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How to Stop Your Child’s Limit Pushing Behavior Without Losing It Yourself

It wasn't the first time I'd warned my son that it was too close to dinner for him to be having cookies.

“Please!!!!”

He looked up at me with those two huge coffee-brown eyes. “Please, mum?!”

He smiled.

My resolve softened. Then a flash-forward scene of him refusing to eat dinner later ran through my mind, and I tensed up.

“No!” I snapped. “Not now.”

He crossed his arms and stomped off. I sighed. It wasn't the best response, but at least he hadn't broken me down that time.

So I thought.

I'd just started responding to an email when I saw a flash of movement.

He wasn't?!!!

HE WAS!!!

He'd crept into the kitchen, and when I peeked around the door, he froze, hand with cookie midway between packet and mouth.

I froze too.

What do you think I did next?

Screamed?

Shouted?

Told him to PUT THAT COOKIE DOWN and STEP AWAY?

I'm not going to lie. All of those options whipped through my mind.

And they are all responses I've used before.

But guess what?

Did any of them result in us eating dinner in even a halfway good mood?

You bet it didn't.

Most times ended up with him refusing to even come to the table.

So, did I give in and give him the cookie?

Also no. Because I'm the mum. I know cookies are not a good meal replacement, even if he isn't there yet.

So, what did I do?

I smiled.

“You know the rule,” I said, with a twinkle in my eye.

He was still frozen. Weighing up his response… not quite sure what was happening.

“You know! Anyone caught with cookies gets a Cookie Monster Hug from Mum!”

I roared playfully, extended my arms and then said, “Come for Cookie Monster hug NOW!”

What did he do? He laughed. Bolted from the kitchen, with me chasing him.

I was Cookie Monster, so I was messy in my chase, bumbling around as ungracefully as possible. I kept bumping into things while he laughed, escaping the hug, until we landed, laughing, on the bed.

You might think I'm crazy, right?

Set limits with play?

Now that sounds like a joke! A reward for bad behavior? Am I kidding?

Well, actually, a reward is the last thing it is. 

Here's Why Playful Responses Are Not A Reward for Limit Pushing Behavior

When you address your child's limit-pushing behavior with play, you respond to them with love and affection—exactly what they need to feel better, connect, and stop that annoying behavior. 

After all, when a child feels your kind love and attention loud and clear, they don't need to gain your attention in other ways – like dipping their hand in the cookie jar when they know it's almost dinner!

That doesn't stop this response feeling a little counter-intuitive for us parents. 

Why?

Well, few of us ever heard “no,” said playfully and it's hard to imagine you could use those words without tones of threat and harshness mixed in. 

5 Playful Ways To Say No

To get started, invent some playful, light as a feather tones you can use to say, “no.” Try experimenting with the pitch of your voice, your words, and some exaggeration of a grown-up and serious, “no,” – see what talent you can discover in this department of ridiculous and playful responses. 

Let's say you notice your child sneaking into the snack cupboard…

Try a mild, “Na, na, na,” and gently shake your head. 

Or use a high-pitched voice when you say, playfully, “Oh! you're in trouble now…” 

How about a billowy, “Noooo” but said like you are pinning on a medal of honor to your child. 

Perhaps a friendly, “I'm going to catch you,” tone you can try when you see a hand dipping into the cookie jar. (You could try the same tone and say, “I saw that!!! You're into the cookies again!!!.”)

And give that chase, hamming it up like a cartoon character. Perhaps your child might find the fun in some playful mock threats, like, “I'll put frogs in the shirt of anyone who dips into the cookies again…” (or whatever you think might get some giggles going.)

At Hand in Hand, we call this kind of “no,” combined with affectionate contact or a chase that ends in affection and nuzzling, a Vigorous Snuggle. You can even set limits with a child who is using aggressive behavior using this technique. (Read about that here). 

Why Does Play work to Address Button-pushing Behavior? 

Play works to address behaviors like pushing limits because it directly tackles the isolation that sends your child off-track. 

How did our evening end you may wonder?

Once we got to the bed and had our hugs, he wanted to play a game where I roll him in the covers and turn him over for a few minutes.

Then, I went back to my email and he sat next to me and read his book.

Then, we ate dinner.

I'm not going to tell you, my son, greedily gobbled up his broccoli that night, but he sat, we talked, and things were peaceful.

Then?

You guessed it.

He got that cookie.

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