It’s 5pm and you are racing the clock to do the dinner / bath / bed dash. Your child asks for something, it might be a biscuit or some TV it might be for you to play with them again. Or its 8pm and maybe they are in bed, they ask for the 10 millionth thing, you both know it’s unreasonable….You say no (for a multitude of reasons from health, to safety, or a need for sleep, or because it doesn’t work for you right now) …and your child starts to get upset.
In your head you think, ‘not this again’…… You dread the meltdown that might build, you worry they won’t eat their dinner, or it will upset siblings, or it might disrupt the bedtime routine and you collapse.
“OK just ONE biscuit” or “Fine ill play for 5 minutes and no more” or “ok you can get up and have a bowl of cereal”
I can tell this story because I have lived it, many, many times over, and I know I will again. Because setting and holding limits for our kids is not for the faint hearted. It does upset our kids and we as parents, find this aspect of parenting really hard.
While it’s totally ok to change our minds on limits with our kids or decide tonight we don’t have it in us to hold a limit some of the time, it’s not so helpful for them if we start to feel we can never say no because we are living with a tiny terrorist who is running the show, or if we repeatedly collapse out of fear of their big feelings.
The first step in working out where we are struggling with limits is to work out what’s happening within our bodies. This is simply because, a lot of how we go in the stressful moments of parenting is very much being communicated and dictated at a subconscious level, by our emotions and body language. Even when our words are getting it right.
Many parents find limits don’t stick, or they are struggling with boundaries even though they are saying all the right things. They can start to worry limits don’t work on their child, or their child is super defiant, or wonder where they are going wrong as parents. One of the first things I like to explore is what’s happening for us emotionally and physically when setting and holding limits.
You may be surprised to find it can be tiny little non-verbal cues that can confuse our child and make us less effective at holding limits.
We are pre-empting the emotions and we come in hot from across the room, already shouting commands and our child goes into fight, flight or freeze. We’ve lost the balance of firm and kind and we never even got out of the gate.
I have to admit that often I forget to “connect first’. It always takes longer and goes less well when I do. When I remember, I go in with connection before I ask my kids to do anything. Even just a tough before I instruct. The difference really is chalk and cheese.
When kids are taking in very few of our words it’s our body language that lets us down. Our words might say “It’s time to leave the park” but our body language says, “he’s not going to listen to me anyway, here we go again, please listen I don’t want a public meltdown….” Our child can sense our discomfort, our nerves, or our inability to follow through just by the tone in voice, the slant in our shoulders or our stance and they are more likely to grin and ignore us or test us with a ‘no’.
They don’t test us to be difficult. They test us because the discomfort in us makes them feel worried, or unstable. They push, hoping we will hold the limit and not cave in. Because when we hold that limit it makes them feel safer.
Our discomfort with being the ‘bad guy’ can have us rattling off all the logical reasons why this boundary needs to be set, safety, or practicality. None of which matter to our child in this moment. The simpler we keep our words the better.
I met with a mum recently who was struggling with a child who was so frustrated when her daughter wouldn’t just accept the limit in place. A common example was her daughter asking to stop for a snack on a car trip and her mum would explain how many kilometres they are away from the next snack.
After our session this mum was able to spot in the moment the desire to jump to logic that would lead to ongoing debates and started pausing, and simply naming the feeling instead: “Yeah, I’ve said no, and you feel really disappointed.’
To be clear, we don’t want to revert to the days of “no because I told you so” but we are often getting so tangled up in the logic of ‘why the no makes sense’ that what we are missing is the ability to lean into the fact our no has made our child feel disappointed, or powerless. Our child can only hear OUR logic once they feels heard.
Sometimes I work with parents who have the words right, but their tone gives them away. They discomfort with the emotions that might erupt from a boundary being set get given away as their voice goes up in pitch at the end. This is something you can only notice once you become aware of it. The main thing to watch for is if you are trying to let your kids what’s happening next, i.e “it’s time to brush your teeth….”, pay attention to whether your tone goes up in pitch at the end, if it does it lands for your kids as a question, not a statement.
When we are setting a boundary with younger kids, It’s not a question, it’s a statement. Our pitch and tone needs to indicate this because it’s much kinder to be clear.
We pre-empt our child won’t listen and we show our hand. Kids need us to be a calm, cool and collected leader and we don’t look like we’ve got the wheel if we are begging or threatening.
What to do if any of this feels familiar? Firstly know you are far from alone. Setting and holding boundaries in a connected way is really tough and the most important thing to remember is it’s not a perfect science. No one knows your child like you do and temperament certainly will play a big role.
However as the adult in our relationship with our child, if we can work out where the discomfort lies for us, and where we are struggling, we are more likely to be able to hold loving limits more often without collapsing in anger or frustration.
For our kids the impact of this is huge. While they may not like our 'no', that’s actually not their job to agree with it or like it. Holding limits for our kids makes them feel loved, and it answers one of their biggest questions: Am I safe? We get to let them know they are safe, because we’ve got this and there it’s one of the most loving messages we can give.
Much like a muscle you work out at gym, if you feel uncomfortable holding limits it takes self-reflection and practice. If you feel a bit ‘weak’ you need to increase your confident tone, always with a balance of kindness, so that you can be your child’s confident leader.
Remind yourself that it is your child’s job to ask for the moon, the sun and the stars and it’s your job to let them know what you are willing, and not willing to do.
Gen Muir is Parent educator, maternity social worker and mum to four boys with a passion for helping parents in to understand behaviour and emotion in kids.
With the experience of working with over 40,000 parents though her work at the Mater and privately, Gen has a great understanding of the real challenges facing modern parents.
These comprehensive, learn at your own pace courses give you access at any time to videos, audios and documents that covers the core areas of development when reaching these milestone moments as a parent or grandparent.
Join our waitlist.