Part 1: Supporting Children Through Limits
Imagine your 2 year-old is pushing a toy shopping cart around, and one of its wheels gets stuck. What do you do?
A. Remove the obstacle and go on with life.
B. Ignore the child and hope for the best.
C. Support the child through it. (“Hmm. That looks tricky. What would you like to try?”)
With a shopping cart, the answer is obvious: support the child through it. But what if the obstacle is you? What about when you say “no” and set limits? Sometimes adults choose A: they remove the limit and let the child have their way. Sometimes B: they put their foot down and ignore the child’s pleas. C is a third option: leave the limit there and help the child navigate it.
Often, the teachers and therapists I work with express frustration around parents’ inability to set limits. This is particularly true for parents of children who experience a major life challenge. Often, the outside observer feels that kids who have medical frailties, a traumatic background, or intense sensory challenges get away with way too much.
Why Don't Parents Set More Limits?
From the outside looking in, these parents seem weak to professionals, extended family, and family friends alike. These family supporters cringe as they watch a child squeal and then immediately get their way. When the parent does finally put a foot down, the child might go on for hours. The observer’s thinking is that if the child just had more limits, they would have a higher tolerance for frustration and be able to handle the word “no” better.
This is so frustrating for the observer because it appears to be confusing for the child and painful for the parent. The parenting also appears to be the source of relationship damage between grandparents, teacher, or therapist and the child: if the child understood limits from the parents, the thinking goes, they wouldn’t find it so difficult to follow them with other adults outside the home.
I understand this point of view, but from my own experience parenting a child with challenges, I know that it is not simply that the parent is weak. Watch that parent with their other, more typically developing children, and you would find that they have no problem with setting limits. Children teach us how to parent them, and giving stressed-out children lots of practice with the word “no” does not necessarily raise their tolerance for it.
Parents who do hold the line with these children can easily end up with children who become diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder and other similar designations. Children who grow up with a heavy load of stress from their condition cannot tolerate the additional stress of limits without a great deal of support. Usually, parents who do not set a lot of limits with their children intuitively know that doing so would cause too great a rupture to their parent-child relationship.
Why Are Limits So Hard on Children with Challenges?
The next two posts on The Trouble with Setting Limits will be about limits themselves, while this post describes the trouble with how limits are set. The top-down tone adults take with children triggers their upset more than the limit itself. After a few times repeating a limit (remember, children often need time to process an idea and determine whether they desire to follow a limit), adults often become oppositional when saying “no”: we dig our heels in against any possible dissension. Our faces show either disapproval, high-browed self-righteousness, or a flat, cold expressionless demeanor.
For a child with keenly sensitive feelers for negative emotion and connection loss, they may hear, "My needs are more important than yours," "You don't matter," or "I don't love you." In these instances, limits from their most important people can be anything from insulting to terrifying. It is no wonder that, without the knowledge of how to support children through a limit, parents choose their relationship with a child over the strong reaction they see when their child is opposed.
How Do We Support Children Through Limits?
We can start by getting on the child’s side instead of holding to an opposing position. This approach involves respecting the child’s point of view, reflecting their feelings back to them, and refraining from repeating the limit once it has been communicated and just acting on it instead. “I know you want to play longer, but we have to go now” turns into saying something like, “I know you want to play longer, that would definitely be fun!” while walking to the car and giving the child an understanding look. If the child doesn’t follow, stand silently and wait, maintaining an understanding stance.
I worked with a parent at a domestic violence shelter the other day on supporting the development of her two year-old who had had trauma in infancy. (I will call him Benji.) Benji was playing happily with the toys in the shelter’s beautiful well-stocked playroom. Mom was certain that Benji would cry and scream when it was time to go, so I asked her whether she would like some ideas for softening transitions for him. She said she would.
I started by explaining that, just like when adults have to tear themselves away from a creative activity to do something else, Benji would find it hard to break his enjoyment of what his brain was finding highly stimulating and important for his development. I modeled respect for his need to continue what he was doing by letting him know it was time to go, but that he could play while I started to clean up.
Benji continued to play, but after few moments, he lay face-down on the floor, holding a toy with one hand and his head with the other. When a response is delayed like this, adults sometimes miss what it is in reaction to. Realizing that the impact of what I had said was just now dawning on him, I reflected his feelings by holding my head and saying, “Oh no! You don’t want to clean up! You want to keep playing!” I went back to cleaning while continuing to reflect Benji’s feelings for him. To his mother’s awe, when it was time to go, he stood up, put the toy he was playing with in the bin, and walked out the door with us.
That was too easy, so I suggested we go to the playground outside. Surely he would pitch a bigger fit if we let him play outside for a few minutes and then had him come back in. Mom looked nervous, but I assured her that she wouldn’t have to do anything but watch. She reluctantly agreed.
I imagined her anxiety as Benji ran outside with relish and began climbing the play structure with a broad grin on his face. I reflected his excitement with my face, and told him, “You are going up the slide! So fun! You can go down the slide one time (showing “one” with my finger), and then it will be time to go inside.” I pointed toward the door to the shelter as I said this so that he would have a visceral understanding of what I was telling him. Adults often forget that with pre- and newly-verbal toddlers, gestures are key for communication.
Benji acted as though he did not hear the limit and took some time to go down the slide, likely to extend his time outside. I waited, smiling and encouraging him to enjoy himself, and then he came down the slide and fell to the wood-chip-covered ground. He got up, brushed himself off, and started for the ladder again.
This is where the real fun began. I immediately ran around him to blocked his way, pointing to the door and reminding him, “It’s time to go back in.” He grabbed his head and looked dismayed. I grabbed my head and looked dismayed back for him. “Oh no! It’s time to go back in! Darn!”
He ran the other way to get to the ladder. I ran interference again, holding my head and expressing his disappointment while blocking his body with mine. After one more attempt to maneuver around me and another block with my reflecting feelings, Benji picked up a handful of wood chips and threw them. Mirroring his feelings of frustration, I did the same, throwing mine straight to the ground. We did this about four times, Benji throwing them up, me throwing them down with a "darn!", until he started for the door, relaxed and willing to go back inside. Mom said under her breath, “This is amazing.”
I thought so, too. I did not expect it to be this easy. It could be because it was Benji’s first time having someone join him in his upset feelings. With other children, and possibly later for Benji, there will be tears, body-throwing, bucking backwards if carried, and other kinds of carrying on. In these cases, I stay with the child’s experience, either reflecting disappointment, or if the behaviors intensify from the reflecting, going silent and staying present and understanding. Here, the idea is not to stop the emotion; it is just to support it.
How Do We Get Over Our Own Hard Feelings When Children Are Upset?
It can be hard to stay present with children’s hard emotions. They can trigger our own feelings of disappointment and loss. When that becomes overwhelming, we shut down our connection with them as we resist our own hard feelings or lick our own wounds.
The trick to handling these situations is to move out of empathy, where we put ourselves in our children’s shoes, to compassion, where we just see our children and let their experience be theirs alone. Empathy, or picturing ourselves in the child’s situation, can feel scary and overwhelming, leaving us unavailable to the child's actual experience. Compassion lets us stay separate from the child yet connected, focused and helpful. Once we get the hang of that, it becomes easier to set limits for children because we are not leaving them emotionally alone anymore.
Egalitarian Tool #1: Support children through limit-setting if there are big emotions around it. Stay on the child’s side by respecting their perspective, reflecting their emotions, and refraining from repeating the limit once it has been understood. (If reflecting intensifies the emotions, keep up a silent, supportive presence where you are open and available for comfort when they are ready for it.)
Learn more about the move from empathy to compassion by attending the three-part series on Radical Self-Care: Stress Reduction and Energy Tools.