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If you ever wondered why setting limits with young kids sometimes just doesn't work, maybe I'll find some useful answers in this article!
I was standing in the middle of the living room watching my son taking some little cars out of a box one by one and throwing them all over the floor. He was looking at me while doing this knowing that he was doing something wrong. It was the third time that this happened in that day. Once again, I tried to be as gentle as I could, even though inside me I was full of anger.
We went together to be the bedroom and talk about it. It was so emotionally exhausting! I felt that my patience was running low. Luckily, he seemed to understand and we returned to the living room to clean the mess.
Two hours later, I told him that I need some quiet time to write an email. I sat down and before even starting the email I heard a familiar sound coming from the living room. Yes, you guessed: it was my son throwing the cars again!
After I wrote about how to set limits with young kids in an effective and gentle way in 3 simple steps I received some great feedback from parents who tried this with wonderful results. But I also received a couple of emails from parents telling me that they tried gentle methods and they didn’t work as good as they hoped. And I can totally understand this!
Sometimes setting limits is not easy at all! Even if we have an effective system in place, it doesn’t work every single time. But that doesn’t mean that we should quit trying gentle methods. Not at all! The truth is that no matter what method we use, sometimes setting limits will not work smoothly. And there are some reasons why this is happening.
Here are the main reasons that I’ve discovered along the time. I am pretty sure that you have experienced at least one of them!
1. The child is completely disconnected from us.
This is what happened in the story I was telling you at the beginning. My son was so disconnected from me that he repeated the same behavior over and over again even if he understood that it was wrong. Sometimes when we go through difficult periods or we face major changes, the kids feel that they lost the connection with us. And the start to engage in a lot of negative behavior that seems unstoppable.
The only way to fix this is to take the time to reconnect with the child. This will not happen immediately but once it happens, setting limits will become easy again.
2. We haven’t addressed the real reason behind the negative behavior.
For example, a child who is tired can start misbehaving. We can set a limit to the behavior but most probably the child will repeat it. The best way to stop this is to address the reason behind the behavior and help the child calm down and get some sleep. The same thing happens when kids are hungry, frustrated, or scared.
Once we address the reason behind the behavior we can help the child overcome it. And the negative behavior will stop.
3. The limit is not age-appropriate.
Asking a two-year old to stay still for hours is unrealistic. Asking a toddler to be quiet for long periods of time also is. Also, asking a young child to be understanding when another child is constantly bothering them is something that they really cannot do. When setting a limit we need to ask ourselves if the child’s developmental stage allows him to understand and respect it.
4. The child has reached another developmental milestone.
Kids instinctively test our limits. And one reason why they do this is because they want to experiment new things. And as they grow we should reassess the limits and adjust them to their new abilities.
For example, let’s say that we don’t allow a young toddler to climb on a very high slide. This can be a safety limit that it’s necessary at some point. But as the child grows, they will insist on climbing that slide. This is because they want to explore a new thing and they feel that they have the ability to do it. At that point, it can be a good idea to reassess the situation and remove the limit. This will bring the child the joy of succeeding something new. And will bring us the relief of having one less limit to enforce.
5. We are over-controlling.
Sometimes, without even noticing, we can become over-controlling. Especially when kids have difficult periods of their life, we may feel that we are losing control. And that we need to do everything we can to stay in control. And this usually reflects on setting too many limits.
There is a certain amount of “no” that a child can manage every day. If we put too many limits kids will become defiant and will no longer listen to us. What we can do in this case is to take a step back and reassess. Are all the limits that we set really necessary? Is there something we could do to say more “yes” instead of “no”?
Once we realize that we exaggerate with the limits because of the fear of losing control, things instantly become easier. The child sees that we are willing to give up on the unnecessary limits and we have greater chances of getting their cooperation.
In my opinion, these are the main reasons why limits sometimes just don’t work. Of course, there can be plenty other reasons. But from my experience, once I think about them and reassess my parenting according to them, setting limits becomes easier again.
What helps me during a difficult moment is to say to myself that my son is just a child. He doesn’t have my experience, my ability to deal with emotions, my patience. And this is totally normal! It is my job as an adult to find out what is going wrong and to fix it. The fact that setting limits in a gentle way sometimes doesn’t work doesn’t mean that gentle parenting doesn’t work. It just means that we need to look at the problem from a different perspective and find a positive solution for guiding our kids. It’s sometimes hard to do this but our kids deserve this effort!
If you wonder what I did in our car-throwing situation, I just gave up writing that email and started a game. I told him that we cannot throw the cars but we can throw socks.
So we took our box of folded socks and throw them one by one into the wall. It was a great game for tempering his anger and frustration. He started to laugh and we had a good time together throwing socks. At the end, we hugged for a while. It was clear to me at that point that he felt totally disconnected before. After the hug, he started to put the cars back into the box without me even mentioning it. Then we still played for a while on the floor. He stopped throwing cars ever since. And I still managed to write that email late that night!
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