No, it’s not 1, 2, 3 magic. And it has nothing to do with time outs. This approach goes beyond all that. This is about the real reason we set limits with our children: to help them (and sometimes to help us) to calm the &%#@ down! (okay, yes, and also to raise emotionally healthy, well-adjusted children).
You know you don’t want to lose it and freak out on them (though, to be honest, we all lose it sometimes...more on that another time). But you also don’t want them running around like crazy people (there are not enough headphones and baths in this universe to keep you sane with that kind of chaos).
So how do you let your kids be kids and also keep your cool?
Last week I talked about noticing your desire to to set a limit is for yourself or for your child and the week before I talked about just how important letting them rough house play is to healthy emotional development. This week we get into the nitty gritty: How to actually set the limit.
Hand in Hand Parenting suggests a 3-step formula:
1- Listen to your child: what is s/he experiencing? Why? Listen within yourself: what’s the limit that will need to be set about, both for your and for your child.
2- Set the limit. Do it early. As soon as you notice your kid’s behavior is off track, move in close. Make eye contact. Offer your warmth, and your connection. Put your hand in the middle of whatever is going on. Set the limit. “I can’t let you hit your brother.” “I can’t let you have ice cream for breakfast.”
3- Listen again: What feelings in your child come up from having this limit set? Setting a limit with love and connection allows whatever ucky feelings that are getting in the way to come up to be released. Listen to them with love. “I can understand that sometimes you might want to hit your brother.” “I get that it would be fun to have ice cream for breakfast.”
A plethora of research shows that when discipline includes listening with warmth in this way and the gentle, but firm setting of limits, children has more self-esteem, self-control, and resilience.
Most of us did not have limits set in the way I am explaining here, so it might feel a bit (or A LOT) like swimming upstream at first. And, yes, it is a lot more work, which means parents need more support. But it pays off in the long run.
Children whose parents listen with warmth as they express the feelings that come up when given a limit are able to regulate their emotions, delay gratification, and in general make better decisions for themselves later in life. They develop what Sam Goldstein and Robert Brooks in their book “Raising Resilient Children” call "the emotional clutch."
So next time you feel the call to set a limit remember:
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.