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When my son was a young toddler, one of the biggest struggles that I faced was to set limits. I wanted to be a gentle parent. But at the same time, I wanted him to know that some things are not allowed.
Honestly, the tantrums he threw after I was setting a limit were really difficult to handle. And I was questioning if what I was doing was right. So I started to read a lot about how to set limits with young kids. I really wanted to find a solution that was both effective and gentle.
I knew that I didn’t want to use timeouts or punishments with my child. But I also knew that he needed guidance and that my job as a parent is to teach him what is right and what is wrong.
After some challenging months, when I tried a lot of different approaches, I found one that was perfect for us. So I decided to share it here for all the parents that are struggling with the same issue.
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Setting limits is not easy. But limits are good for kids! Children need limits, and they need our support to learn how they should behave.
My general rule about setting limits is to stop the negative behavior but to accept all the child’s feelings. Here are the 3 steps that I follow every time and that made setting limits a lot easier for me.
1. Evaluating the situation
When I see my son doing something that seems wrong, I first ask myself: Is the limit really necessary? This question is important because, as parents, we tend to always want to be in control. Even when it’s not really necessary.
For example: If my child is aggressive with another child, then the limit is certainly necessary. But if my child paints on his table with washable colors, maybe the limit is not necessary. I could just let him express his creativity and then wash the table.
Setting too many limits is very frustrating for the child. It can make him disobey everything we say.
So it’s important to only set limits that are really important. For me, the most important are those about safety and about being respectful. I try to be very flexible when it comes to everything else, as long as his behavior is not bothering other persons.
When I evaluate the situation, I also try to determine if my expectations are appropriate for his age.
A two-year-old child cannot stay still for a long time. Also, a young child cannot wait quietly in line for hours without asking for attention. So I always try to keep this in mind when setting a limit. If the limit is not suitable for the child’s age, there is nothing that can be done to implement it.
The last thing I do when I evaluate the situations is to try to understand the reason behind the behavior. Sometimes kids misbehave because they feel disconnected, and they want our attention. Other times, they are hungry or sleepy.
So I try to find out what is really happening. If I suspect that he is hungry, I offer him a snack. When he is tired, I invite him to stay in my arms. If he seems disconnected from me, I stop what I am doing and play with him for a while.
This helps me avoid a lot of situations when his negative behavior may escalate.
What also helps is to remind him about our rules. Sometimes after a gentle reminder, he decides to stop the negative behavior. There are still a lot of cases when he wouldn’t stop, so then I follow the next step.
photo credit: Evgeny Atamanenko / Shutterstock.com
2. Setting the limit and accepting the feelings
This step is the most difficult one. After I establish that the limit is necessary and that I need to enforce it, I try to do it in a gentle but firm way.
I stop the negative behavior in a calm manner. I tell him that he is not allowed to do that thing. And that I cannot let him do it. If he is aggressive, I physically stop him from hitting or biting by gently holding his body.
If he is protesting about the limit setting, I try to remove him from the situation and go with him in a quiet place.
Sometimes he just protests a little, and then he understands the limits. Other times, he starts crying loudly or even throws a tantrum.
I stay close to him, and I assure him that I understand how mad he is. I want him to feel understood. Even if I cannot accept the behavior, I always accept his feelings.
I want him to know that his feelings are normal. That he is allowed to be angry or mad. But that doesn’t mean that he is allowed to misbehave.
3. Finding better solutions
During the crying or the tantrum, the child’s brain is not capable of answering to rational arguments. So there is no point in trying to lecture the child then.
I just wait for the difficult moment to pass. Then I invite him in my arms to talk about what happened. I explain to him what was wrong with what he did. And I remind him about our rules. We try to find together better ways of handling difficult moments.
When he was younger, I just used to tell him how he could do better next time. Now, when he is a little bit older, I invite him to come up with his own solutions.
The best thing about talking about the issue in a gentle way is that the child feels understood. And he is more willing to do better next time.
photo credit: Alena Ozerova / Shutterstock.com
The good news about setting limits in a gentle way
The good news is that setting limits in a firm but gentle way really works! It is difficult at the beginning, and it requires a lot of patience. But it certainly pays off for the long term.
I can tell you from my own experience that being a gentle parent has a very positive outcome! My son follows our rules most of the time. Of course that he misbehaves sometimes. And he may throw a tantrum once in a while. But I think that this is normal at his age.
What helped me establish these 3 steps for setting limits was reading the articles and books of Laura Markham. She is the author of AHAparenting.com. The site offers some great articles about gentle parenting.
I follow these steps every time I set a limit. After a while, it became a habit. It helps me remain calm while setting the limit. And it helps my son understand that I am there for him anytime he needs guidance.
This method allowed us to build a strong relationship. And made my life easier!
So if you are struggling with finding the best way to set limits with your child, I totally recommend it to you! I hope that it will help you as much as it helped me!
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preview photo credit: Alena Ozerova / Shutterstock.com