Setting 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 well-being 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 their feelings which allows them to feel secure and supported and which ultimately helps them to make their way back to feeling more able to cooperate and achieve what needs to be achieved.

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 express the feelings that these situations bring up for them, and to then feel cared for in expressing their 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.  Instead, slow down, become centred and aim to reconnect.

(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.

Also read; Why we explode and how to prevent it.

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 can help the child gain the stress releasing outlet through a big cry or vent that they need.  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 your full attention and empathy “and I can really really see how disappointed you are and I care.  I’m here, I’m listening and helping you cope with all this frustration.”  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 or tantrum 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.

  1. Ivana 10 years ago

    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:)

  2. Seonaid Lyons 8 years ago

    That is a great article, very informative and helpful. Gosh there is so much to learn. It’s great to be reminded of our emotional feelings and needs, and how important it is to feel safe to process them. Thank you.

    I’m wondering if there are specific thoughts and tools on a child that head butts. It doesn’t seem to always be because of frustration, sometimes it’s done in jest or in playtime mode. It’s tricky to know how to respond, and how much to respond. Is it sometimes appropriate to distract or ignore a behaviour. Or would is every behaviour be a reflection of a need or connection not being meet?

    • Seonaid, glad you resonated with the article. Yes so much to learn, so many pieces to put together with this parenting approach for sure!

      is this your one year old? It’s generally related to needing to get frustrations out of their body, the impact hurts but also can lead to the child either crying or laughing and hence gaining an outlet. Children also of course mimic what they see, they learn through copying, and work to make sense of their world by doing that which they witness, but you don’t mention that your child has witnessed another child doing the same? It can sometimes be an indication of a child having challenges with sensory processing. But I’d always first look at the possibility of a control pattern. A control pattern is any habit that the child develops as a way to escape from, distract themselves from uncomfortable emotions. When the parent frantically rocks and entertains, the child gets hooked into feeling they need this to soothe them, but it actually just distracts them from the frustrations that have built up rather than allowing a healthy outlet or release. Breast feeding or bottle feeding can provide the same distraction. There’s nothing wrong with a child finding comfort at the breast but if this is always offered with insistence when a baby is upset, they learn to settle for it and don’t get to have those really satisfying full releasing cries that they need.. It’s what I’m describing in children and babies can heal through their cries article, which you can link through to from this article.

      From other insights you’ve shared, it’s clear that you’re really getting out of the eCourse the kind of insights that I really really hope to facilitate. Yes being with their big emotions is such an important part of this model and is what’s needed to both prevent or change control patterns. And of course, to be with their uncomfortable feelings, we need to get better at being the with uncomfortable emotions in us that their emotions evoke in us. Sitting through the discomfort for them and in us at the same time really is less frantic and anxiety provoking than always trying to fix the problem or make them better and it’s exactly what they need to feel like we can cope with their emotions, that their emotions are ok.

      I’m really confident that you’re going to continue to see improvements in Hugo’s sleep patterns and also that this habit will likely fade away as he’s no longer carrying the build up of frustrations and stress (the third reason for unhealthy behaviours in Week 1’s three reasons model by Alethea Solder.

      I hope that helps?

  3. Jo Ann Gramlich 3 years ago

    I completely agree with what you have written. I hope this post could reach more people as this was truly an interesting post.

  4. […] that I didn’t have to go to work and we could stay together all day. I’ll miss you too”.  If this brings tears, this can release some of that stress. When your child feels that you get how hard it is for them, that’s a good time to talk about […]

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *