Is It Too Late to Set Limits with My Strong-Willed Child?

The parent of a 4-year-old who describes her child as strong-willed and social is concerned that she and her husband did not set boundaries early enough, and they are now paying for it. She admits that for most of her boy’s young life she was reluctant to enforce boundaries so as not to upset him. Now when she tries to do so, his reaction is explosive. She asks how they can communicate with their son “without the hitting and kicking… Is it hopeless? Is it too late for him? Is it too late for us?”

Transcript of “Is It Too Late to Set Limits with My Strong-Willed Child?”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I have a question from a mother who’s concerned about her strong-willed child, who she hasn’t set boundaries with, she realizes, and she really wants to change that and is having difficulties in the transition.

Here’s the email I received:

Hi Janet. I’m the mom of a very strong willed, social four-year-old boy. He’s incredibly smart. (I don’t think I’m saying that just because I’m his mom), and very in tune with his emotions, and the emotions of those around him. He loves to be the center of attention and loves to show off in a crowd. My question is, is it too late for discipline? I feel like I didn’t set boundaries early enough in his life and my husband and I are now paying for it. He doesn’t listen. He can get very worked up and excited. He does what he wants to do all the time, regardless of what we say.

He was an IVF baby and came after two miscarriages, so I spent a lot of time in the mindset that he was a perfect little miracle, which he still is, and I didn’t want to hurt or upset him. I have, I’m ashamed to admit, I just recently started following through on the things that I say I will do. For example, “If you pour water outside the tub again, we will get out.” But then he will do the behavior again to get a reaction, and when I take him out of the tub, he hits and kicks and screams, or he will say things that he knows he shouldn’t, like shut up, stupid, et cetera, just to get a reaction, then he gets upset when he’s punished.

How do we communicate with him and get him to listen without the hitting and kicking? He only has a year left before kindergarten, and I’m already so worried about how he will do. Is it hopeless? Is it too late for him? Is it too late for us? Help!

Okay. So one of the things I love about this note is this parent’s self-awareness and self-reflective ability. She is spot on, I’m sure in the way that she’s understanding the path that she’s been on. And so I just want to try to offer some ideas to help her make this switch, which I highly recommend.

And I’ve had this whole journey myself, so I do relate to this parent and many parents’ reticence to set boundaries that upset their children. I think many of us feel this. What I had to come to realize is that the person who was losing there was my child. My child was not getting adults to take care of her. (In my case, it was a her.) Obviously, we were taking care of her in a lot of ways, but we weren’t doing the hard things.

A child who doesn’t have adults setting boundaries feels like they have to be a little adult. They have so much responsibility. And they can’t tell us this and we don’t see this directly, so it’s challenging. But what we want to do is relieve children of these burdens of holding onto their feelings, first of all, these very strong feelings that young children tend to have.

I have to hold onto my feelings and I’m controlling all the situations and controlling the adults, and the adults are unwittingly giving me this message that feeling disappointment or not getting what I want — it’s a scary thing. It’s something that I can’t handle. I can’t handle feeling like that.

Those are the messages that children get when we are in that mode of seeing our job as keeping them happy all the time, misunderstanding happiness as, that our child never feels anything other than happy. That isn’t true happiness.

So then when children have these normal disappointments and feelings of anger and sadness and loss, maybe of not getting what they want, frustration, there’s another layer that we add by not normalizing this process. And that is a layer of fear around this. Because my parents never let me go there. So it must be a place I’m not supposed to go.

So with all of that in mind, yes, this change is very, very important. I love that this parent wants to make a shift. And it’s not easy for us to do this. Our child will adapt. But for adults, it is difficult to go from feeling like: my job is to keep you happy, and if you’re going to be disappointed, then I’m going to change something or do something to make it better rather than hold onto these normal boundaries, like getting you out of the bathtub or helping you get dressed or to bed or whatever it is.

So what this parent is noticing is, like she said, he doesn’t listen, he can get very worked up and excited. Yes. So those are all stored feelings bubbling up. And I would see it as predominantly fear at this point. I think that will help you to have a perception of it that gives you the confidence that you need at this point, to make these changes.

He’s still a little tiny four-year-old guy. I would see it as him saying: It’s been so scary that I’ve had to boss everybody around and never go to these dark places, and this is scary. I would see it that way, so that you have less chance of getting annoyed and angry at him for the feelings.

You can empathize, but also see it as: He’s finally getting to do this. I’m finally offering in these opportunities. I’m doing a heroic thing here. Which I do believe. I believe every time that we are able to hold onto a boundary and allow children to have their feelings or not even hold onto a boundary, but just allow children to have their feelings, it is heroic.

But if we have this option in our mind, Oh, well, I could just let them stay in the bath longer. And then I don’t need to upset him. Then of course, we feel a little bit responsible for the feelings, but that is not true. We are not responsible when we are giving children those boundaries, those normal boundaries, and asserting our personal boundaries. “I can’t play with you right now. I’m going to go to the bathroom. I’m just going to finish up my tea before we go outside.” Whatever it is, it can be harder to face those feelings because we feel like we could make another choice that could avoid them.

But again, that is not the truth. The truth is the children seem to unconsciously know they need to vent. And that’s where they’ll push these boundaries. Some of them can seem ridiculous and then it can be even clearer to us that, Whoa, my child is just pushing and pushing. Because they really need to explode. They need to get that out of their bodies safely. Every time they do that, of course, they learn that disappointments come, frustrations come, anger comes, there’s a wave, and it passes. And I get to the other side, and it’s okay, I can do this.

So to answer her first question, no, it’s not too late for discipline. It’s wonderful that she’s taking this on.

She says he gets worked up and excited. “He doesn’t listen.” Right. So those are the feelings that he needs to vent.

And then she says, “He does what he wants to do all the time, regardless of what we say.”

Well, there are times when you can limit those things and times when you can’t, but he can’t be the one deciding.

And she doesn’t say what the specifics are, but let’s take one that she gave us, the bath. So we can say, “It’s time to get out of the bath. It’s time to get out of the bath. It’s time to get out of the bath,” which I don’t recommend repeating. I recommend noticing that that’s a sign that we’re expecting our child to just be able to do it because we’ve said it, and a child who hasn’t had these boundaries often enough will not be able to do it. And there’ll be certain times a day when most children will not be able to do it. When they’re tired, when they’ve got emotions going on of some kind.

So he needs her to right away realize that this isn’t something where he’s going to say, “Oh yeah, sure I’ll get out of the bath. Absolutely, if you say so. Thank you for letting me know it’s time.”

He’s going to resist. And he’s going to maybe use this unconsciously as a venting experience. So when we can, we physically back it up right away before there’s a power struggle starting, do what I call confident momentum. “No buddy, we’re getting out.” And you’re already helping him out.

And then when he screams, which will be less if we get into this confidently and do it early, then you keep going you don’t let it stop you, you keep moving him out and you try to see this as: Okay. Here’s where we’re letting him share some of these feelings that he’s been holding onto. That we’ve been encouraging him to hold onto without meaning to. Here’s where he gets to vent it.

It could be really powerful, but it’s positive. We have to see it that way, so that we can stay confident and assured in what we’re doing. And that’s what he needs from us.

Children, especially at these difficult ages… like four years old, that can be a very intense age of all these developmental cognitive, physical leaps that I’m taking and I’m being more my own person and I need you guys to be super confident and assured in what you’re doing. I don’t want to worry about you. I need you to be able to contain me, so that I can focus on all the things I need to focus on in my growth.

So I would work on, in your mind, turning this around from where most of us feel, which is, I’m a bad parent. Or, I’m upsetting him and I’m doing something wrong. And this is a terrible sign. And now he’s being a brat. Or, I feel guilty. Or wherever we may go with it, turning this around to: Whoa, I’m being a therapist right now, and I’m giving him so many positive messages. I’m giving him the message that you’ve got leaders, buddy, when you need it most, like when you’re screaming at us and when you’re stuck in the bathtub and you can’t get out. We’re there. You don’t have to worry about us, buddy. We’re not going to crumble if you yell at us, we’ve got this. We’re on top of this.

You’re giving him that message. You’re giving him the message: Yeah. It’s normal to have these big bursts of emotion and strong feelings. It’s really, really normal and to not get what we want in life. There’s so many times that happens. And we feel really bad for a few minutes and then we feel better. Giving him that one, a very resilience-building message.

So turn this around. Practice little visuals of him in the bath and you helping him out this way. See it as help. See it as love, because it is. it’s the love that children know is the hardest for us to give.

And I can tell you as a parent of adults, they know that it’s harder for us. And they know that it’s a sign of the deepest love.

But these reasons that she brings up, that she went through IVF and came through miscarriages. Those things do make it even harder for us to do something that’s already impossible, letting our child be upset. It can happen if our child has gone through an illness or been hurt somehow, physically, or when there are emotional issues going on or big changes, parents divorcing. All of these things make it harder for us to do what children need, and what they especially need if they have those added stressors. Then they need even more to be able to share  and vent it in all these boundary ways that children tend to do it.

It would be great if we could just sit down with them and have this big talk about: “We were doing this and we feel like we let you down and now we need to give you more boundaries, and, oh, how does that feel?” And that he could share it all that way, but that’s not the way young children share it. They can’t share it analytically like that or intellectually. It comes when it comes.

There are studies that show that parents are having more difficulty these days with boundaries, because maybe they’re having children later or there have been difficulties in having a child, or they’re only going to have one child, and there’s so much emotional investment in this child — that we all have in our children — but it’s amplified. So it’s normal to feel that way. It makes sense. But don’t let it get in the way with giving your child what he needs.

So she says, “If you pour the water outside the tub again, we will get out.” That was her example with the bathtub. She wasn’t following through on that before, so I guess she was giving him another chance, giving him another chance and, without meaning to, leaving him stuck in this control place. Now I’ve got to keep going there and pushing there to see if I can get this release, if I can get this leader. Obviously all unconscious processes.

