Positive Parenting: Why Keeping Our Limits When Children Become Upset is Important

Setting a limit in theory sounds great. In practice, keeping that limit isn’t always easy.  Often setting a limit means that our child will be upset.   They might cry, wail, flail, scream, stomp or even bite, hit and kick. In these moments, it can be difficult to keep our cool, let alone hold our limits.

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Setting certain limits really is important.  For each family or situation the limits may be different, but once a limit has been set, even if the child becomes upset by that limit,  it is important to make sure we that we don’t back track on that limit just to avoid the upset.

Holding our limit (not going back on our decision) though, is not about showing power or authority over a child or being consistent just to be consistent. Holding our limits is about offering  calm reassurance to our children that they can trust our decisions. 

One day at baby/tot playgroup, a 2 year old, Matt*, chucked a car across the room for the third time. Matt’s mother who had already calmly explained it was not alright to throw the cars and had demonstrated a few other ways that were safe to play,  was now visibly frustrated. “Why doesn’t he listen!!!” she whispered to me.

With thirteen other toddlers in the room, the car throwing just wasn’t going to work so I let her know it was  alright to pick up the little car, to explain briefly her reason to Matt and put the car away.

So Matt’s mom said to Matt something along the lines of “I asked you not to throw the car, I am putting it away now because throwing is not safe.” Matt promptly started to cry.  “You really wanted to keep playing with the car.” I offered. Matt screamed “Car! Car!”

“You liked playing with the car” His mother said. Matt screeched a bit and then tears started flowing.

We sat there, listening but not saying anything else. Matt’s mom put her hand on his back and he was ok with that. About two minutes passed and Matt looked up at me, now calmer. “Give car?” he asked.

“I can see you are very upset the car is away.  It’s going to stay away so everyone will be safe.” Matt offered a small sigh. “It’s not what you wanted.” I added and Matt  nodded. “Do you feel like throwing things today?” I asked.  Matt shook his head yes, very enthusiastically. “Well,  you can use the balls over there, they are soft and safe for throwing” I said.   Matt smiled, got up as fast as he possibly could and scampered over to toss the colorful balls.

When we set limits and hold them, with kindness and full acceptance of any emotions that come with that limit, we are creating an opportunity for the child  to express their authentic feelings of the situation while creating trust that they are accepted, loved and cared for.

When a limit is truly reasonable and needed, the most respectful and kind thing to do is calmly hold the limit while accepting and listening to the upset.

Children find safety in limits and boundaries that are clear and set with calm and confidence. Setting and keeping limits does not have to be about ultimate control. It can be an opportunity to create a an exchange that leads to a safe expression of any and all feelings plus understanding, trust and learning.  It also does not have to be the first step, as in this case, Matt’s mom had first explained and asked nicely, but ultimately, Matt just wasn’t ready to not throw and therefore safety became a concern and setting a limit was appropriate. 

While it is hard at times to stay calm and  set a limit with a kind voice,  it is that act of staying  calm and confident that will help our children transition from disappointment into acceptance and finally move  onto something else.  Plus, this actually works and helps children learn and respect important limits. For example,  the following week at playgroup, Matt asked for the little car and promptly said to me  “No throw car, only ball” and he didn’t throw the car, but instead, played with it for a long while and then moved on to throwing the soft balls.

When we let go of punitive parenting and authority over the child style of parenting, setting a limit with kindness and consistency and then actually holding it may at first feel similar to punishing or being authoritarian. With time and practice though,  it is possible to be confident, calm and consistent in a way that conveys that the limits are about creating safety, building trust and guidance.

What part of setting  limits is most challenging to you?

Peace & Be Well,

Ariadne

*Matt’s name was changed.

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Ariadne is a happy and busy mama to three children. She practices peaceful, playful, responsive parenting and is passionate about all things parenting and chocolate. Ariadne has a B.S. in Communication, is a certified Positive Discipline Parenting Educator, and has completed several graduate courses in child development, psychology and family counseling. She lives on top of a beautiful mountain with her family, one cuddly dog and "bluey" the fish.

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6 thoughts on “Positive Parenting: Why Keeping Our Limits When Children Become Upset is Important

  1. Hi I’m a mother of 2, the older is 2 years old and the other is 6 months, the 2years is starting to show her battle when we set our limits, like today when I didn’t give her the nutella for dinner, I told her she had already had once atnoon.,but the more I explained the more she screeched. The hardest part was when I had to leave her whining. How do explain to a toddler she she doesn’t seem to understand the limits or what we’re saying

    • It can be hard to hear our little ones feel sad and upset about a limit. It’s often helpful to validate their feelings and empathize for example in your shoes, I might have said, “I know you wanted nutella, it’s so tasty AND tonight it’s not what I am serving for dinner.” It’s true that initially this may lead to tears, but if you can offer this kind of comforting and calming answer, over time children learn it’s ok to be upset, feel their feelings and then they move on. I hope that helps.

  2. I have been trying to remain calm in such a cases and calmly enforce my reasonable limits for my toddler twins. However, I was wondering what type of reaction would you recommend when kids say a bad word to parents or themselves. (They have recently learned the word “mean” in our own language (Farsi) and just keep using it when they beckme upset toward each otheir or myself). Many thanks for your help.

    • Hi Mrym,
      It seems like your twins are trying to express their dislike of those limits you are setting. It’s quite normal for children to dislike our limits, afterall, limits often means not being able to do what they would like, but rightfully so, our job is to keep them safe so we stop them even if they don’t like it. Is there a more acceptable word they can use to say they are upset or dislike a limit? Maybe you can teach them what IS ok to say? Also it works well to reflect their feelings back to them for example, if they want to jump on the furniture and you tell them to stop it might go like this:

      You say: Please stop jumping on the furniture. You can jump out in the garden.
      They say: MEAN! you are mean!

      You say: “you are saying “mean”, I am understanding that you don’t like I said NO. I love you AND I am keeping you safe.”

      This doesn’t call attention to the words but helps them feel validated, like their feelings matter and this is what helps them feel those feelings and move forward.

      If they use a word that is very disrespectful you can explain that as well but offer an alternative. “If you are upset, you can let me know by saying I am upset, not by using that word, thank you.”

      It takes repetition, repetition and keeping calm. If you put too much attention and energy into those words, they will use it because they see the reaction!

      I hope that helps.

  3. My almost three year struggles a lot with limits. Like in the example you gave, my son will start to tantrum when a limit is set. When we hold the limit, offering lots of validation and empathy (I’m actually a child therapist, so I have lots of practice in that respect) he seems to escalate further and further, hitting, biting, and screaming. After anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, he will eventually calm down, but I’m worried about the physical toll this takes on his body. And although we go through this on a daily basis, he does not seem to be learning to handle his disappointment any more safely. Will this eventually happen?

    Also, I often ask him to stop doing things simply because they are not what I WANT him to be doing, although they may not be safety concerns. (i.e please get your feet off the table, please don’t jump on the bed). When I realize that I have the option between letting go of an expectation that is not that important to me or facing a massive meltdown, I generally just drop it. How can I get around doing this, see as how it is giving in, even though I feel ok with it? I feel like I’m having to prioritize because his tantrums are so big!

    • Stephanie, at two years, getting close to three can be an emotionally intense time, as far as frustration tolerance and accepting of limits goes. That being said, if you are concerned, talking to someone about it is probably helpful, even if it’s just to reframe the situation? You mention that you are validating and empathizing, does your son maybe just want space – can you let him know you will be “over here, whenever your upset is over” and have faith he will overcome it? Some children really prefer to be given that sign of faith in their ability to work through the upset but not have a string of “you gonna be ok, i’m sorry this isn’t what you wanted” that goes on and on (some children on the other hand do like that). It’s hard to really say what will work not being there so I am just sharing ideas to contemplate… Have you tried any calm down rituals, not as a distractor but to help with focusing breathing, and moving forward – it’s like providing that turn in the emotional road since he seems a bit stuck on the upset? Some children have more difficulties with frustration tolerance or flexibility to accept limits but these are skills they can learn. As for the limits you are setting that are not safety related – what about asking questions “You can’t have your feet on the table – where could you put your feet instead?” and “you can’t jump on the bed – is there a place at home you can jump?” this shifts things from setting a limit to letting the child solve their own problem. hope that helps. please feel free to follow up.

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