Setting limits can bring healing tears and tantrums

Share Button

images00Setting limits can bring healing tears and tantrums

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 harsh or punitive.  In fact, usually the opposite is true because the more harsh a parent is, the more they give permission by way of modelling that it’s acceptable, be it yelling, forcing isolation, withholding “privileges”.

But how can a parent set limits while maintaining positive regard and respect for their child?  When we express limits or remind our child once again of the tasks at hand, it’s our empathy and understanding of the big feelings that are driving their tendency to be oppositional which allows them to feel safe and secure and ultimately to move through their difficult feelings.

“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.”

“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”

You don’t have to back down from your limit or request (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.

(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.  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.

(c)    Avoid constantly reiterating the request to put the toys/books back and restating that it’s time to leave, as that’s 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, but we’ve run out of time and need to leave.  I sometimes find it hard to leave as well, so come on, 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 looks to the outside world like defiance and refusal to cooperate.  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 un-cooperative 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 otherwise making them feel bad about feeling bad.  And yet the more you take this approach, 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 bouindaries, 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 hold 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 calmly 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.

Share Button


  1. Thank you SO MUCH for this article! It feels as if every single word has been written for our current family situation. We have recently moved to a different country and even if we dedicated more than half a year to preparing our boys for the change and they seem to be ok with it at the first sight, some negative feelings and frustration are coming trough, especially in our older one – now a 3,5 year old boy. He is very sensitive and rather stubborn and at times his tantrums come unexpectedly for seemingly non related issues. The most difficult part is that he usually does not let us know why he is frustrated or what it is that he wants until much later when he had already calmed down a bit. I do try to see the bigger picture and I am sensing that behind the “trivial” tantrum triggers there might be the whole change, moving, living temporarily with my parents with my husband being already in the new country, arranging all necessary..and on the top of all this, I am also pregnant and the boys will be getting a baby sister in February. So yes, I already had the feeling that something bigger was going on but still it is so hard at times to remain calm and understanding…and seeing now everything explained in straightforward words makes so much sense and gives me the power to keep trying.
    I have also sent the link to this article to my husband who would have the first hand experience with our son’s requests for things “he wants but does not need” as you so nicely put it, for example milk couple of times at night, playing games on a tablet or phone etc. My husband has even lower tolerance to our son’s crying, screeming and throwing tantrums so that he very often gives in only to avoid them. I hope that this article will help him to see them in a different light and therefore allow him to approach them differently that in the end will ease the atmospehere tha at times can become rather heavy and not pleasant which is a big shame, I think. So thank you once again, rarely do I come across an article that would speak s o much to my heart like this one did:)

Speak Your Mind