I am confident that setting limits is not any parent’s favorite way to connect with a child. Not any parent I know, anyway. There is nothing warm and fuzzy about denying our children’s requests, limiting their behavior, or trying to gain cooperation when they resist. And yet, negotiating these challenging moments is the key to guiding our kids effectively. When we are connecting genuinely, respectfully, and comfortably, our kids are assured of our competence. They feel safe and understood. They sense that we have their backs and are far less likely to need to push our limits.
Nice sentiments, I know, but not necessarily useful when you’re in the trenches. What does connecting when setting limits really mean? Since success is often a function of delivery, I’ve included a podcast demonstration with suggestions.
But first here are some commonly advised practices that actually discourage connection:
Often suggested as a redirection tool, distracting babies and toddlers when they fuss, cry, or are headed for a forbidden object can be tempting because it often “works” in the moment. It’s a temporary fix, though. Distraction capitalizes on our children’s hyperawareness in the early years, which psychologist Alison Gopnik refers to as their “lantern” consciousness (in contrast to an adult’s more focused “spotlight” consciousness). The intention of distraction is to disconnect the child from his or her present reality.
It always surprises me when experts recommend this, because they never consider the repercussions. When and how, for example, should parents switch gears and begin connecting honestly?
Attitudes and word choices that skirt connection
Here are a couple of common examples:
The misuse of “we”
In an article about strong willed children, an expert advises: “Avoid power struggles by using routines and rules. That way, you aren’t the bad guy bossing them around, it’s just that, “The rule is we use the potty after every meal and snack.”
This must mean that the parent uses the potty after every meal and snack as well, right? If not, “we” is false and inauthentic. I’m totally on board with not engaging in power struggles, but referring to ourselves as “we” is not really engaging at all.
Furthermore, “the rule is… “ makes no sense as a strategy to avoid coming off as a “bad guy bossing our child around.” How is citing the rulebook not being bossy? It just means we aren’t taking responsibility for enforcement (“It’s not me — it’s the rule”). Children sense our reluctance to get close and personal, and it leaves them cold. Kids, particularly those with a stronger will, need parents who are unafraid to be direct and honest with them, and who take responsibility for the boundaries they set.
Sugarcoating and falseness
When we use a patronizing tone, terms of endearment like “Sweetie, Honey, or Sugar,” false praise, or other disingenuous techniques to butter our kids up, they can feel manipulated rather than truly seen, heard, and connected with us. For example, our kids see right through: “Oh, Sweetie, show me again how good you can be at being gentle with the doggy. He gets so sad when you hit him.”
To genuinely connect we must:
Have a realistic perspective
I have never met parents incapable of handling their toddler’s behavior, though I have met many who believe themselves incapable and feel overwhelmed. We can do this!
See our child
Understand that she very likely remembers that we don’t want her to throw sand or her truck. Know the glint in her eye when she’s testing. The only reminder she needs at this moment is that we will stop her.
Even when behaving impulsively, children usually know what they’re doing. What they don’t know is why. Our children need us to speak to them as intelligent people and through a lens of familiarity and intimacy. So, rather than reiterating to the child pausing at the open car door, “You need to sit in your car seat before we can go,” try, “Hmm… seems you are going to need a bit of help making a move today… Here, I’ll give you a hand.”
Use connecting words like: “I” and “you”
Make eye contact when possible
But not if you are rattled, annoyed or, worse, enraged.
Fully accept and acknowledge our child’s point of view
Which means bravely letting feelings be. Really letting them sit. For example, a cursory “I know you’re upset,” immediately followed by, “but we have to leave the park right now to go pick up your brother,” or some other reiteration of our agenda feels dismissive. We have a tendency to want to do this because we fear giving credence to our children’s point of view, and yet that’s exactly what connecting with them entails.
There was time for questions after one of my recent lectures, and a frustrated parent shared how her spirited daughter was resisting, stalling, and sometimes flat out refusing to get dressed and out the door for her toddler program each morning. What was a parent to do?
As often seems to be the case, I had more questions for this mom than answers, but after probing further the issue became apparent…and it’s a common one. She was battling her daughter rather than genuinely connecting with her. As the experienced adults in these relationships, we must be the ones to build bridges by letting kids know we hear and accept their disagreement. So I asked the mom if she’s ever simply acknowledged to her daughter without any kind of attitude or judgment: You don’t want to go. Just leaving it at that for a moment or two. She hadn’t.
It’s impossible to connect if we’re ignoring the elephant in the room. But once we point him out and then assure our children that his presence is totally okay with us – we’re not at all intimidated, nor are we changing our mind because of him — we can all move on more peacefully.
Here’s a brief podcast demonstration of some of the ideas in this post…
Transcript of “Guiding Toddlers With Connection” (courtesy of Torin Thompson, August 12, 2015):
Hi, I’m Janet Lansbury, and this podcast is an audio assist to my post “Guiding Toddlers With Connection.” I’m going to give some examples of what it sounds like to really connect with our children when we’re setting limits with them or asking for their cooperation, and also I’m going to cover acknowledging feelings. Many of you have asked, you know, what that really sounds like.
So first we’ll talk about this relationship that we have with our children that really needs to come through when we’re setting limits. So we can’t approach them as, you know, strangers that we have to say the same things to over and over again. Children learn very quickly, they’re very, very aware and generally they know what they’re doing when they’re doing something we don’t want them to do. What they don’t know is why, because this is impulsive behavior. They don’t really understand why, but they know that they’re doing it.
One of the examples that I used in the post is about a child in the sandbox getting ready to throw a truck or getting ready to throw sand. So instead of reiterating to the child, “I don’t want you to throw sand,” we might say, “Ahh, I see, you’re showing me that you’re throwing sand and I’m going to come help you move out of the sandbox.” If we see the child holding a truck, you know, getting ready to throw the truck: “I see you want to throw that truck, I’m going to stop you.”
So we’re looking in our child’s eyes, unafraid, because, you know, there’s nothing with children this age that we can’t handle and that’s really the most important thing… our confidence. A lot of times parents have worried about saying the right words and pause in these situations because they want to make sure they’re not being shaming, or make sure they’re being respectful, and I really appreciate that consideration, but it’s actually more important to feel at ease in these situations. That’s what will help your child to feel comfortable and feeling comfortable will lead to them not needing to push these limits with us, so providing that comfort means being confident more than anything else. One thing I said to these parents recently is, “Maybe you could try pretending that everything you say to your child, every decision you make, is absolutely perfect for one day and see how that feels,” because I find people are overthinking these things so much.
So we’re making these intimate connections with our children. Another common one is the older child is playing very roughly next to the baby. Now this is very seldom an accident, but rather than saying, you know, “Don’t hurt the baby, you’re playing too rough,” I would say, “I see you, I see you’re showing me that you need my help right now. I’m going to come stop you,” or, “Do you need to come take a breather? I see you’re showing me you’re feeling out of control, you’re feeling a little rambunctious next to your brother.”
Again, the words don’t matter but the intimate connection of knowing each other, and both of us in a relationship together, that’s what matters, that’s what makes a difference.
So, acknowledging feelings, let’s jump to that. One of the examples that I used in the post was about a mother trying to get her daughter ready to go out the door in the morning and getting very frustrated trying to pressure the child saying no, getting her to do this, pleading with her, trying everything, and it didn’t work, and I said, “Did you ever just say to her, ‘You don’t want to go’?” and she said “No, no, I didn’t ever say that.” Without, you know, qualifying it, saying, “Oh, you don’t want to go but we have to go,” and just kind of brushing it off that way, it’s very important to really let these feelings sit and it’s scary because we feel like we’re going to make it worse or we’re going to make them hold on more or we’re going to give them permission to stop this train that needs to leave, but actually it’s the opposite. When they’re able to say it and we’re able to say, “Yeah, you really, really want to stay here. I see you don’t want to go today,” just leaving it at that, then, our child can feel it and know that we’re not bothered by it and then that’s how they get over it. That’s how they express it and feel understood, feel connected to us, and then they’re able to move on, because we’re not saying, “You don’t want to go and we’re going to stay.” We’re saying, “You really don’t want to go, and it’s okay that you don’t want to do things that you have to do sometimes.”
We’re going to continue to insist, but in our voice, in our body language, we are very settled in our decision, and then we’re able to say, able to acknowledge the child’s perspective very comfortably. So not brushing these things off, “Oh you’re upset but we really have to do this.” “You’re upset. You’re not liking this right now.” Take that leap of faith in your child to give them that real acknowledgement.
One of my recommendations for acknowledging feelings is speaking to children in an empowering manner, instead of speaking in a sympathetic voice. For example, today a parent used the example in a message thread about her older daughter didn’t like it that the baby was in her old high chair, which makes a lot of sense to me, and knowing that a lot of other feelings are getting expressed through this incident that really have nothing to do with the high chair — the whole feeling about this change, this big transition in the child’s life, the sadness and fear that goes along with it. Her daughter was upset and the way that I would acknowledge that is, “You really don’t like that. I see. Oh, you don’t want her in that seat. You don’t like that she’s in your old seat.” So speaking to her strength rather than saying, “Oh yeah, I know, you really didn’t like that, oh, you’re so upset,” that kind of defeating voice. I like to speak to children in a manner that makes them feel strong and good and that I really accept the strength of their feelings rather than trying to simmer them down.
We can do this.
(Photo by Jude Keith Rose)