day decisions. Your child will be more likely to remember a small set of expectations (three to five), so start with a short list. You can also post them in your home using a combination of short words and pictures. You can even take photos of your child in various situations to remind him/her how to behave in those circumstances!

Be consistent. Both parents need to agree on what behaviors you are going to address or let go. You also need to come up with a solid plan for what you are going to do when your child’s behavior is unacceptable and stick to it. Every time. This makes it much easier, when the in the heat of the moment, to have your response ready to go when you are feeling frustrated and upset. If all caregivers are consistent (including nannies, teachers, babysitters, family members, etc.) with their responses to behaviors, it is much less confusing for your child and they will move through the unhappy phase quickly. It also helps to have your child’s school partner with you for extra support and unbiased advice.

But what happens if my child throws a tantrum in public? Respond the same way you would at home. It’s harder because you may feel embarrassed or like people are looking your way, but consistency is key! We’ve all been there.

Start early. Once you’ve established your list of expectations, start enforcing them! We often make the mistake of thinking our children are too young to understand; we end up permitting certain behaviors, which can become bad habits.

Be a role model. Young children are very observant, and they watch what their parents, siblings and caregivers do. One easy way to teach boundaries is to consistently model the right behaviors. The behaviors I expect from my child are ones that I live out myself. When your child is learning new concepts, you can reinforce these teachable moments by using words to describe your choices. For instance:

  • “I’m buckling my seatbelt because a seatbelt keeps my body safe.”
  • “I listened to Daddy while he was talking. Now it’s my turn to talk.”
  • “I’m putting away my book so it doesn’t get torn.”

But how do you control your emotions in the heat of the moment? Jenn says, “I close my eyes and count to ten. Closing my eyes helps me to calm down and shut out the world for a second so I can think. Then I can remember my consistent response and I do that versus yelling. Having that consistent response ready takes the emotion out of it.” Another suggestion is to make sure your child is in a safe space and take a minute in the bathroom, bedroom or outside for yourself. Giving yourself just a minute to breathe can make all the difference in how you react or respond to your child. Also, don’t be hard on yourself if you overreact. Kristi says, “If I feel like I haven’t responded in the way I would have liked, I verbalize that out loud. I’ll say, “I’m sorry sweetheart, mama is very frustrated right now and shouldn’t have raised her voice. I’ll try to react more calmly next time.” This shows our children that we are human, make mistakes, and are always working to better ourselves – which is all we can ask of them too. No one is perfect!

Offer choices. One of the reasons discipline can be difficult with toddlers is that at their stage of development, they are learning to assert their independence and often want to do things by themselves. Offering your child two acceptable choices allows him//her to make a decision and can dissuade them from unnecessarily pushing boundaries. This isn’t to be confused with negotiating. Keep the choices simple and straightforward. When your child is upset, they aren’t able to hear you. If you continue to talk, this may cause your child to get even more upset and subsequently you will get more frustrated. The consistent response is what is best for you and your child.

Celebrate the positive behavior. It’s easy to focus on negative behavior and forget to praise positive actions. If your child is making good choices, commend her for it and reaffirm your expectations. Make your praise sincere and frequent. You want to let your child know you see and appreciate the positive choices he makes as you guide him toward wisdom and respect for others.

What is the difference between a behavioral challenge and a possible developmental issue? When in doubt, always partner with a teacher or your trusted medical provider. Jenn shares, “I always thought one of my daughters had a behavioral issue because she never sat still — at the table, at church, while watching TV, etc. My consistent responses didn’t work. So, I finally talked to my pediatrician and she suggested I take her to a developmental pediatrician because it sounded like more than poor behavior. She was diagnosed with SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder). She has a hyposensitivity to movement which makes her crave it even more, so she just couldn’t help herself. The doctor gave us tons of tips and tools which work, but most importantly, I stopped seeing her actions as misbehavior and now look at them as a need. Now we work together on getting her the movement her body needs to focus.”

Remember, behaviors come and go. If you respond consistently, you will move through the phases more quickly and then it’s on to the next challenge! 😉 Don’t forget to give yourself a reward at the end of each day or after you’ve gone through a really hard moment. A glass of wine, a handful of peanut m&m’s, a shower alone — whatever puts a smile on your face!

For further reading check out…

Setting Limits with Toddlers: The Choices They Can’t Make

8 Tools for Toddler Discipline

Setting Limits with Young Children

These books are also some great resources…

No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame by Janet Lansbury

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting by Dr. Laura Markham

No Drama Discipline by Daniel J Siegel, M.D. & Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.