Connecting with Our Kids When We Set Limits (What That Really Means)

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.

I share a complete guide to respectful discipline in No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame, which is also available (and popular!) on Audible.

(Photo by Jude Keith Rose)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. I love your ideas and ethos but I still struggle with the “You don’t want to go to….” and then waiting. I wait and wait and sometimes I don’t have anymore time to wait! What do I do then?! I don’t always have time to wait for my LO and please don’t suggest giving more time for everything, there aren’t enough hours in the day :O( Thank you in advance for any ideas.

    1. Thank you, Jeni. This isn’t about waiting and waiting… It’s about allowing just a moment so that our child feels our acceptance of her point of view. That’s often all that’s needed to clear the air and turn the tide, though there may be tears. Then, I would continue getting ready and helping your child to get ready as needed.

  2. Thank you for your reply Janet. Sadly this doesn’t seem to work for my LO e.g. last week my LO didn’t want to go to nursery. I acknowledged she didn’t want to go and gave her time but after 10 mins of screaming I felt the need to hurry it along because I needed to go to work! I am at a loss for what to do in those circumstances – I don’t want to wrestle her into her clothes but cannot be late for work. Another examples is last night she didn’t want to brush her teeth. My OH and I acknowledged she didn’t want to do her teeth and gave her time to be ready. Her screaming fit lasted 30 mins. Luckily we had time to wait but what should we do if we don’t have time? Teeth brushing is a recurring trauma with us. In the past I have sat with LO and said “I’m happy to stay with you until you are ready for me to brush your teeth but we cannot leave the bathroom until your teeth are clean”. One time it took 1 hour of crying and throwing herself around on the floor before she calmed down and said “Mummy cuddles” and we cuddled and she let me do her teeth. We thought we had it sorted after that but now we are back into the refusal phase. Any ideas to help move this along would be v.helpful.

    1. Stacie Cook says:

      I don’t have any answers, but want to say that I am right there with you. So frustrating.
      My confusion in the ‘rie parenting’ is that we are dealing with children that sometimes and often times don’t care to respect us, so it is hard to try and treat them respectfully…..

      1. Thanks Janet – she really wants to do it herself. We let her ‘start’ and then we say we’ll finish and that we always have to finish for her. Sometimes it is ok and sometimes not. There are no doubt other things going on – tiredness being the main one in the evening – but we cannot not do her teeth and we cannot do them any earlier because certain things have to be done first e.g. eating her supper! Thanks for all your responses. I really appreciate it. I think it will just be something that goes in phases and we’ll have to stick them out each time. I’ve just enjoyed your post for this week, thank you 🙂

        1. Rita Johnston says:

          Hi Jeni – I feel how frustrated you are feeling. As a long time preschool teacher I often asked myself the question – how important is this right now? For a two year old, having an adult finish the teeth brushing doesn’t seem that important – you LO will have learnt to do this by the time she is 5 or 6 and less than perfect brushing will not give her cavities – it’s diet that does most of the damage to teeth. With the getting dressed etc. I regularly suggested that instead of the parent struggling with the child, just bring them in the PJ’s and I would happily and not shamingly help the child get dressed at preschool. My final question would be around why your LO doesn’t want to go to nursery. Have you spoken to her teachers etc. Once again – keep asking – how important is my adult agenda in the grand scheme of things. Hoping this might be helpful.

          1. Rita, that sounds like you’re advocating permissive parenting. “How important is it right now” implies that the parent should back down whenever possible if the child does not want to cooperate, even when given time and opportunity to express their emotions.

            Yes, perhaps sometimes we should review our requests/demands. (E.g. if the child cries because they wanted to wear the red shirt today, why not let him.) But often, a toddler’s/preschooler’s demands or objections are just plain unreasonable. She may be crying because she wanted to go outside when it’s bedtime. Should I let her go outside instead of sleeping? He may be crying because he wants a second [insert favourite tasty food, fun activity, etc.] when we agreed that he could choose only one, and he got the one he chose. Should I give him the second one anyway, because he is having trouble accepting the consequences of his choice? I would say no.

            And then there’s the issue of setting precedent. If you permit him to go to school in pajamas once, he’ll want to do it again tomorrow, and the next day, and forever after. So you’re only postponing the inevitable conflict, and you’re making the child even more confused about expectations. (“Why did mom let me go in pajamas yesterday, and not today?” You wouldn’t really have a good answer to that either.)

            I’m in the same position as Jeni, – I try to acknowledge my son’s feelings and let him calm down by himself while I sit nearby, but often, he’ll be crying a long-long time. Repeating “yes, I know you wanted to go to the playground, but it’s too late today” doesn’t help, at all.

  3. Tonight my son (4y) wanted to sleep with his brother /1 in The Same bed. I couldnot let him. He cried and screamed and at First i said “i couldnt let you but we can try when your brother is older ” it did not worked and he still screamed that he want it now and tried to climb in the bed.
    Then i said “you really want it now” and he moved to his own bedsc

    1. I feel the same way with my baby boy 18 months. What to do when after trying to connect and do the “I see you don’t want to get dressed but we need to go” if he still doesn’t want to ? This happens to me every day and I really don’t know what to do rather than pushing and “force” him to put his clothes on

  4. Hi Janet,
    How can I get the “podcast” to play? I just see an image that says “soundcloud” on it. I’d love to hear your tone.
    I would like to “zoom in” on that moment where you are acknowledging the child’s feelings, giving them space, without allowing them to trigger annoyance, anger, and worse. I find this to be the most difficult moment to inhabit. I find it requires full presence and acceptance of the situation, which is can be so hard to have, because we are focused perpetually on the next moment and getting our child to move forward into doing what we want/need them to do. I’d love to hear your tone in that podcast if I can access it.
    Thank you!

    1. Hi Pamela! I’m not sure how this appears on a mobile device, but on my desk top there is an orange arrow at the top left corner of the frame. If you click on that, the podcast plays. Sorry for the inconvenience!

  5. Janet, the last part of your podcast is especially helpful for me, because I definitely have used that “sympathetic, defeating” tone you demonstrated. The problem I’ve had is that often when I say, “You really don’t want to go,” or something similar, acknowledging his feelings, my son (almost two) looks up at me all hopeful and says, “Please please?” And it breaks my heart when I have to say, “No, we have to go. I know you don’t like it, and it’s OK to be upset.” I’m sure this feeling of regret and sadness comes across in my voice. I just know what it feels like and I know it is hard, even when I try to follow it up with a choice (do you want to walk or be carried, wear the black jacket or the gray jacket, etc). I’m hoping that reminding myself that it is important to be empowering rather than pitying will help us both feel more comfortable with my decisions and his reactions. Thanks for both the post and the audio!

    1. Great, Kelly. Yes, I hope the adjustment to a more empowering tone is helpful to you. These disappointments are a part of life… and not heartbreaking for children, unless we indicate to them as much.

  6. Kristi Graves says:

    do you have a pdf version that is printer friendly? i am a toddler teacher and have been sharing several of your articles with the parents in my classroom.

    1. Thanks for asking, Kristi! I’m sorry, but I don’t not have that ability on this website.

  7. Just to clarify, in the case of the girl who did not want to leave the house, after one says “You really don’t want to go,” you should just continue silently to lead (force?) her out the door, rather than saying “but we need to go now”? Shouldn’t we be following the “tell her what’s about the happen” strategy here and say something like: “It’s o.k. if you need to cry. Mommy will help you get your shoes on so we can leave and get in the car” or some such?

    1. I’m a little fuzzy on this too and would love to hear some clarification. Thanks, Janet!

  8. You could definitely add, “but we need to go now… I’m going to help you get your shoes on…”

    My point is that parents generally tend to focus on the “but we need to go” and sort of blow off really acknowledging the child’s perspective. So, it’s not that we wouldn’t share our reasoning at all… It’s about keeping in mind that, in this case, the child knows our agenda quite well, so what she really needs to know that her disagreement is truly heard and fully accepted.

  9. I love this post, it feels like every day something falls in place even more than the day before. It takes that extra step the positive/conscious/natural parenting I was doing so far just didn’t. I enjoyed the audio, great to hear the examples, to hear the tone of voice. It adresses so much of the ‘problems’ I encounter (confidence, overthinking how to say it right) and it makes me feel like I can be that confident mom a bit more every day, because I want her to have that mom! Thank you so much!

