A Guest Post on Setting Limits By Emilie Leeks
Setting limits on small things is something I used to find very hard. Sometimes I feel I’m just being petty by not doing things for the kids when technically I can, but sometimes the little but constant demands just get too much for me.
Now, I am increasingly able to see that setting a warm limit on something very small can also be exactly what a child needs to offload emotions that are clogging up their clear thinking.
A while back, our oldest (then 7 years) had been awaiting assessment for a possible autism spectrum condition, and our youngest was only 2 at the time! They had both been getting quite a bit of my attention. Our middle child (then 4) tended to be a little more easy going and accepting of boundaries as a general rule, but I had noticed that she had been getting a lot more rigid in her behaviours, and I wondered whether our family dynamic was having a detrimental effect on her. After spending some of my listening time on it, I knew that she needed some connection. We found it through setting a warm limit over some very small issues…
We had been invited to her classmate’s house for a little play after school. It was the end of the day, and the end of the week, and we were all feeling a bit jaded, but she was really looking forward to going to this friend’s house, along with me and her older brother.
But when we got there she was very clingy and reserved, wouldn’t walk across the room without me, and didn’t want to actually engage with her friend. I was feeling quite relaxed (only two children with me and no tea to prepare – luxury!!) so when she rather whiningly asked me to play with her, I decided I wanted a sit down and my cup of tea, so I warmly said that no, I was going to have my drink first.
She started to get very frustrated, saying ‘Yes, you must play with me, you must!’.
I held the limit warmly, and I thought at this point I could try a little Playlistening with the limit in a way I knew she liked, which is waggling my head at her as I said things in a mock-horrified voice about not wanting to play right now. But this time she was not amused in the slightest so I quickly abandoned that strategy.
She took off her trousers and her top, saying she was too hot, then said she was cold and wanted her jumper from her bag and that I was to go and get it. I decided to try one last time to see if she was really pushing for a limit by using small issues as a pretext for a big emotional release, or whether getting her jumper would be enough for her to get out of her stuck place.
I agreed with good grace to get her jumper, but as I started to take it out of the bag (apparently I should have left it in when I brought the bag over), she began to really let go! I braced myself for a full-on Staylistening session!
The requests from my daughter for the things that she felt would make things better then came thick and fast – she wanted me to:
“Put the bag back and then get my jumper out!”
“Hold the handle of the bag with two hands,” (I was busy trying to protect myself from her kicks so that was easy to say no to – I really needed my hands free right then!)
“Get my water bottle!”
“Take the bag back!”
Everything I did or said was wrong, of course! I really felt like she was feeling very out of control in that moment. I held the limit, saying that no, I wouldn’t be doing those things right now, and then offered gentle reassurances that we could get or do those things later and that it was going to be ok.
She got a bit more physical. She made a quick attempt to bite and then to grab and scratch me, there was more kicking, and then pushing against me as hard as she could while she told me to go away. I kept myself safe by blocking her attempts firmly but gently, and I said I wouldn’t leave her whilst she was feeling like this.
I felt ok with that decision. There was plenty of room for her to move away from me if she really had wanted her space, but I suspected that she wanted to push against me rather than actually have me move.
And then as quickly as the storm had started, it was suddenly over!
She asked for a cuddle and was a little tearful, and then she calmly asked me to help her get dressed, and began to watch her friend and smile and look around at the toys.
It took all my concentration and emotional energy to hold the limits and allow the big emotions to come out in front of the other mother – even though I knew that she parents in a similar way and would be understanding and sympathetic.
For the rest of the time at the friend’s house, my daughter was able to move away from me to play. (It took only half an hour of being there, which is very good going for her.) She had a lovely time with her friend. They giggled and giggled when they later pretended to feed me very spicy food, and I acted repeatedly surprised and shocked by how spicy it was!
I even got my (rather cold!) cup of tea and a chat with the other mother, with no further complaints from my daughter!
Later on at home she was very tender. She kept stroking my arm and looking at me lovingly – she often used to make this sort of connection by doing a sort of friendly whack instead!
She was also very polite with her requests at teatime. We don’t insist on pleases and thank yous but we model friendly requests instead, and recently she’d been very demanding (for instance, saying “Water!” instead of “Could I have…” or similar) and my husband and I had been feeling very frustrated with this!
She also has a tendency to go what felt like quite over the top if she had a minor accident – but after tea she slipped off the side of the chair and landed on the floor (which was often followed by tears) and just smiled and said “Oh – I slipped!”.
She just seemed so much more confident and relaxed – more so than I had seen her in a while. My husband even mentioned how confident she seemed as well, when he took the children upstairs to start getting ready for bed, so it clearly extended past the things she was doing with me around.
Why it Works:
When we try to parent in a peaceful way, we are often concerned about saying no to our children, but a peaceful approach to parenting is not permissive.
We don’t say no ‘just because’, but when we see that it is needed. Then we are able to say a warm ‘no’ and listen to our children when it’s hard for them.
I am so glad I decided to hold the limit with the small things our daughter was asking for – which I could easily have done for her – as she was clearly crying out for something to push up against to let out whatever was bothering her.
She was like a changed child for the rest of the day!
For more on limits:
The vigorous snuggle shows how to respond playfully to tantrums and aggression.
When they’re hell-bent on misbehaving shows why warm limits are helpful and the words you can use to set them.
Emilie Leeks lives in Berkshire, UK with her husband and three children. She is a certified Hand in Hand Instructor with additional experience in speech, language and communication issues.