Setting Limits: “Do you want me to say ‘no’ so you can cry?”

When my son was almost three years old, I really wanted to attend a conference on the other side of the country. I agonized over whether or not to go. The conference was several days long, so I didn’t want to leave my son at home; I would have to take him with me and find childcare for him near the conference. The expense, the difficulty of finding a babysitter I felt good about, and the worry of leaving my son for several hours a day with someone I wouldn’t be able to meet in person in advance—they all weighed on me.

I thought I would end up staying home, until a friend listened to me about how much I wanted to go. That’s when I decided that it would be worth the trouble.

Through an internet babysitting site, I located a babysitter with excellent references. Among other things, I talked with her about listening to children’s emotions, and she agreed to read the Hand in Hand Listening to Children booklets. I also got someone to listen to my fears about leaving my son with a caregiver I didn’t really know. After this listening partnership, I began feeling excited about the trip and expecting things to go well, instead of worrying.

I prepared thoroughly for the trip and for my son’s time with the sitter, whom I’ll call Karen. I mailed Karen the booklets, and I talked with her again about listening to children’s crying. We exchanged pictures over email; my son and I talked with her on the phone; and I talked with my son about the trip and about Karen many times before our trip. The day before the conference started, we arrived at the conference location, and Karen came over to get acquainted and play with my son.

That night, my son went to sleep really late (a three hour time difference plus a new place!). In the morning, I debated whether to wake him before I left for the conference—after a very short night’s sleep—or to let him wake up when he was ready, even though it meant he would wake up to see Karen and not me. I decided to let him sleep. I warned Karen that he would cry and coached her to reassure him that I’d be back soon and that she’d stay with him.

When I came back at lunchtime, they were having fun. Karen reported that, upon waking without me there, my son had cried hard for 45 minutes, while she stayed close and listened and reassured him, and then he was ready to play. Yay!

Karen left to take a break and eat, and my son and I went right to work releasing his emotions through play. Over and over again, he would want some toy, I would give it to him, then he would throw it out of reach and then want it again. He clearly needed help with his feelings of missing me.

setting-limits01To help him work through these feelings, I started saying, “No, no ball right now. We’ll get it later.” He would cry and want the toy. I stayed close and listened, every now and then gently repeating my relaxed and firm “No.” Then, he’d stop crying after a while and the whole sequence would repeat.

Sometimes I had to hold him pretty firmly to let him struggle to get to something, but he made it so clear that it wasn’t really the toy he wanted, but my “No,” and having me listen as he cried. At a few points I wasn’t sure what he needed, so I said, “Do you want me to say ‘no’ so you can cry?” He answered, clearly, “Yes.” I was amazed and satisfied to find us cooperating so clearly to help him offload a pile of feelings. 

In the evening, when I returned from the afternoon meetings, Karen told me about their fun time together. When Karen had left, my son and I went to work releasing feelings again, repeating the same sequence as before.

Every day I would return to our room at lunchtime and again at 5 PM. My son’s need to cry and struggle tapered off very quickly. I continued to occasionally respond to his request for a toy out of reach with, “Do you want me to say ‘no’ so you can cry?” Eventually he started saying, “Mommy, say ‘yes.’” So I would honor his request and let him have the toy he wanted.

I was delighted when one day I came back to relieve Karen and she reported, “I think somebody needs to have a good cry.” Karen had clearly understood the effect of her listening that first day, and of my listening throughout the trip.

The rest of the week, my son had a great time with Karen. It was an exhausting week for me, especially the first day or two, but overall it was a success: I got to do something I really, really wanted to do, and at the same time to know that my son was doing well. What made it work was having people listen to my feelings and thoughts as I prepared for the trip, and then listening to my son’s feelings and thoughts during the trip and having Karen do the same.

Susan HutchisonSusan Hutchison

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