It’s important to express the limits that prevent aggressive or destructive behaviour, and express the many requests that are part of getting things done on any one day, yet it doesn’t improve their behaviour or their emotional wellbeing if we’re critical, angry, harsh or punitive. In fact, the opposite is true because the more forceful a parent is, the more they give permission by way of modelling that it’s acceptable and even necessary to be controlling, critical, yell, reject or isolate, or withhold “privileges”.
But how can a parent set limits while maintaining positive regard and respect for their child? If you find yourself reiterating the same information, be it a limit or a request or a question and they’re not engaging, it’s your cue that emotional support and connection is what’s needed. When we express limits, or remind our child once again of the tasks at hand, it’s our empathy and understanding of the feelings which allows them to feel safe and secure and ultimately to make their way back to feeling more grounded, connected, settled, liked, loved, seen and cared for again.
What expressing limits while also showing care for their feelings can look like: “I hear you’re upset that you can’t watch a dvd, I get it my boy – you really really wish you could watch a film – and you can’t – and that’s really hard – I know – I’m here – I’m listening and looking after you. That’s it have a big cry and let it all out.” Anger, disappointment or big cries in response to a limit are not an expression of defiance, but a genuine expression of the frustrations and grief which a limit can bring. They may not be allowed to watch tv, have that ice cream, have another story, but they should always be allowed to feel cared for in expressing their subsequent feelings. And sometimes those big cries can help a child get a lot of frustrations out of their system.
“You don’t want to put away your blocks – it looks like it feels really hard to do – I get it – *big deep sigh as you truly show empathy with your body language and facial expressions* – I’m here, I’m listening – when you’re feeling less upset I’ll help you put them all away – we’ll sing our song as we put them away – but right now you’re all full of frustration aren’t you my girl”
If your child is unhappy about your limit or request, you don’t have to back down (unless it no longer feels right or relevant, in which case you’re modelling being flexible and reasonable). But you also don’t need to demand that it happens immediately, you don’t need to force them or demand instant compliance. If you can slow down the communication, you’re likely to help your child deal with the situation much better.
(a) Check your emotional state knowing that your high stress can cause your child to feel overly pressurized and hence shut down or rebel. Breath, get centred, release that sense of urgency (save that for actual emergencies).
(b) Re-state your limit or request while showing them that you really care about the feelings it’s bringing up for them. This can largely be communicated by coming down to a child’s level, touching them affectionately and inviting eye contact. If it’s time to leave and your child refuses to respond when you ask them to put away toys or books, then you know that it’s more than the information about time that they need, they need some emotional support with the feelings they now have.
(c) Avoid constantly reiterating the request to put the toys/books back and restating that it’s time to leave, as that simply creates a power struggle where you’re both sticking with your agenda.
(d) Do show interest and care for their possible feelings, reflect what you imagine, show some empathy and show that you’re available for some nice warm connection back in the car or even as they leave; “it’s time to leave, there’s no more time to look at books, they need to go back on the shelf AND I can see that you’re finding that hard to do, aren’t you? You really wanted to look through more books didn’t you, and it’s frustrating that we’ve run out of time and need to leave. I sometimes find it hard to leave as well, so come on *showing genuine empathy with your facial expressions and tone of voice*, I’ll help (or sit here with you while) you put the books back on the shelf and how about we hold hands and run to the car.”
If you’ve become too stressed and frustrated to bring in warmth and connection, it’s possible that it’s the tension in your voice that your child is reacting to, fearing and hence causing them to disconnect from you, which invariably manifests as defiance and refusal to cooperate. Children just don’t cope when that warm connection breaks down and stress and tensions dominate the scene. Children are highly attuned to our stress levels and tend to fear disconnection or getting in trouble at such times. In such instances, being honest about your stress or frustration while relieving your child of the fear that they’re in trouble can help to diffuse the situation; perhaps share your feeling with an “I” statement; “I’m now feeling very stressed because we’re running late and I know that’s hard for you when I’m grumpy, but you’re not in trouble honey, I’m stressed because I’m in a hurry, so put the books back on the shelf and we can have some fun singing or playing “I spy” once we’re driving away.”