  10. I agree with so many of your ideas, and naturally was doing many things that you suggest. I do find it so useful reading about your ideas and i often implement them – for example my 2.5 year old son is going through a very loud “it’s mine” phase and having quite emotional reactions to others (including his father or myself) touching his toys. After a couple of days of explaining how he could react to get what he wants, i said to him today – i understand – i know it’s yours, but it’s important to share, like I share with you” which finally seemed to validate and help him process his feelings better. This was after your understand posting on facebook. What i have got in touch for though, is that i think it’s important that children see mums and dads angry if they have done something – such as endangered themselves or others – or my son has taken to waking in the night and playing loudly with his toys. As anger is a natural emotion – why avoid it and pretend it doesn’t occur? Is this not limiting their preparation for adulthood when they encounter anger with others? i dont mean shout at them (i never have) nor talk to them in a way that is founded in anger. I mean have angry eyes when i say i will not let you hit…

    1. I dont think showing them anger will necessarily ruin them, of course, but if we do something in anger purely to show someone they have angered us then i think thats what loosing your temper is. And if we loose our temper with our child we should always try to explain thats what happened and apologize for it. The question is, what are you trying to do when you are showing your child angry eyes? If you are following this rie philosophy, then getting them to comply by showing them they have upset you is contrary to the “i will not let you” statement – like you are giving two conflicting messages at once. I will not let you is supposed to be devoid of judgement, it is simply a statement that you wont allow yourself/others to be harmed. It is not supposed to be judgemental, because in this philosophy age appropriate behaviors are treated with complete understanding and not taken personally. One thing you can bank on is that there will be plenty of other people in your childs life that will introduce them to anger. You do not NEED to be the one to do this. You are the rock that they will come back to when the world gets too much, as it does for all of us. And thats not to say that they should feel they can do anything to you, which is why you let them know “i will not let you…” but that when they mess up you wont respond with anger or judgement but simply accept them for the imperfect individual they are and re establish those boundaries. There’s also an element of anger inflaming anger. If you have been involved in many online discussions you may have heard the term “do not feed the trolls” (people who will goad you to bring out your anger, for reasons known only to them but most likely in order to feel somehow superior) and i think in a way this can be applied to toddlers specifically as well! Being angry shows her that she’s made you loose you’re balance, she has provoked you. You may wish to show her that she has angered you in order to get her to feel bad about her actions or to make her aware that you possess feelings, but what it might actually do is simply inflame her own anger more, or make her worry that you aren’t the unshakable rock you need to be. It is rarely in that moment when we have just been angry (im assuming anger in the case of trying to hit someone or something) that we are able to be rational and see the other guys point of view, even as adults. Its often later on that we re think our own position in that previous moment of anger and are able to question our own behavior. So i dont think you “need” to show her anger when she has done something that would ordinarily anger someone, because showing her the
      anger serves only you, not her learning process. Now there’s no way a parent can be superman, so of course we will all get angry and show them those scary angry eyes, but we should aim not to. And apologize for loosing our cool when we do. I hope my answer to your question doesnt sound judgemental, as it isnt mean that way at all. I think these questions are ones that we all have and i felt like i might have an answer for you that made sense, if that makes sense? 🙂

  11. Stephanie Coopee says:

    I think redirection can be used as a way to connect, if done appropriately. The best redirection I see is when teachers and parents are responsive to a child’s behavior and then redirect them based on that need. For example, when a child is climbing on shelves and the caregiver responds by saying something like, “I see that you really want to climb right now. It is not safe to climb here, however we can go outside and climb on the jungle gym.” I completely agree with you that when redirection is used as a distraction tool, it is pretty ineffective, especially in the long run. But redirection used appropriately, I think, is the exact definition of responsive caregiving. I would be interested to see if there are other thoughts on this perspective. Thanks!

  12. Andrea Neviackas says:

    I hear you suggesting “let me help you xyz “ language. I have a 4 year old who finds every excuse in the book to avoid cleaning up his toys. He insists we “help” which is just his way to get us to do the work and him to watch. How can I “help” him clean up his toys responsibly without sending the message that we don’t help each out. I hate refusing to help him but it often comes to this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

More From Janet

Books & Recommendations