Then she says that he will do the behavior again to get a reaction. Right, to get what he needs. But the reaction I recommend would start earlier, probably, and it would be less of a reaction than a confident response. Seeing: Oh, he can’t do this himself. He can’t stop for whatever reason right now, he needs me to help. He needs me to move him on to the next situation.

When we see it that way we can be ready. And again, tiredness, hunger, transitions, things going on in our life that are stressful, all of those should put our antennae up that there’s going to be less ability to “listen” and more chance of getting stuck and needing my help. So, not a reaction, but a response from a place of maybe even expecting this.

So then she takes him out of the tub. Again, I’d probably be doing this earlier and without any emotion on my part, going into that hero mode taking him out of the tub. If he’s trying to hit and kick and scream…  I’m going to do it early which, again, there’ll be less hitting and kicking and screaming. I’m going to welcome the screaming because that is helpful to him. And obviously, I’m going to do my best to stop the hitting and kicking. Probably not saying much in those moments, just getting him out of there.

And then she says, “he will say things that he knows he shouldn’t like, shut up, stupid.” Now, I know this is controversial, but especially in the situation you’re in now where you’re going to be getting a lot of venting if you make this change that you want to make, I would allow the shut up and the stupid and really stand tall with that. That’s a four-year-old’s tantrum. Welcome those words. They can’t hurt you if you don’t let them hurt you. You can handle this.

If you do feel like this is something we need to punish him for… I’m not sure what the punishment would be, but I would expect him to get very upset about that, because that’s what he’s supposed to do here, is get very upset. And that’s what, again, this parent and so many of us has been avoiding.

So the only way to make this change and to have a child who listens and doesn’t get worked up over everything is to allow a lot of offloading and venting, to expect it, so that he can get those fears out of his body, and all that tension he’s been holding onto, which children have to do when they are so in control of the house. It’s not a comfortable experience for them, because they’re not getting, again, this need of someone taking care of them in this important way, helping them do the things they can’t do for themselves.

So I would reconsider that, but if she does do a punishment… I don’t think it will help, but if she does it, then yeah, I would expect him to be very upset about the punishment. And that’s where he will share that. See that as positive.

And then she says, “How do we communicate with him and get him to listen without the hitting and kicking?” The answer to that is allowing him to share the full force of his feelings in all of these situations where you have to say no and stop him or say, yes, we’re getting out of the bath, and not be reactive, which adds our own stress. And being that safe person that he needs right now, so he can go to all these places that he doesn’t have a lot of experience with yet.

He can do this if you can do it. This is heroic work. Making changes of any kind is huge. But it’s going to look messy for a while, so I’m trying to give you an accurate picture of what it’s going to look like.

And then she says he only has a year left before kindergarten and she’s already worried about how he will do.

So, try to stay in the now, in the moment, because you may need every bit of energy and belief in yourself, and belief in him as capable of going to these emotional places and sharing it and being the kind of guy that you want him to be in kindergarten, a person who does have boundaries, who does listen.

And he may already, at this point, listen to other people outside of his parents. But he’s sharing the feelings where he’s supposed to, with his parents. This is absolutely not hopeless. It’s not too late for him.

You’ll see that when he feels more comfortable in his role in the house, which is the child, not the adult, it will give him an easier feeling with his peers, with other adults. He will feel more comfortable in his skin in every way, if you have the courage to make these changes, which I hope you do. And I believe you do.

I really hope that helps.

For more, both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon,  Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame. You can get them in ebook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or Barnesandnoble.com and in audio at audible.com.

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.

 

8 Comments

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

  1. Thank you. This helps me greatly. I’m struggling big time with my son who is 5, so strong willed. Just validates that I need to follow through regardless of how he feels about it.

    1. Yes! The feelings are healing. You’ve got this!

  2. avatar John Butler says:

    Thank you Janet! As a father to a strong willed 4 year old who loves baths this advice is invaluable.

    1. My pleasure, John! I really hope this works for you.

  3. Thank you for all your thoughts here. I feel I often mistook gentle, responsive parenting with permissive parenting in the early years and there have been many times I have not been the strong leader my child needs. My son is now 5 and I too have wondered if it’s too late and I‘ve set him up for failure. This gives me hope!

    1. It’s my pleasure, Fiona. And YES there’s always hope for any kind of change we want to make!

  4. I just found you! My son is 6 and I have made all of those mistakes. This won’t be an easy change because one of the things he does is hit me pretty hard. It is just us at home and he rarely sees his father. I’m going to start and I could really use some advice about stopping the hitting. thank you

  5. I love how your response is full of empathy for the parent, and like that you guide the parent in what to think. Many times when we attempt to assert boundaries we tend to doubt – whether it’s unnecessarily putting more strain onto our relationship, whether it’s really needed or is it something we should simply live with for now. This is my first time to your site and the first post I read – I love it. It speaks to me as a parent of a strong willed but anxiety-wrecked 7 year old who still tantrums like a 3 year old.

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