Once children become stressed and have some feelings they need our help with, they’re less likely to identify and express those feelings eloquently (“I’m frustrated mum and just need a hug”) and more likely to show those feelings in generally anti-social behaviour; resistant or defiant behaviour. Peaceful parenting differs from traditional approaches in that we learn to see the uncooperative behaviour to be symptomatic of their need for more than information, but as our cue to slow down, become centered and give them extra emotional warmth and support at these times rather than threatening, lecturing or becoming overly stern. When parents lose their patience and get annoyed at their child, it increases their stress, disconnects them further and leads to further resistance from them.
When you feel like yelling; stop, breathe and find a way of truly regaining a warm connection with your child. The more you take the approach of seeing their resistance as a need for increased connection, for you to slow down and become very warm and present with them, the more your child learns to identify that it’s their need to feel better emotionally that’s the real issue and they get much better at expressing that, like “I’m frustrated dad and just need a hug” instead of arguing or ignoring you.
Even when expressing boundaries, we can show a care for their feelings as well as the person, be it ourselves, who they are affecting; “I can’t let you speak to me like that, it hurts, but you do need to get your frustrations out. You can say “I’m angry mum” or “I don’t like when you speak to me like that dad”, or you can stomp your feet, or push against my hands or tear up these old newspapers”.
It can help to remember that children don’t want to make our already stressful life more difficult for us, they simply can’t manage uncomfortable feelings and hence often can’t manage their tasks and chores without our emotional support. If all they need is the information; what to do, what not to do, why to do it or not do it, then things can move forward, but when they dig their heels in, it’s usually because they need connection and emotional support; perhaps warmth, listening, understanding, reflecting their perspective, genuine show of interest in their world, affection, empathy. Yes it’s a lot of work, but without coming back to the connection when needed, they get stuck and everything can take 10 or 100 times a long to complete!
When a child is out of balance, parents can feel like they’re walking on egg shells avoiding giving requests or corrections in the hope of avoiding meltdowns. But in fact what often brings the child relief is when their parent stops trying to appease them while also controlling their urge to over-react, but instead holds any particular limit like “no” to t.v., sugary food, visiting friends, whatever they’ve become fixated on, then give our full attention as the inevitable meltdown allows their grumpy feelings to start to spill out.
Children try to escape uncomfortable feelings by grasping on to getting the things that they think will make them happy. But there’s a difference at such times between what they want and what they need. Although it’s good that children have lots of opportunities to negotiate and problem solve, these times when they’re containing a lot of frustration are the times that they need our help to gain some emotional release. When a child has a build up of frustration, they’re really not fit for complex communication and decision making. Only you as a parent (or caregiver) can attune to what your child really needs. So when you identify that your child’s all full of frustration, holding a limit with love. At times of holding a limit, our empathy gives them an opportunity for a safe outlet of frustration through their talking, venting, raging or crying while feeling sensitively heard and cared for.
Hold steady with a limit without bargaining or negotiating, but instead reiterate the limit with calm confidence; “no my boy, I’m not going to put the t.v. on today” but remain very present and give them our full attention and empathy “and I can really really see how disappointed you are and I care. I’m here, I’m listening.” Showing your child that you understand and care about their feelings can often allow the child to work their way through feeling and offloading their disappointment and grief.
Stress releasing tears and venting. Our child can make the most of our emotional support and it often brings the stress releasing tears that helps them get lots of frustration out of their system. It’s often after a big meltdown that children find renewed energy to accept their new challenges. Listening to and allowing a child’s huge protests and upsets about the new baby for instance can feel heartbreaking, but it’s often after getting it all out that the same child will clearly show increased affection and patience for their baby sibling.