Or sad, or upset, or think it’s not fair….
One of the biggest misperceptions I had about parenting, which has taken years to unravel, was that if I was calm and reasonable, my kids would Get It and they too would be calm and fine with whatever limit I was setting. In fact, I didn’t realize it at the time, but I believed one of my jobs was to keep my kids from being angry, upset or sad. I equated this with being a good mom.
It seems a little silly when I write it out now, that I thought my kids wouldn’t be upset at not being able to do what they want…but perhaps you’ve had a similar experience. Do you think you’re responsible for making your kids happy? If so you may wind up stuck in the same difficult situation for setting limits.
You start out with the goal of being a connected, respectful parent, and instead wind up a frustrated angry parent who feels betrayed by this notion of positive parenting, because dangit – if you’re being kind why are they being angry!?
Here’s an example of trying to set limits with this misperception:
Follow me down this trail. It won’t be familiar to all of you, but if you’ve got problems with setting limits, your own path may have looked something like this at times.
Child does something I want them to stop doing.
I set a limit (You need to stop ‘XYZ’)
Child is upset, angry or sad.
This pushes my buttons. Now I’m at cross purposes with messages in my brain that say both:
::I must set limits and be a strong leader:: and ::I must not make my child angry, upset or sad::
Brain wiring starts to smoke and fizzle. Child keeps crying/yelling/protesting.
Brain equates yelling and crying with Danger and Bad Things and begins sending emergency signals: Make this stop! Child is crying! Dowhateveryouneedtodotomakethisstop! Danger! Danger! Ack! Ack! Ack! Yelling! ! !Emergency! You don’t know what to do!!! Ack! Ack!
Ability to think clearly rapidly declines as adrenaline rises.
Not wanting to back down on whatever limit I set AND beginning to desperately want my child to stop being so loud and chaotic, I finally SNAP and YELL!
And now I, who wanted be a calm parent and make good choices, have yelled and had a mama temper tantrum causing more anger and more upset….
Have you been down that route? (Note: This sequence is totally simplified. Obviously this is not the way every mama meltdown has occurred, and some kids really do get really angry, which is intense no matter how you feel about anger.)
Learning to Respectfully Set Limits
Oh, boy have I had to learn a lot about limit setting. I’m still learning.
I get a bit freaked out by anger. My own emotions start to flood when I’m being yelled at and it gets harder and harder for me to think straight. This wiring and the messaging that I had to keep my kids happy at all costs had to be disconnected so I could function as an effective parent.
6 Ways I’ve Learned to Set Limits:
- I see frustration and facing limits as something that helps my children build resilience.
“…we need to help our children develop resilience. This means they need to practice coping skills, and therefore need some challenges to practice these skills with.”
- I try to let them feel their emotions without having to “fix it” for them.
As adults and as kids we want validation that we’re not crazy for feeling what we’re feeling, and usually we don’t want someone coming in and fixing it all – we want people to believe in us and believe we are capable of working through our own frustrations. Sometimes we just want to finish our cry, have that release, and then move on.
I think about ‘coming along side‘ rather than trying to take over and change how they feel. So for instance, if my child were angry about the fact that they have to go to school when they feel tired, I might say something like, “Yeah, it’s hard to do things when you’re tired. I get grumpy about it sometimes too.”
- I stopped trying to make the anger go away with explanations.
Trying to get my child to stop being upset by talking on and on just ramps us both up more. When a child is upset, they are not in the place to listen. As Dr.Laura Markham says in 10 Things to Remember When Your Child Gets Angry, “When she’s awash in adrenaline and other fight or flight reactions is not the time to explain why she can’t have what she wants, or get her to admit that she actually loves her little sister.”
- I learned be more decisive, even if I change my mind later. In her post about how to parent limit-testing toddlers Janet Lansbury says, “Parents shouldn’t be afraid to be decisive and direct, because we can always change our minds (decisively) later, which is actually excellent modeling. “I thought about it and realized it’s okay for you to splash the water out of the pool. I’m sorry to have told you no.”
- I learned that setting limits isn’t crushing my kids’ choices, even if they protest that it is.
In the parable of the swing – why kids need boundaries and choice Amanda Morgan says so eloquently, “While the best thing about the swing is the feeling of freedom, it’s actually the boundaries that make the activity enjoyable.” We need to be the swing’s chains and seat, allowing the freedom to fly.
- I tell myself to “just keep practicing”.
Practice doesn’t always feel comfortable or sure. If I see limit setting as practice it helps me remember that it might feel uncomfortable to set a limit, but I can still do it, even if I’m not certain I’m doing it right. It will get easier. My kids need a leader. They don’t need a perfect leader, they need a leader who keeps trying and shows them how to rally after making a mistake.
It’s still fairly easy for me to go into “fight or flight” mode when faced with strong, angry emotions, but knowing this tendency in myself helps break the cycle. I am practicing each day to be the capable leader my children need. When we have a bad day, we can start over. We learn together.
This post is part of our selection of articles on Learning to Use a Kind Voice Instead of Yelling – check that link out for more ways to be the kind of person you want your kids to imitate.
I’m super curious if any of you experienced something similar in your parenting. Were you surprised when your rational and calm approach seemed to fail miserably? How does it feel when you child is crying and upset at you when you set a limit?
Alissa Zorn is an author, and founder of the website Overthought This. She's a coach and cartoonist passionate about helping people overcome perfectionism and shame to build authentic, joyful lives. Alissa is certified through the International Coach Federation and got her Trauma-Informed Coaching certification from Moving the Human Spirit. She wrote Bounceback Parenting: A Field Guide for Creating Connection, Not Perfection, and is always following curiosity to find her next creative endeavor.