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Egalitarian Relationship tool #3

October's Alta Class is on
Rules for Kids
Running in the street, too much screen time, rudeness, overconsumption, candy every day--all good reasons for rules. Come discuss how to set your own limits and collaborate with children on how to meet the standards you hold for your family.
Sunday, October 7 from 2 - 3 p.m.

Egalitarian Tools 1-3 are a 3-Part series on

the trouble with setting limits



Need help with a child?

Last month’s post was for parents who set so many limits on children that the kids become oppositional towards them or self-conscious about just being kids. Conversely, if you have trouble setting limits for the child, this is the post for you.


When you are too afraid you will hurt children with limits, they may learn four unwanted lessons:

  1. to disrespect their own limits for fear of losing the approval of others;

  2. to fear emotions;

  3. to take on entitled and impulsive behavior; and/or

  4. to hold an emotion in and then “let you have it.”


In this article, let’s explore four aspects of setting healthy limits that exactly correspond to and counteract those four unwanted lessons:

  1. Teaching Children to Respect Your Limits...and Theirs;

  2. Responding to the Emotion, Not the Behavior;

  3. Giving Children the Parameters They Need; and

  4. Preventing Rage.


1) Teach Children to Respect Your Limits...and Theirs


We want to teach children how to be authentic about their needs. We want them to say no to others when something doesn’t feel right. That learning can start with you.


When something doesn’t feel right with you, the child is likely to sense this. When you allow it to continue despite your discomfort, this can feel confusing for a child. Children are not always under control of their own actions, so if you don’t take control of a situation (and they can’t take control of it), there is no one to set things right with the world.


If you feel uncomfortable imposing limits onto the child, there is a good reason for that. Limits aren’t for other people, they are for you. If a child starts to run into the street, it’s your job to take care of the concern that evokes in you. Run after them, grab their hand and get them to safety. That is for you, and it benefits the child. 


If the child wants a cereal that is too sweet in your opinion and you get an uneasy feeling when you think about saying yes, then that’s a no. A yes disrespects your own limits. Taking care of your own needs by telling children what is okay with you and what isn’t shows them how to do the same. Wavering on what you stand for leaves them feeling unstable inside, too.


It may feel like a subtle shift from imposing limits on them to expressing limits of your own, but it can make a big difference in your own resolve and the child’s reception of the limit. This is because when you set a limit for what you can tolerate, you are communicating that you have a value that you uphold. When you impose limits on a child, it just feels like you want to control them.


Whenever you have a feeling of discomfort because the child has crossed a line, you can search for the value that you feel needs reinforcement in the situation. There is a reason that feeling is in you, and it has to do with a value being violated. Identify the value, and you can find the lesson to offer the child. When you say no, pair it with the value to give the interaction purpose and to give the child a reason to care that is deeper than just you wanting something different than they do.


Sometimes we find that the value being violated is a bias we did not realize we had. You might have said no because the value turned out to be, “because the child was disobeying me, the person with authority.” Here is an opportunity to evaluate the value's usefulness to you and to consider whether it is a value you want to teach. 


This value of obedience is particularly difficult to uphold unless your surrounding community also teaches obedience to children, explicitly. Also, the person who is older and in charge is not necessarily right—a fact which also makes this value difficult to maintain. The person with the most authority in any situation—if authority is looked at in a broader, spiritual sense—is really the person following the highest value. Show the child that you have the highest value in mind and you are likely to win them over.


Children show you their limits with their emotions, and if that doesn’t work, through their behaviors. Sometimes it takes detective work to understand what they are valuing. Is it really just the toy they want? If they are getting emotional, probably not. 


No, if they are getting emotional, it is likely something more personal than that: they could be needing to sense that you care about them, or feel that they are important, too. By responding supportively to their emotions, you show your respect for the values they are defending, and that respect for their values gives them more reason to both respect the values you convey and to take on your values when they take on the world.


2) Respond to the Emotion, Not the Behavior


But how to deal with the fallout? The fallout is just emotions.


Trying to resolve a child’s strong emotions about what they want by giving it to them, and therefore, betraying ourselves, is not exactly resolving their emotions. When we give in, we stop their upset and hope we are making them happy, but really, we’re stopping their anger and giving them confusion, instability, and more power than they feel safe with. 


In that scenario, they do stop crying, but crying makes more sense to them than this other, more complicated feeling that they don’t know how to express. At least before, they could name the feeling when they couldn’t have the thing: “I’m mad!” But when feelings get complicated, those feelings become unconscious. 


Unconscious feelings are confusing and impossible for a child to express. Children don’t know how to say,

I’m confused. Why are you saying yes now? Wasn’t there a reason you wanted to say no? I’m not sure I want it now, but I said I did, so I guess I’d better follow through. This feels weird. I mean, where is your backbone? Are you strong enough to protect me from the world? Because it doesn’t seem like it.


Lindsay Gibson, PsyD, wrote an excellent book on emotional immaturity in parents. In it, she says, “Emotionally immature parents fear genuine emotion and pull back from emotional closeness.” Dr. Gibson describes these parents as a group, but given an emotion strong enough, that statement describes most of us.


Even so, think about it: if you shrink away from genuine emotion because that emotion is uncomfortable for you, how emotionally close can you get? Emotional closeness means leaning into emotions. The harder the emotion that you lean into, the safer the person feels with you, the more trust is built between you, and the closer you get. Isn't that what we want with children?


Instead of trying to stop their feelings, help children feel understood. If they are infants to preverbal toddlers, nod your head, give them a sympathetic look, and tell them words they don’t understand but can feel like, “You are upset because you want something you can’t have. We all feel that way sometimes. It’s a hard feeling to have.” Whatever the age, the words are not as important as the nonverbal message that you understand them and care about them.


3) Give Children the Parameters They Need


When you teach children how to be with you in a way that you allows you to feel comfortable with them, they gain valuable, transferable information.


If you do not hold your limits, you rob children of developing understanding that they can apply to the rest of the world. If they don’t learn it from you, they will have to learn it from others. If you can provide it in your loving, supportive way first, it will be an easier lesson than later, with adults who might be less loving and supportive.


Until children’s cortexes are better developed, they struggle with impulse control, judgment, moral conscience, regulating their emotions, and pacing their energy output. Your limits help them find the parameters that promote healthy socio-emotional development. Experiencing where your line is gives their brain a reference point for drawing lines on their behavior in all relationships.


"But," you may ask, "what if I’m not sure if it really matters that they can’t have something?" It’s not that it matters that they can’t have it, it matters that you feel uneasy about giving it to them. That uneasiness transfers to the child. Here’s how it looks:


Child: I really want that toy.


Adult: No, honey, not today.


Child: Ahhhh!


Adult: Okay, you can have it.


Now, right there: how are you feeling? If the answer is, “The energy is draining from my body. I feel weak and my mind feels fuzzy,” then stop right there. That is your cue that you are giving the child an experience of confusion, instability, and possibly building a sense of entitlement.


But! If your body is feeling strong, your mind is clear, and you are thinking, “I just said no out of habit. It makes good sense to give this child the toy,” that’s your cue to let the child have the toy.


Get it? It’s not words that make the big difference, it’s the feeling you have inside. That’s what gets transferred to the child. (How it does so is anyone’s guess.)


4) Prevent Rage


Setting limits for yourself means taking command of a situation using values as your authority.


Setting limits for a child puts you in a position of having authority over the child. Whenever we have authority over another human being, we are in a precarious position. 


If you think you have authority over someone other than yourself, you feel personally threatened when that person challenges it. The threat knocks you off balance, and what we humans often do when we get knocked off balance emotionally is either fall over (become too permissive), or overcorrect and get angry (become mean). If our default is to fall over, we can build up enough tension over time that our eventual overcorrection looks like rage.


Top-down relationships can get dangerous. The more children threaten our authority, the more adults feel we need to get stronger, colder and crueler. We fight the urge to hurt children emotionally and physically, and the fighting can feel confusing, exhausting and frustrating. We get angry with ourselves for being angry, we get angry with the child for making us angry, and sometimes we get angry with other adults in the household, school or clinic for not supporting us with these unruly kids. And it’s hard to support a raving, cold or cruel person, even if that spouse, coworker or supervisor really wants to have our back.


When you have a sinking feeling in your gut or your heart is tight, that is your cue that something is not right with you. Ignoring that feeling or shutting it down denies you the opportunity to do something important for you, the child, and the world. Paying attention to that feeling and finding your limit is supportive to you, the child and the world. It is that epic.

Egalitarian Relationship Tool #3: Set your own limits, not the child’s. Rules that you come up with together are based on what works for both you and the child. When you collaborate on rules and limits, you are responsible for communicating what works and doesn’t work for you, and the child is responsible for coming up with their own limits (either verbally or emotionally) on what works and doesn’t work for them. Rules are then formed to help you coexist in harmony. 


To learn how to set limits and collaborate on rules at any child’s age, join me for a discussion on this topic on Sunday, October 7.

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