Setting limits is tough. I’ve found it to be a muscle I had to grow and exercise over time. I was way better at it when I was interacting with someone else’s child. Once my own boy became mobile, I ran smack into the ever-triggering world of a driven-to-explore toddler. Behold: my top ten tips for making boundaries a breeze.
1. Think ahead. In other words, make a plan and strategize. In parenting, you really do have to be one step ahead. Luckily, we have the cerebral cortexes our young ones lack. We often know the places where our kids will push. Whether it’s mealtime or bedtime, you can take the time to plan ahead. Thinking things through and knowing where your limit lies, is a huge help.
2. Don’t use wishy-washy language. One of the best tips I ever got as a teacher was to record myself in the classroom for an hour and play it back to myself later. I caught myself in quite a few verbal habits I wanted to break. Using weak language when giving directives or setting limits was one of them. Aim to be mindful of statements like, “I don’t really want you to do that,” (really?) and the ubiquitous, “Okay?” at the end of sentences.
3. Check your body language and facial expression. Even though I wrote a book about saying the right thing, studies show that these nonverbal cues carry huge importance. Don’t go all sing-song-y if you mean business. Always, always, always: get low. You are huge and intimidating to a child, period. You can mean what you say with a neutral facial expression. No need to furrow your brow in frustration. Aim to convey quiet confidence that the child in your care can do what is necessary.
4. Ensure that your tone is warm, but firm. A sharp tone or staccato cadence can be overstimulating and scary to a young child, setting off their “fight or flight” alarm. High volume (aka yelling) can trigger this as well. A scared child is not likely to comply until they are so scared you’ve hugely diminished their feelings of connection with you. If and when they do comply, it is not because they learned anything, actual learning takes place in a different part of the brain.
5. Don’t expect a child to comply without upset. Set the limit where the limit is for you. Then make and hold space for the feelings a child may have about it. It is unrealistic to expect a child to accept “No” with “Okay Mommy.” Be prepared—this will rarely happen. However, it will actually happen more if you are calm and reassuring in your setting and holding of limits: “I said ‘no’ to another cookie. You really wanted it. I will listen to your upset.” That’s all that is required. Have faith they can work through the tough feelings of not getting what they want. Accepting is way better than annoyed in this scenario.
6. Have developmentally appropriate expectations. A one-year-old will get into everything no matter what you do or say. A two-year-old cannot share without protest. A three-year-old will say “no” often. A four-year-old must know “why.” No one, no matter what their age really likes limits. Yet limits are needed. Brush up on where your child is developmentally. This will help you weather the storm of their upcoming “developmental leap” (they are always about to make one). Remember how much they are growing on every level—emotional, physical, mental, and psychological. That they hold it together and are pleasant as often as they are is the real miracle!
7. Stay decisive, even when you can change your mind. That sounds like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth, and I am. Your confidence in your decisions is crucial. If you aren’t sure whether or not you should let them jump on the bed, that is more problematic than if on Tuesday you say, “Yes, today you may jump on the bed,” (You checked in with yourself and are well-rested, focused, and able to keep this activity comfortable and safe for everyone.) then on Wednesday you say, “No, today is not a jumping on the bed day.” (You had insomnia, got a fat parking ticket, and have a headache.) Staying consistent in your decisiveness is way more important that a rule being unwavering.
8. Be physical if you need to. Unless you are feeling angry and frustrated, it is okay to corral a child physically to keep her safe. (In your lap facing outward so you don’t get hit is a useful one.) Check in with yourself and stay calm. Pay close attention so you know you are not hurting her. Sometimes only a moment of contact is need, such as when a child tries to hit another. Simply block the blow gently and say, “I can’t allow hitting,” or, “I won’t let you hurt your friend.” Again, use your tone wisely, this statement should be matter-of-fact, not shaming.
9. Don’t explain the reason for the limit more than once. It can be helpful to give a child the reason for the limit. But do not repeat yourself, you will only get irritated. Give the explanation once and then keep quiet. Hold your tongue—or as Carrie Contey says, “Zip it!” Especially if a child deteriorates into an emotional meltdown. When he is in his emotional, limbic brain, language is not as accessible. You are truly wasting your breath. If you are going to have a mantra for when a child is really losing it, “You are safe,” is my favorite.
10. Use humor. Last but not least: BE FUNNY! I cannot stress enough how well this works. Try on a silly voice or tone, invent a character. Not long ago I got a ton of mileage out of using a British accent during limit setting. Animate and imbue with wit objects like a toothbrush or the tub water. My son has been known to request this, as in, “Make the toothbrush ask me that question again!” I can’t tell you how fast he opened his mouth after that imaginative play. I guarantee this does not take any longer than bargaining, hollering, or bribing.
Try on some of these suggestions. See if they fit. You will definitely know if they are working better than, “You better get dressed right now,” “How dare you talk to me like that!” or “Fine, have the damn cookie.” Try it, you’ll like it. Then let me know how it goes.