Thank you to Dr. Laura Markham and Perigree Books for sharing this exclusive excerpt of Dr. Markham’s new book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting.
How to Set Empathic Limits
Setting limits is an essential part of parenting. Limits keep our children safe and healthy and support them in learning social norms so that they can function happily in society. And if we set limits empathically, kids are more likely to internalize the ability to set limits for themselves, which is otherwise known as self-discipline.
How are you at setting limits?
- Does your child usually comply eventually, after some repeated reminders, negotiations, and occasional frayed tempers? Your family is in the completely normal range. Some brushing up on your technique will help you get less irritated.
- Does your child ignore your every request, leaving you screaming far too often? That’s a symptom of a relationship issue, not a limits issue. Start with some relationship repair work so that your child wants to cooperate with you.
And that’s the biggest secret of setting limits. You can’t really make anyone do anything. Your child complies with your requests because of the strong relationship of trust and affection between you. The other option, of course, is fear, which is an effective motivator in the moment. But because you have to keep escalating your threats, fear becomes less and less effective over time. Love, by contrast, becomes a more effective motivator over time.
So how do you set effective limits?
- Start with a strong, supportive connection with your child so he knows you’re on his side and wants to please you.
- Don’t start talking until you’re connected. Look your child in the eye. Touch him to get his attention.
- Join with her as you set the limit. “This looks like so much fun . . . but I’m afraid someone’s going to get hurt here.”
- Set the limit calmly, kindly, and with genuine empathy. “Ouch! I don’t yell at you, so please don’t yell at me. You must be really upset to use that tone of voice. What’s the matter, sweetie?”
- Acknowledge her point of view as you set the limit. “It’s hard to stop playing and come inside. But now it’s time for your bath.”
- Help your child feel less “pushed around” by offering a choice. “Do you want to come in now, or in five minutes?”
- Get agreement so your child “owns” the limit. “Okay, five minutes, but no fuss in five minutes, right? Let’s shake on it.”
- Follow through, pleasantly. It’s much easier to stay pleasant when you follow through before you lose your temper. It’s also easier to get cooperation from your child if she knows you won’t keep moving the deadline if she fusses. Most of the time, you’ll need to move in physically close and make eye contact for her to take your limit seriously. This is much more effective than raising your voice. “It’s been five minutes. Time to come in now.”
- Keep joining and empathizing. “You’re having so much fun out here! But now it’s time for your bath.”
- Limit the negotiations. “I know it’s hard to stop playing, but we agreed five minutes and no fuss. It’s been five minutes. Let’s go.”
- Don’t expect him to like it. No kid will always comply cheerfully, and that’s okay. You can empathize with his unhappiness without changing your limit. “I hear that you hate coming inside when some of the other kids get to stay out later. That must be hard. But you need a bath tonight and I want to be sure we get time for a story before bed.”
- When you can’t grant a wish in reality, grant it in fantasy. “I bet when you grow up you’ll stay up and play outside all night every single night, won’t you?”
- If your child cries or rages at your limit, listen to her feelings. Once children feel heard, they’re much more cooperative. “You wish you could have candy. . . . Now you’re crying. . . . I’m right here, sweetie, with a hug when you’re ready.”
- Respond to the need or feeling that’s driving the behavior. “You’re bugging your brother because you want to play with him, aren’t you? Let’s go ask him, instead of wrecking his game.”
- Resist the temptation to be punitive in any way. Setting the limit is sufficient to teach the lesson, as kids will eventually internalize our rules and routines as their own. Criticism makes it more likely that our child will rebel against our rules.
- When your child defies you, focus on the relationship, rather than on discipline. A child who is rude is either very upset or expressing her need for a better relationship with you. In either case, consequences will make the situation worse. I’m not suggesting you put up with rudeness, just that you see it as a red flag to do some repair work on the relationship.
- When all else fails, try a hug. No, you’re not rewarding your child for bad behavior. Children act out when they feel disconnected; you’re reconnecting so she has a reason to behave. You’re giving her the safety to move through her turmoil faster. And you’re helping her relax into her best self.
How to Help Kids Who Test the Limits
But what if we set clear, empathic limits and our child still tests them? Even once he’s noticed that certain limits seem solid—for instance, dinner comes before dessert, Mom won’t let him hit his brother, and Dad stops him every time he jumps on the couch—sometimes he can’t help testing those limits.
1. He really wants something, like dessert now, and he hopes that maybe we’ll change our mind. He knows that many of our limits are open to negotiation. Maybe if he keeps asking, we’ll make an exception about dessert, too. What does he have to lose? We can help him by:
- Being as consistent as possible with rules that are most important to us.
- Giving him his wish in fantasy: “I bet you’d like to gobble up the entire cake right now, wouldn’t you?”
- Helping him distract himself, which is a critical skill for impulse control: “You really want that dessert. But your body needs healthy food first. Let’s find something healthy AND delicious to snack on while we make dinner together. And do you want to help me wash the lettuce?”
2. He has feelings he needs help to manage that are overwhelming his awareness of the limit, and in this case also his affection for his brother. He doesn’t think, he just lashes out. We can help him by:
- Being aware of triggers that usually set him off and intervening before he loses it. “Let’s move your project onto the kitchen table, where it’s safe from your very curious little brother.”
- Noticing the small signals that he’s out of sorts, and helping him off-load his big feelings with giggling or connection before they come crashing out in a total meltdown.
- Spending fifteen minutes of unstructured Special Time with him every day, so he’s more emotionally resilient when things inevitably go wrong.
3. He has needs he can’t express that aren’t being met. If he’s been sitting in school much of the day and he’s cooped up inside waiting for dinner, the couch starts to look a lot like a trampoline. Sure, he knows the limit, but he’ll burst if he doesn’t move. What’s a kid to do? We can help by noticing our child’s needs and responding preemptively:
- An active child needs a small trampoline, or a mattress in the basement.
- A child who’s easily overstimulated needs plenty of downtime.
- Every child who has a sibling needs daily private time to bond with each parent.
Reprinted by permission of Perigee Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) from Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. Copyright (c) 2012 Laura Markham, PhD.