Flourish, home of Studio for Change, hosted an event sponsored by Neighborhood Parents Network (NPN) and led by one of Flourish’s therapists – Melanie Arons. The topic of Setting Limits is most relevant to the toddler ages, although parts of it certainly apply to children of all ages (and, as I used to experience in the corporate world, to some co-workers).
Arons explained children tantrum and act up because they want you to understand the intensity of the emotions they are feeling and they don’t have the vocabulary to express it – ie, just to say I am really upset right now.
Often parents try speaking to the children like adults not realizing the child doesn’t have the brain capacity to understand and comprehend. Children respond based on certain motivations depending on their age – for example, up to age 7, a child’s primary interest is to avoid punishment. From ages 7-11, that motivation shifts to a desire to please others (certainly parents of girls can attest to this) and it isn’t until age 12 and older that a child can realize that you do something simply because it is the right thing to do.
Similarly, a child’s ability to respond varies by their age. From birth to age 2 a child basically responds only to the here and now. From ages 2 to 7, they are egocentric and respond to the world immediately around them. From ages 7 to 11, they are not yet able to think abstractly; that occurs after age 11.
With this in mind, as parents we need to speak to our children where they are and place our expectations accordingly. One of the things we can do is to actually reflect what we believe they are feeling to help them see that we do in fact understand. For example, “You feel sad because your friend had to leave early. Here’s what we can do to make that better.”
It’s also important to let the child know you are never mad at them but rather the behavior they are exhibiting. The child is not bad; the behavior may be.
Negative attention seeking is one of the first areas where we see our children begin to test limits. This is perfectly normal and usually begins to occur around the age of 2, though it could begin as early as 18 months with some children. This is a sign that the child is ready for time outs.
Most important is that parents follow through on their rules and actions. Arons suggested the following tips:
1. Establish firm rules, but not too many as that can be confusing and hard to remember. Her recommendation is 3-5.
2. Post the rules where everyone can see them.
3. Make the rules specific and short – if you hit another you go into timeout.
4. Have a family meeting to discuss the rules. This is important particularly for children over the age of 4.
5. Avoid empty threats – if you really aren’t going to cancel the birthday party if the child doesn’t behave properly, don’t put that out there. Children must know you will follow through.
6. Any rule violation should have immediate consequences or the child won’t correlate the consequence to the behavior.
Arons also gave suggestions to listen for the cues to a tantrum to catch the child before the behavior becomes a problem.
Note your child’s behavior before they tantrum and then begin to teach them coping skills so they learn to calm themselves:
1. use words
2. take deep breaths – and do this together
3. walk away from the situation (if possible)
4. tell an adult how they are feeling, especially if they need a break
I think it is a true gift we can provide our children to start seeing how they can take control of their emotions. I often wish we could teach meditation from a young age because the idea of stepping away, taking a deep breath and calming our mind is a tool we can all use.
Finally, Arons shared these 5 skills for parents when interacting with their children:
1. Describe by giving information only, not by telling a child why he/she is wrong or bad. Describe the problem; this helps children figure it out themselves.
2. Give choices – no more than 3 – which gives the child power and independence and helps them feel in control and builds confidence.
3. Say it with a word – shorter is better. Avoid lectures or you lose the child’s attention.
4. Ask questions rather than state demands. When you ask a question, you give your child the opportunity to recall and to interact with you.
5. Show empathy. It helps children to know their parents understand how they feel, which makes them more likely to listen to you.
Flourish and NPN are rich and valuable resources to parents. You can find out more about each here: