When Our Child Won’t Accept Boundaries

In this episode: Janet responds to an email from a parent who admits she struggles to establish personal boundaries. She says she has “hit rock bottom” regarding her relationship with her 2-year-old. She tries to set limits and then acknowledge his feelings when he reacts, but he screams and cries, and she can’t get her work done. She believes her son is “making it very clear that I need a drastic change if I want our relationship to be a two-way street.”

Transcript of “When Our Child Won’t Accept Boundaries”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today I’m going to be replying to a parent who feels like she needs a drastic change in her parenting approach because she has a two-year-old who resists all her attempts to set limits. And she says she’s suffering as a result and she doesn’t know what to do. Honestly, I relate so much to this issue and I hope my response is helpful.

Okay, here’s the email I received:

Hi, Janet-

I have a question. I feel like I am missing a step or steps. I’ve hit rock bottom. I’ve realized that I’ve been forgetting myself and suffered because I don’t have boundaries. I’ve always been the one helping, supporting everyone else to the detriment of myself. And now my two-year-old is making it very clear that I need a drastic change if I want our relationship to be a two-way street. I’ve read your book, articles, etc., but I can’t find the answer to my question. I don’t get what I’m supposed to do once I’ve set the limit and acknowledged his feelings when he reacts. Then what?

For example, I had to work in the kitchen at the computer. I told him, “I’m going to work now. I will close the gate.” I have a gate that separates the kitchen and living room. He right away started to cry and mumble angrily. I told him, “I hear you. You want to play with me and you’re upset that I cannot play with you at this moment.” Then he continued for an hour, and still going while I’m typing this.

What I’m missing is, what am I supposed to do during all this time? Am I supposed to not pay attention and continue my work? Seems to me I’m ignoring him. Or should I here and there acknowledge that he’s upset? I have to do this work and can’t sit close to the gate and look at him in his eyes for the hour he’s been crying. Or, is that what I’m supposed to do? I’m very confused with what to do during the crying. I feel that this is one piece of the puzzle missing. Even the neighbor came to knock on the door because of the hour-long crying and screaming.

We have moved to another country and my hubby is gone for three weeks, so I need to get things done. Your time and answer are greatly appreciated.

Okay, so I’m glad that this parent prefaced all of this by admitting an issue that a lot of us have, which is that she has a very hard time with personal boundaries. She’s not in the practice of setting them for herself. It sounds like her son has come into her life to help teach her how to do this, as children do. I’ve had a similar experience with my oldest daughter, where I really needed to learn how to assert myself and to accept that I’m not going to make people happy all the time with what I need to do. That really has to be okay with me, even if it’s my child. Maybe especially if it’s my child, because our children are looking to us to be their leaders, to be in a relationship with us, between two people, where both of us have needs and wants and our child’s wants don’t always take precedence over our needs.

Now, it sounds like this parent is expecting that she’s going to be able to go from zero to 10 here, in a way. Because she says she has difficulty setting any boundaries and disappointing her child, and now she’s wanting to zoom to what is probably the hardest thing for any child, which is to accept that their parent is right there near them and sucked into something else. Which is what our computers do, right? They draw us in deeply. Well, that’s going to be a hard thing to pull off for any parent and child. It’s going to be difficult for children to have us there, but we’re so engaged in a computer, and for us to be able to concentrate when our child is distracted by our presence. So we’ll talk a little about addressing that situation, but first I want to go over a little bit about how to approach setting boundaries.

The first thing I would do is take a look at why she doesn’t like to set boundaries with people. Often in this, there’s some element of the way we were raised. But when it comes down to it, it’s usually because we just don’t feel comfortable when others are not pleased with us. We’re much more comfortable with having that constant validation that we’re making other people happy. And then that becomes more important than taking care of our own needs, our self-care, and doing the things that make us feel happy. The problem with that is that it does create resentments, and these resentments really are our responsibility. They’re on us. They’re the fault of the person that isn’t setting their boundaries and is allowing that other person to walk all over them, in some ways. And what resentment does is it makes us not like that person as much, be annoyed by them, and that’s going to interfere with our relationship.

We don’t want that to happen to us with our children, right? And that’s the place I had to get to, for myself, to really make this shift. To bravely meet the challenge of setting a boundary that my child isn’t going to agree with. It’s for our relationship. It’s to prevent this kind of poison of resentment that my child doesn’t deserve and that I don’t deserve to feel. And what it also comes down to is, what does it really mean to love someone? Does it mean that we try to keep them happy all the time, that we never have any kind of conflict with them? Or is it to care for that person with the understanding that life isn’t about being content every moment? It’s about feeling a whole wide range of emotions, including being able to be in conflict with other people sometimes in our needs and our wishes.

I had to come to the realization that loving my child meant not just doing the easier stuff for me, which is laughing, playing, and snuggling and kissing and hugging. It’s doing the harder stuff— saying no, being a confident guide for them, getting yelled at, worrying that, Oh, maybe I was damaging my child by allowing them to express those feelings and have those kind of feelings. Feeling like I needed to fix them somehow, and that maybe it wasn’t safe to have my child upset with me. Maybe something permanent was going to happen in our relationship, they weren’t going to like me anymore, or they would abandon me. Something. All of those fears, it will help us to look at them and make peace with them. See that this is our stuff. And that really our child deserves to have the healthiest outlook, and that resilience that children naturally build when sometimes they get exactly what they want in that moment, and other times they don’t. They always get what they need in the end, but they don’t always get what they want.

Now, I know there are some advisors that will say this is a message that a child isn’t ready to get until some later age. But in truth, it’s a lot harder for us and for our child to have to switch into a different mode that they’re not used to, rather than gradually beginning that way from the start. And that’s why my mentor Magda suggested that even with our infants, if they need us, but we’re right in the middle of pouring that cup of tea for ourselves, and we want that one sip before we can go to them with love, then we do that. And then we come back to our child, Ah, I heard you, and I’m sorry I couldn’t be there right when you wanted me. I’m here now. Not feeling guilty, not feeling that we’ve done something wrong or that our child is unsafe in any way. Instead seeing this positively, feeling positive about this interaction.

It’s not something we’re trying to make happen in any kind of unnatural way or training. We’re not trying to make our child upset, ever. But we understand that through these normal self-care routines that we have, in some cases that are individual to us, what we need, and taking care of the house and getting food prepared for our children and all of those things that we as leaders have to do in the house, we will be disappointing our child a lot of the time. We’ll need to be causing them to be unhappy with our decision. And this is a dynamic that’s much easier and healthier for parents and children if we can begin it as early as possible.

But still, we can also switch into this at any time. Switching gears, and our child will then switch gears along with us, with a little bit of transition time probably, and some strong feelings. Generally, in the way that we engage with our child, our children will adapt very easily. But for us, it’s harder. It’s harder for us to change the way we perceive our role and the way we perceive our child and their feelings, and to bravely change those patterns and that dynamic that’s gone on between us. That’s the hard part. Children will usually shift almost immediately, but we have to do it first.

So all of that said, the type of interaction that this parent’s having with her child, I do go over this in a written post that this parent may not have read. It’s called Separating (with Confidence) from Your Clinging Child. And it’s just a very brief back-and-forth message exchange that I had with a parent about this very thing. Her child was a little bit younger, I think he was only 14 months. And she wanted to do her housework and he would just follow her around and be crying, a really sad look on his face. And it just seemed like he could not let go of her. What I recommend in that post is perceiving this as a healthy interaction between us. Positive messages that we can give our child, that we hear their strong feelings and that we actually want to hear that from our child. We always want them to express those hard things with us. We want to know how they feel. It doesn’t necessarily change the choices that we make as the leader, as the person who’s mature and who knows that X, Y, and Z have to happen for our life to be able to go in a healthy direction. Children can’t know that. They need somebody who does, and that’s us.

But to be in this what I call “disagreement” with children, it’s very, very healthy. It’s necessary. It teaches them that it’s safe to be in disagreement, to be in conflict, and to have feelings about that, and life goes on. And in fact, even in those disagreements, children can sense that there’s a lot of love and connection happening. Connection— it’s not just this positive, happy thing that we have. It’s about being honest and being able to be in respectful conflict and to be able to hear that other person’s feelings around that, even if they’re unhappy feelings and they’re directed at us. Especially if they’re directed at us.

So what this parent’s asking in this note is, what is she supposed to do once she set the limit and acknowledged his feelings and then he reacts? Wouldn’t it be so much easier if we could set the limit and then we acknowledge our child’s feelings, You didn’t like that I did this, and then they get it and it’s over? That was that. Now everything’s fine. That would be so nice. But my sense has been that children unconsciously use these experiences as a channel for strong feelings that they have. It could be about all kinds of things going on in their life externally, internally, and they’re venting. It’s like they open up that spout of the tea kettle and out pours all the steam that’s inside them.

So it’s not that they’re just reacting to the fact that we said we can’t play with them right this minute, or that we can’t give attention to them right this minute, or that we have to go to the bathroom, or that we gave our child the red cup when they wanted the blue cup. It’s not about cups. It’s not about us leaving, when our child knows that we’ll come back, or that they need us next to them every single second. No one needs another person’s attention every moment. Children would like our attention every moment, and they want to explore that, where our boundary is, but that doesn’t mean that they need it. Yes, they do need undivided attention from us periodically, where we give them that message: I’m so happy to be with you in this moment, and there’s nothing else I would rather do. That kind of attention children do need. I think we all need it. But not all the time. What children do after we acknowledge their feelings or after we set those limits, they will release some feelings, they will vent, they’ll object. And in that objection, they’re releasing all kinds of other feelings.

And even if we don’t believe that, even if we think they’re just objecting so strongly to that one specific thing, children need us to see that as a strong objection. That’s how we can see another real, capable person there. Which is the way our child needs us to see them, as a capable person. Not a person that’s completely weak and has no life at all beyond us, but an actual three-dimensional person that is capable of feeling a whole range of emotions, that is capable of disappointment that they don’t get what they want every time, that’s capable of occupying themselves. So it’s not that this child isn’t capable, it’s just that he’s having a hard time letting go. And oftentimes that’s because we haven’t completely let go. We don’t have complete conviction in what we’re doing. Complete conviction means we have to let go of what the other person feels about that. And if this parent has struggled her whole life with boundaries, which a lot of us have, it’s very likely that she’s not going to have enough conviction to be able to make a choice like this, where she’s going to be working on the computer in her child’s view.

But what I would do in this or any situation is set the limit: This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to close the gate. I love that she said all that, and then she says “he right away started to cry and mumble angrily.” So I would immediately respond to that verbally, Ah, I hear you. You really don’t want me to go right now. I would try to avoid adding on anything else, like, It’s going to be okay, here’s some toys to play with. I would really try to allow that feeling to be heard all the way, without us trying to adjust it or soften it. You’re saying no to me doing this! I hear that. And then, especially at first, I would definitely not expect to be working for more than, I don’t know, around 15 minutes at a time when she’s first establishing boundaries.

In fact, I would probably practice this for much smaller periods and shorter activities. Like, I’m going to the bathroom. Then he still cries and mumbles angrily. Wow, sounds like you really don’t want me to go right now. I hear that. Then you go. You come back, and oftentimes children will yell at us even more than they did when we were leaving. It’s like they’re saying, Hey, I didn’t give you permission to go and do that! How dare you go away from me? It’s much stronger than it can appear. It’s not pathetic, My life just fell apart. And I think it’s really important to make that distinction for ourselves, to see it that way. It’s important for our child and it’s important for us. Because to be able to set those limits, we need to see our child as strong and able to handle that. And our child needs to be perceived as strong, so that they can feel more capable in their world handling these age-appropriate situations. So walk away, come back, and if you get blasted when you come back, Wow, you really weren’t okay with me leaving. That was not what you wanted. Just say something that’s connected, empathetic. If possible, being willing to see and meet our child’s feelings at their full force and not be intimidated by it in any way. We see it as this strong, positive exchange we’ve just had, both of us asserting ourselves.

So this parent said she told him, “I hear you. You want to play with me and you’re upset that I cannot play with you at this moment.” And that’s a fine thing to say, if she was saying it with real connection. And she says, “then he continued for an hour.” So I’m not sure how this went on for an hour, if she actually tried to keep working for an hour, but I wouldn’t do that. I think that’s an expectation that’s not very reasonable, and with a toddler, it’s probably not going to happen. I would try to plan those longer periods of work for when your child is asleep, taking a nap. As my mother always used to say to me when she would call me during my children’s naps, she’d say, Well, I’m going to be quick because I know this is prime time. And it was. It was prime time for me to get some things done, to rest, to catch up a little. And not feel like everything I did meant setting a boundary with someone. It’s hard.

I mean, we’re not going to be able to do it all day long and we’re not going to be able to do it for an hour. But for the whole time, my child was unhappy with me. If it was a whole 10 to 15 minutes that I was going to take to do a couple of emails or whatever I had to do, every minute or so I would just turn my head and say, Wow, I hear you. You’re still going. You’re still telling me off. And that’s all. Giving that message of, I hear you, I accept you. Even, I’m sorry that I’m not able to please you right now. That can be said from a place of strength. Having that conviction inside, that’s the most important thing. The words don’t matter. The actions don’t even matter, as much as how we feel inside about holding onto ourselves as the leader. Having those boundaries, feeling good about them, feeling good about ourselves doing this.

That’s the challenge for this parent and for a lot of us, and that’s what I would work on. Reframing love as being a whole person in relationship with another whole person, your child. You’re teaching your child that other people have boundaries and your loved ones aren’t at your beck and call every second and aren’t afraid of your feelings. You get to have them, even if someone thinks they’re unreasonable. You have a right. And that loved ones know that your feelings are the healthiest thing anytime, anywhere that you express them. And if it seems like a huge overreaction, then there’s a reason for that. There’s been a buildup, and this is a healthy release.

So this parent says, “what am I supposed to do during this time?” And that’s what I would do: every minute or so, acknowledge that it’s still going on, from a place of comfort in your decision. She says, “I cannot sit close to the gate and look at him in his eyes for the hour.” So no, we don’t have to look at him into his eyes the whole hour, just every few minutes. Or maybe you’re not making eye contact, but you’re still acknowledging, I hear you behind me over there. I hear you still yelling at me. With your subtext, And that’s okay with me. Doesn’t shake me, doesn’t rattle me. I still know I’m doing the right thing.

Oftentimes with parents that I work with, they’ll have certain boundaries that are really clear to them. Like this one parent who said she felt very clear about holding her child’s hand in the parking lot. That was a clear one for me too. So with this parent, every time we’d be discussing a different boundary that she needed to set, like she needed to go to the bathroom or she had to do a couple of minutes’ work, I would say, You have to have the same belief in this as you did in holding your child’s hand in the parking lot. I had another parent that I talked to recently who’s a nutritionist and to her, it’s very clear that she’s not going to give her child sweets and that she’s not going to give her child dessert. But she has difficulty with other kinds of boundaries. So I said, You have to have that same assurance with everything you do.

You’ll find when you step into this role, you’ll start to believe in it, and slowly but surely it becomes a part of you. Or you just decide you’re going to feel safe doing it, or you’re going to try to feel safe. You’ll see that it works. It empowers you, it empowers your child, it empowers your relationship. And it will become very clear to you that this is love. I hope that helps.

And please know that wherever you are on your parenting journey, with boundaries, especially, I created the No Bad Kids Course to empower you to take your parenting to the next level.

Also, please checkout some of my other podcasts at janetlansbury.com. website. They’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in. And remember I have books on audio at Audible.com, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.

Also I have an exclusive audio series, Sessions. There are five individual recordings of consultations I’ve had with parents where they agree to be recorded and we discuss all their parenting issues. We have a back and forth that for me is very helpful in exploring their topics and finding solutions. These are available by going to sessionsaudio.com and you can read a description of each episode and order them individually or get them all about three hours of audio for just under $20.

I believe in you. We can do this.




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

  1. This is, hands-down, one of my very favorite episodes. As a “single married mama” who works from home (my husband lives in another country, and I’m primary parent for our 2 babies under 4), routine + boundaries are the foundation of every single day. I don’t know if it benefits me or my babes more, but either way, it’s the only way! Thanks for this well-defined and supportive reminder. I’ll need it when my high-needs infant has a harder day, and I start to feel off-center.

  2. “A place of comfort …” I didn’t realize how uncomfortable I was with myself, because of my unbringing. My mother was harried, to say the least, and did not work out/on her own childhood issues with her mother/parents.

    In order to understand your articles and podcasts, I have had to do my own inner work. I can’t recommend this book enough: The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk.

    Morning boundaries were hard for me: play once she wakes up, do my thing? I was not in a place of comfort regarding either decision. Then, remembered your example about the Mom who had clear boundaries in other areas: I said, I am going to play with you this one minute and then do my thing. I will play with you when I am done.

    The thing is, she always hears me when I am in a place of comfort with my decision. “You’ll play with me later?” she asked. Also, Mister Rogers said discipline is teacher/learner. You said it in various posts in various ways, When my daughter sees me be in a place of comfort speaking up for myself, with kindness and love, she learns that she can speak up for herself.

    I want her strong within herself, happy in her body and happy to see me and happy to be with herself: learning/having boundaries is a surefire way to be all those ways. Thanks Janet.

    1. Well said, Maureen, and it’s my absolute pleasure. Sounds like you’ve got this!

  3. Thank you so much for this post Janet! This helps me understand my children on so many levels that I just wasn’t even aware of!!! I think a shift in my whole understanding of relating to my kids just happened in reading this article.

  4. More success!! I do not know anyone who follows you, so I only have you to share my successes with : )

    I calmly stuck to my No decision for my daughter. She threw a fit and my husband and I were calm, finally, because we both study you: we knew we were loving her.

    Well, I could hear in the tone of her cry that she was over the problem with my decision and then went upstairs for some throw pillows and sat at the top of the stairs with one under her and one on her lap; her arms crossed and chin in arms with angry look.

    She wanted me to see her and then her Dad. Wow, we said, you are angry! Then, after this a bit, she had her father do the same with her in the living room and I pointed out how they were both mad. She loved this. I said I wanted to remember to do that the next time I am mad (because I am only human so I am sure I will get mad again) (but I am working working working on not being immature about it: I get to copy my little teacher : )

    We all moved through the issue and she went off to play. Thank you for teaching me to be present, not triggered, and what love looks like to a child. I want my girl strong : )

    1. Dear Marian,
      Your stories and comments are always the highlight of my day. Thanks for all your wonderful support and encouragement. This recent experience is a big win for your whole family! 🙂 Thanks again for sharing with me!

  5. I appreciate this post a lot, but have a question. The one example in which it was clearest to me was when you mentioned that when we have a newborn sometimes we just “need” to pour our cup of tea and have a sip before picking up our child. To me, having a sip of tea is a want, rather than a need, so I guess I’m asking how we know when our wants come before those of our child. It feels like something we have to continually feel out, but I’m wondering if you have any advice surrounding this issue. Thanks!

    1. Thanks, Courtney. A sip of tea in itself may be a “want,” but self-care on the whole is a need. We will obviously put our wants and needs second to our newborn’s the majority of the time. Young children need an incredible amount of care. But as their loving parents and leaders, children need us to be in charge of prioritizing ourselves every once in awhile. They can’t be the ones to decide to give us a break for sip of tea or water. We must take one ourselves, so that we don’t become angry, resentful, unhappy parents.

  6. Jetta Bijl says:

    My grandchild is 2.4 yearsrs old.Shortly saying. His Daycare seems a good place to me. But when I pick him up. Half an hour later he is throwing things. He is yelling in a very high voice. Like screeming. Not really to someone. He will be trying to hit the dog. He will try everything he knows he is not aloud to. How can I help him. I think I know what to say to him ‘ I see you are upset. But I have to stop you from doing these things.’ Sometimes he will tell me something what happened at the Daycare. As ‘my friend was chasing me playing he was a monster’ when I ask him, he can even explain he didn’t like that.
    My question. How can I help him to be not so overwhelmed on the day? Can I do something he will not be so upset after a day at the Daycare?
    My grandchild is very communicative and an intelligent boy.
    I hope you can help us too.

    1. Hi Jetta! it’s very normal for your grandchildchild to have this response at the end of his busy day at daycare. He’s releasing his stress with his trusted grandmother and that’s a good thing. So what you’re doing is perfect — allowing and acknowledging his feelings, while keeping him safe in his behavior.

    2. Hi Jetta! it’s very normal for your grandchild to have this response at the end of his busy day at daycare. He’s releasing his stress with his trusted grandmother and that’s a good thing. So what you’re doing is perfect — allowing and acknowledging his feelings, while keeping him safe in his behavior.

  7. Christina J says:

    Wow, what Janet said at the end about having the same conviction in our personal boundaries as in something like holding our child’s hand in a parking lot was such an aha moment for me! So thankful for Janet’s guidance!

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