EGALITARIAN TOOL #3: THE TROUBLE WITH SETTING LIMITS: Setting Limits with You (Not Them)
Last month’s post was for parents who set so many limits on children, 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) disrespect their own limits for fear of losing the approval of others, (2) fear of emotions, (3) entitled and impulsive behavior and/or (4) hold it in then let them have it.
1) Teaching 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, 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 a child. When you say no, pair it with the value to give the interaction purpose and the child a reason to care that is deeper than just because you want 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 consider whether it is a value you want to teach. This one in particular is difficult to uphold unless your surrounding community also teaches obedience to children explicitly. It is also difficult to maintain because it is not precisely true. The person who is older and in charge is not necessarily right. The person following the highest value is really the person with the most authority in any situation. 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. It is likely something more personal than that: it could be a sense that you care about them, they need stimulation, or the feeling that they are important, too. By responding supportively to their emotions, you show your respect for the values they are defending, and that gives them more reason to both respect the values you convey and take them on when they take on the world.
2) Respond to the Emotion, Not the Situation
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. 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 they can name the feeling when they couldn’t have the thing: “I’m mad!” When feelings get complicated, they become unconscious. Unconscious feelings are confusing and impossible 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 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 for 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 and care.
3) Giving Children the Parameters They Need
When you teach children how to be with you in a way that you feel comfortable with them, they gain valuable, transferrable information.
If you do not hold your limits, you rob children of having understanding that they can apply to the rest of the world. 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 so.
Until children’s prefrontal cortexes are better developed, they struggle with impulse control, judgement, moral conscience, regulating their emotion, 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.
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 transfetred to the child. (How is anyone’s guess.)
4) Preventing Rage
Setting limits for yourself means taking command of a situation using values as your authority.