I’m privileged to receive a steady stream of questions from parents about various issues (and regret not being able to answer them all). The most common dilemma by far is discipline. Loving, thoughtful parents simply want to know how to give their kids healthy limits and boundaries, but this area of parenting is fraught with confusion, emotions and misunderstanding.
Successful guidance provides children the safety and comfort they need to flourish. When boundaries “work”, children don’t need to test them as often. They trust their parents and caregivers, and therefore their world. They feel freer and calmer and can focus on the important things: play, learning, socializing and being happy-go-lucky kids.
When setting boundaries, the emotional state of the parent almost always dictates the child’s reaction. If we lack clarity and confidence, lose our temper or are unsure, tense, frazzled, or frustrated — this will unsettle our kids and very likely lead to more undesirable behavior. We’re gods in our children’s eyes, and our feelings always set the tone. With this understanding, it’s easy to see why struggles with discipline can become a discouragingly vicious cycle.
Here’s how one family found their way out of the confusion:
We experienced a light bulb moment in our home recently. We have been struggling to set clear boundaries. We felt our boundaries were clear, but it was obvious our son wasn’t getting what he needed. Two things happened to fix this problem.
First, I have always tried to empathize with his feelings: “You are angry because…” But this is something my husband hadn’t really implemented yet.
On a night when we were all out later than normal (helping some friends load a moving truck, our boy was very tired. He fell and bumped his head and just wasn’t recovering emotionally. We quickly left, and he kept crying. My husband (out of the blue for him) just said “You bumped your head and it really hurt! You are so upset!”
My son immediately stopped crying. He then began to “tell” us (he isn’t really talking yet but is very clear in trying to communicate) that he had hurt himself. My husband kept responding the same way, and my son settled and fell asleep within minutes. My husband was amazed and I was so proud!
The second thing was that we found a post on your website that was an email correspondence between you and another mom experiencing the same thing we were (example given was her daughter kept knowingly throwing toys outside even though mom kept telling her she didn’t like it until finally getting frustrated and locking the door). You said something like ‘they don’t want to be annoying. If they keep testing they are asking for HELP. Ask them once and then if they don’t quite get it, lock the door. If you become annoyed or frustrated you haven’t acted quickly enough’.
WOW. DUH! I am not exaggerating when I say that between these 2 things, his and our behavior changed within ONE DAY. No tense moments, no angry moments… No more hurting his feelings with our frustration. It has been wonderful!
I have such a sweet, curious and capable 19 month old. He is extremely intelligent and curious, and I was trying to understand his needs developmentally by giving him chances to process and understand my request. I realize now that I was not understanding that what he really needed was to know that I was going to follow through. I was giving him TOO MUCH POWER.
Thank you. The balance has been restored and we are now positive that this is the right parenting method for us!
When I asked Brittney if I could share her story she replied:
Sure! Thank you again for everything you share. Your blog is what introduced us to respectful parenting. It has been a blessing and relief to know we don’t have to yell or spank to have “good kids”. Our whole perspective has changed!
Thank you, Brittney!
I offer a complete guide to understanding and addressing common behavior issues in my book:
NO BAD KIDS: Toddler Discipline Without Shame
(Photo by Juhan Sonin on Flickr)
(Photo by Ghislain Berger on Flickr)
Good to know about email, I sent an email once and wasn’t sure you got it… I meant to email you a video but didn’t think it would get to you!
Regarding this story… One thing I’ve noticed is that when I slip into the too many chances cycle.. and start getting frustrated, I can usually diffuse myself just by noticing what’s happening, does that make sense? So it’s not like, “oh, I didn’t follow through, I failed,” once I realize what’s happening I can stop and deal with it in a better manner. My son has his share of meltdowns, but on the whole he’s a pretty laid back kid. I wonder occasionally how much is temperament and how much is just responding to me (usually) staying calm…
Hi Meagan! I read all my emails and would definitely have received (and appreciated!) a video, but I’m only able to answer a fraction of them (and messages on FB), which is one of the reasons I decided to offer my consulting service to online readers: https://www.janetlansbury.com/call-me/. Honestly, it’s overwhelming and guilt-inducing for me to leave letters hanging and I’m not the form letter type, but on the other hand I LOVE hearing from parents and professionals and really I appreciate all the interest.
I’m really sorry I didn’t get back to you, since I usually look out for frequent commenters that I recognize! Sometimes so much time passes before I can respond that I feel like the issue has probably resolved itself… Anyway, blah, blah, blah…
Regarding your son being pretty laid back, I’d say that’s both nature and nurture, Meagan. We really do have a great influence in this area of parenting, so KUDOS to you for working on staying calm!
When setting boundaries the emotional state of the parent determines the child’s reaction.
Repeat 10 times.
I love it, Rick. Thank you.
So if follow through is not a problem, you would say it is all in the delivery? Both of my children (4.5 and 2.5) keep testing CONSTANTLY and I can’t figure out what’s up. They will hit/kick, I will tell them I don’t allow that, hold their hands/feet, and as soon as I let go, they do it again (with a smirk on their faces).
Jennifer, it’s very hard for me to know why they don’t believe you… Are you being direct? Staying calm and in command? “I won’t let you hit me. If you need to hit, hit the couch cushions.” Don’t engage in a drama with them. Be almost bored with it all.
I’m wondering if my “firmness” sounds agitated after watching your videos. I will try adjusting- a consult might be in the future.
Ah, this is a wonderful insight, Jennifer. Imagine the person whose leadership you depend on becoming agitated, seeming threatened by your behavior. This isn’t a comfortable feeling for young children and often causes them to repeat the behavior (sometimes even with an uneasy smirk) in hope of a more confident response.
I have the same problem with my strong willed 5.5 y/o son, I will tell him numerous times and in different ways what I need for him to do. I try very hard to watch my tone of voice, and when i am really frustrated or angry I will actually whisper in his ear so that I don’t yell and whispering calms me down.
When at home he can hit a pillow and we offer that but he still will hit me, or his own head or a throw toys, but also as New yorkers we ride trains ALOT so for example yesterday, he was using my iPad and then he got frustrated and hit it. I warned him that if he hit the iPad again i would take it. 2 minutes later he did it again so i took it and he LOST IT. He was hitting me with his hands and his head, making excuse “I forgot (not to hit) then I didn’t do that! hitting the ipad or me. then kicked off his shoes. My husband thinks i give him too many chances, he said I should have taken the ipad the first time. And I do give him chances often because I want to find out what is going on with him. but he just pushes the boundaries to the limit. When we got home we had dinner (my mother planned to have us over- she lives in our building) then he was sent directly to bed which i told him would happen if he didn’t calm down and stop the behaviours when were were on the train. The past week has been my breaking point and I will eventually yell. I have always had to physically restrain him he sometimes hits me when i do it but lately he always hits. I am at my wits end.
Did Janet reply to you about this? If you still need support, let me know. Also, if Janet did respond, I am interested in her suggestions.
Will paste it on my fridge. Thanks Rick!
No worries! I don’t even remember what I wrote about. My feelings weren’t hurt, I just wondered if it had actually reached you. Sometimes emailing with a website link feels like writing into a void… you never know if it will get anywhere.
There is nothing more important than acknowledging the reason your child is getting upset. It really does work to calm them down a lot. Think about it in relation to an adult; most people enjoy feeling understood so why would it be any different for a child.
Hi Janet, thanks for the great post!
I have 17-month-old twins and we are starting to run up against the power struggle more and more. One of my daughters absolutely hates getting into her car seat (which isn’t even every day, come on!) but I’ve realized that instead of being anxious that she’s going to “freak out”, I start talking to her about getting into her carseat well in advance so she knows what’s coming. She still stiffens up and resists, but she knows that WE know that she does not like it, saying, “I know you don’t want to sit in your seat, but we are going to ____ and this is how we get there!” She eventually calms down and lets me clip her in.
I really do love how simple this is – remembering two things is way easier than wondering what in the world to do about a headstrong toddler (or two). It’s still challenging to always follow through, but it seems like it gets easier the more I do it.
Sounds really good, Megan. Thanks for sharing.
This is exactly what i needed to read today! I have realized that i give waaay to many chances and that is exacerbating the power struggles i am having with my 2 year old son! So at bath time tonight, i gave the 5 min warning and 2 min warning like i always do and then said its time to get out. He started to protest and i simply repeated myself and pulled him out very matter of factly and he immediately stopped fussing and was fine! One of the things i really need to work on is the matter of fact part because i do tend to get flustered some times and in the thick of things i get flustered and shut down (the opposite of yellers, i guess but still problematic ). My question is about those times where i would have to physically force him to comply like into the car seat or into clothes, snow pants etc …..still do the ask once, then follow through because the idea is the struggles will diminish? And then after when i feel like i totally just violated him, what do i say?! Just calmy and empathetically something like “you didnt want to do x and you’re mad because i made you but its my job to keep you safe and i love you ” maybe? Thanks so much for your time!
Liz, your word choices sound good, but if you are even thinking “violated”, this will probably not work well. Did you feel you violated him when you took him out of the tub? I see this as helping your child do something you consider necessary that he has clearly indicated he cannot do for himself at that moment. If you have offered him an opportunity to be autonomous and given him a moment or two (sometimes I would say, “Please let me know when you are ready…” because that allows the child to “save face” and be autonomous), then the only thing left is to HELP him do it before you get angry.
how can I receive your blog?
Great books “Positive Discipline” and “Parenting from the Inside Out”
I would like to be added to the mailing list. This is very insightful and helpful. My 2 year old daughter has been testing my husband and me. For example, when she plays with play dough she eats it. I tell her I’m going to take it away if she puts it in her mouth and then she eventually puts it in her mouth and I take it away. We have tried a couple of times over the past few days and it keeps happening. This also happens with the soap in the tub with her dad. Maybe we are sounding agitated? We’ll work on that. I wonder if she is doing it for attention?
Thank you so much for this post and for responding! ,
My question is for my 2.5 year old son. He is still putting everything in his mouth. He will rarely give me any item that he is mouthing when I ask for it…so then I take it away from him. This usually requires me grabbing it from him. I feel like I am teaching him to grab. Do you have any advice?
I am realizing that I do need to be more consistent with this because sometimes I won’t take the item away. I have a newborn and sometimes that struggle is too much for me!
This has been a really useful blog and one I wish I had stumbled across years ago.
I definitely gave my son too many chances, didn’t follow through and the only action was me getting cross. Now he is nearly 8 and I am definitely struggling – it’s not so easy to get an 8 year old out of the tub if he refuses, especially whilst remaining calm at his refusal!
Sadly though, struggles at this age are so much harder. So stick at it when they’re younger to avoid unnecessary confrontations when they are older!
Thank you for your post. As I’m new to RIE I’m still working on my method, however, at meal times (which are never fun as my 17 month old daughter rarely eats much since around 12 months)….. She always throws her food on the floor. When I grab her hands and ask her if she is all done, and no you can’t throw the food on the floor…she laughs and starts doing it even faster and grabbing even bigger handfuls. I’m at a loss! Why does she continue to do this and be so defiant? How best should we handle it? Thanks so much!
My first thought is… don’t give her that much food. Help her not throw food by only giving her a little at a time, and take it away and end the meal if she starts throwing.
Second thought is to not make a big deal of it. “I see that you are done with your meal. You don’t need to throw food to tell me that. I will help you by taking the rest of the food away.”
She’s trying to figure out where the boundaries are, and you can make it easier on both of you by being firm and unemotional about it.
(I know it’s hard to remember that in the moment, though – which is why not giving her the opportunity and tools to test those boundaries – lots of food to throw – is helpful for both of you.)
I have been reading this page and following on face book for about 4 months now and I wish I had found RIE when our son was born four years ago. As a home visiting nurse I have started talking about these principles with my clients and I am really watching babies now. So lovely, I feel a little sad that I missed a lot of this with my son. I have never felt good about redirection/distraction/punishment/ and am always looking for more gentle respectful ways of parenting. Basically, I was missing the boundary setting and giving him too much choice(incredibly wishy washy and way too wordy) and RIE tonight helped me help my four year old son discard a long held sleep association of being carried and sung to sleep (transitioned from being breastfed to sleep:-). Either my husband or I walk and sing him to sleep. I was expecting a lot of resistance and tears. I was prepared. I was calm. I was matter of fact. I explained briefly last night that he is too heavy to carry now and it is winter and cold and we need him to learn to sleep lying down. He was upset and said he didn’t want to. I said “tonight is the last night of singing songs”. He was upset and wanted me and not my husband to sing. He woke as I was putting him down and requested my husband sing as well. His own way of saying goodbye. Tonight, we lay down after our usual bedtime routine. I spent two hours after work today playing his games instead of my usual hour (my husband is the stay home parent). When time came for sleep, he asked to sing songs. I said calmly, “it is hard to make changes, tonight is the night to sleep lying down. I am here and I will stay with you while you learn”. After a bit of tossing, he asked me to rub his back. I did so and he was asleep within minutes. I think my working on my boundaries over the last few months has really helped him trust what I say. We have had many tears and testing since I have been setting more limits. Thank you so much for the page. I am learning, our son is more settled and our whole family is gaining so much from this new (for us)perspective into human communication.
My 6 year old twins have two big power struggles with us every day. One is brushing their teeth at night and the other is getting up in the morning and getting ready for school.
Cannot seem to figure either one out.
I’m hoping you can share some insight for us. We are a brand new family of four. We had discipline all sorted in loving ways before my second son was born and for the first time I was away from my toddler, now 2 1/2 years old, for 5 days recovery in hospital. After this of course everything changed in our family and now baby is 6 months old and our toddler is going wild for attention. We are most days sleep deprived and low on energy which is the major issue. If I can get at least 4-5 hours sleep then I am almost a different mother. I have energy for both toddler and baby. But when I don’t my toddler hits stamps whacks the baby and glass for my attention. I’m so tired its all I can do to not break down in tears in front of both boys. It feels like I don’t have enough energy to be in two places at once let alone think of the right words to use with my toddler or think ahead and plan activities for him at times when I need to nurse baby etc.
a lot of what you do requires training yourself and keeping up with your child but I find it so exhausting and baby suffers more on those tired days that I have to put him down and go constantly to raging toddler. I have sadly introduced a naughty corner which I am sure he will not even understand yet, but it is actually helping us at the moment.
Any advice for this anxious weary mum and dad?
Thanks Janet and we love reading your posts they give us much hope
Hopefully it is not just a phase, but I have been truly unruffled for so many more moments than not. Thank you!
This evening, my daughter did not want to get out from under cozy covers to go to the bathroom one last time. “Let’s go, it’ll be quick,” was my first response and then I remembered to empathize. “I know how hard it is to leave a cozy bed. You want to stay cozy.”
I then offered that her stuffed animal could keep her place warm and we could wrap her blankie around her. She thought that was silly and fun and off we went.
You give these examples all the time in articles and podcasts and I enjoyed myself putting it into practice. Empathy feels good. And it’s received well. Thank you for the guidance leading to another pleasant bedtime. They are accumulating and becoming the norm.
It’s not a phase. You’ve got this! Yes, empathy does feel good. Very, very good. I love your story and am thrilled to the bone that these ideas are giving you confidence and enjoyment. You are so welcome and thank YOU for making my day! x Janet
Please add me to your mailing list. I’m really struggling on setting boundaries and am with my daughter (2.2 yrs) 24/7. She breastfeeds all night and constantly wants my attention all day. I’ve gotten into the habit of mostly agreeing with her to stop her mega tantrums (since birth she has had crying sessions that last hours. Started with colic up to 9 hours a night. But now it’s morphed over time to temper tantrums/tantrums when she wakes in the night etc with no apparent cause). I often empathise and say “I see you’re feeling cross/sad because xyz, and that’s ok, but mommy still has to xyz”. I feel ragged and worn out, but I have never shouted at her or raised my voice or left her alone to tantrun. I hold her or stay close by always. And I try hard to have a flexible day that still has structure and routine. Plenty of nature play and open-ended toys. And very healthy food etc. I’m at a loss really. She is angelic in public but at home she rules the roost and it is seriously unpleasant
My 3 year old daughter has started acting like a baby, she’ll talk like a baby and I can’t understand her, she asks for a dummy even though she hasn’t had one for about 2 year and asks for a nappy on again which she hasn’t had for about a year.
I no it doesn’t sound bad but I find it really frustrating behaviour and I’m not sure weather to act along with her or to discourage her from doing it.
I don’t want to crush her imagination I’m any way but I find it hard to understand her and I do t want her to go back over.