Setting limits with your child in public and even with extended family can bring up all sorts of challenges. Feeling judged by others if your child is misbehaving is awful. And trying to get stuff done out in the world when your child is not cooperating can turn even the most patient parent into the Hulk.
It’s hard enough to manage tantrums and stubbornness at home, but how do you keep your cool and get out of these sticky situations in public?
I suggest three ways:
1: Maintain high expectations and high connection with your child.
2: Don’t just set the limit, bring it.
3: Make sure you are getting support.
1- Have high expectations and high connection
Research shows that the parenting style that raises children that are resilient, healthy, and well-adjusted is one that is both moderately high in behavioral expectations and high in warmth and connection. Parenting that is too strict leads to children who are rigid and can’t regulate their emotions and parenting that is too lenient leads to children who engage in risky behavior. But when parents have reasonable expectations for their child’s behavior and a lot of love and warmth, children tend to behave better, deal with their emotions more productively, and make better decisions in the long term. Armed with this information, you as a parent should feel confident in setting behavioral expectations for your child and empowered in meeting your child’s feelings with warmth.
You do want to make sure your expectations are age-appropriate or you will be banging your head against a wall and hurting your child’s esteem. Parents.com has lots of good information on what to expect from children of different ages like in this article. And if your child has special needs of any kind, consult with a professional to keep his/her own personal developmental level in mind when setting your expectations.
Try your best to meet your child exactly where he is at, and ask for one step more. No more. No less. Maintain that expectation, communicating your faith that your child can do it and that you love him no matter what. And if others around you don’t like it, well perhaps they don’t realize what an important job you are doing in that moment, and that you like all parents are finding your own unique voice. You can rest assured that if I was there with you in that store or that family gathering, you would have a strong advocate who is not afraid to stand up and tell those judges to back off while you are being the awesome, unique parent that you are. You are meeting yourself with love where you are at, and asking for one step better. No more. No less. And that’s the perfect amount.
2- Bring the limit
When you are reasonably sure your expectations of your child are more or less on target then you can feel empowered to set your limit. Today parenting has become very child-centered, focusing on peaceful parenting and empathy for children. This is a healthy swing-back from the damaging authoritative “do-as-I-say-or-else!” parenting most of us were raised with. However, in my experience parents who want to raise their children consciously often feel timid about setting limits, as though if you don’t give in to every whim of your child then you are not a loving parent. Quite the contrary. Children need limits. It’s how they learn what is appropriate in the world and also how to deal with feelings about having limits (which will come one day or another). It’s how the limits are given that makes the difference.
So when it’s time to set the limit, don’t just set it, bring it. And do so with love. Bring the limit directly to your child. Use your warmth and your attention. Look your child in the eye, put a hand on her shoulder, remind her that you know she knows how to do it better. That you know she wants to keep playing. That now it’s time to go. Bring the limit. And be there for your child’s feelings as you bring it.
It’s all too easy to get caught in calling across the aisle to your child in the store when it’s time to go. But the second you start to feel frustrated, that is your cue to go directly to your child and using your love, warmth, and attention, to bring that limit directly to him. Don’t wait until you are about to lose it. Bring the limit to your child, even if that means stepping away from a family conversation to avert a big meltdown. It’s worth it and you can rest assured that you are backed by lots of science saying that this type of parenting raises resilient, healthy children. So don’t just set the limit, bring it. With as much warmth, attention, and presence as you can muster.
3- Get support
It’s normal and natural to get flustered while parenting, especially in our modern fast-paced world. There’s a lot of information out there and not a lot of support for this big job. Seek parenting support so that you have a place in which you can vent your frustrations and concerns on a regular basis. Having a place you know you can go to and let out all your worries and stress from the week will allow you to meet your child with more love and connection in those heated moments. Not only will support allow you to release emotional tension that builds up, but it will also provide a buffer for your overwhelm. Listening Partnerships and parenting groups are great for this. I can’t tell you how often a situation will crop up that would in the past make me feel angry, frustrated, worried, or downright depressed, but knowing that I will have my 20 minutes to vent with my listening partner every Friday allows me just enough space to set those feelings aside until I can release them in a healthy non-destructive way. It’s as though I can say to myself, “I don’t have to get upset now, I know I’ll be able to cry and scream about this in my Listening Partnership.” If you aren’t sure how to set up a Listening Partnership (LP) or what exactly it is visit Hand in Hand Parenting’s website for more info and read my blog on venting in LP’s .
So next time you are dealing with a public tantrum remember:
1-High expectations and higher connection
2-Bring the limit. Gently. Directly to your child.
3-Get support to release emotional tension.
Karen Wolfe, MFT is a psychotherapist in San Francisco and the East Bay. She is passionate about helping children and families thrive and has particular expertise with children with exceptional learning and sensory styles.