Dad with finger pointing scolding little girl sitting on a stoolBehavior and Boundaries: How to Apply So My Child Learns

Today’s blog answers is about behavior and boundaries. Something all parents can relate too! This parent wants to know about boundaries. What to do when a child out and out defies you. What she can or should take away from her child. Read on, it will all make sense. I apologize in advance for the very, very long post.

Parent: “I read your blog and [the] blog with your suggested questions. I think the key ingredient that I read is STAY CALM. Which I do well sometimes, and not so well others.
The area I struggle most with is setting CLEAR BOUNDARIES. I simply don’t know what to “take away” from her. I try to make it relevant to the situation as much as possible, but I just seem to get more power-struggles from my 4 yr. daughter and more push back.

Today, I set a clear boundary. It was that she can not have friends over or play until her room is clean. I am willing to help her (I told her). She said to me, “I will just invite them over anyways!” I just stayed quiet in that moment, fake smile on my face, half-dazed and thinking silently…”you’ve got to be freaking kidding me.”

Proactive Parenting: I think your boundary, your ability to stay calm and not get engaged as she attempted to get you into a power struggle, was well done. Although I would lose the smile when you’re being silent, or she may interpret your smile as a challenge, I’m just sayin.

As parents we have to set boundaries, calmly, so children hear us and don’t simply focus on their reaction to being yelled at. Whatever reaction your daughter has to the boundaries you set becomes the next stage of the same lesson. Try not to see her reaction as ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back.’ Seeing it that way will simply cause you to react and punish versus respond and teach the lesson.

Her reaction tells you she’s heard you, and she’s not sure what to do in response, so she does what’s been modeled for her, and what her immature mind thinks is the way to handle things, and yells back at you. Most parents marvel at how ridiculouslly huge their child’s reaction is, especially after they’d just made it clear that this wasn’t going to happen. They think, “Why can’t she just accept what I’ve said? I’m must be doing something wrong because I thought tantrums and beligerent behavior was a thing of the past by this age.” Parents need to remember that this kind of intense behavior is partially motivated by development. That in no way excuses the behavior, or suggests the parent shouldn’t do anything about it, it’s just an important added factor.

Developmentally 4’s are all about power struggles. This is the moment during early childhood when kids are learning how much power they really have? The only way a child, at such a young age, can truly learn how much power they have is through experiencing the consequences of trying to gain that much power. And I’m not talking about using timeout or punishment as the consequence. Doing that won’t teach the true lesson.

Certain stages of development bring up different behaviors so both parent and child can learn. A very simple overview of a few stages would be; 2’s are learning to adapt and wait, hence the tantrums. 3’s are learning about conforming and cooperating, hence the belligerent attitude. 4’s are learning about power and being focused on themselves, hence the power struggles. Then of course there’s a child’s unique personality, her temperament, that plays a big part in all of this as well.

Most parents look at the behavior your daughter exhibited and think it’s disrespectful and unique to their child, only. That’s not true.
What it’s really going on is life has provided a developmentally motivated opportunity for her to learn that this behavior isn’t going to fly. All that’s needed in those moments is for parents to stick to the boundary regardless of what the child does — unless the child ups the ante.

If she harms herself, harms you, or her stuff, or tries to get friends to come over, even after you said “not till your room is clean” then you’ll need move to the next step with her, while you’re still calm. That’s when you say, “Have a seat sweetie, we’re going to sit here until you calm down and can tell me how you’ll say sorry for hitting me, what will happen to the toy you threw across the room, and whether you want my help cleaning the room before friends come over, or you want to clean your room alone.” Then you remain silent. If you think your silence will really freak her out then say, “I’m right here, tell me when you want a hug” or whatever you would say.

That works for most kids, however, if your child is really angry, it may make things worse. You know your child best.

What you’re waiting for is for her to understand nothing is happening till she calms down and answers your questions. The questions are what I call “Pulling it through the Brain.TM” Since young children learn through hands on experience, doing this means she has to remember the rules and consequences in your home as they apply to the situation she is in right now. That’s how she learns. That’s why timeout and punishment don’t work as well. All a child expereinces with timeout and punishment is: I’m being left alone, I’m angry and I don’t know what I should have done instead because I’m so focused on my anger and the fact that you yelled at me and made me sit here, that I forgot. Hope this helps.

Parent: First, I do this, but sometimes feel like I’m not getting through, that it’s not enough: “All that’s needed in those moments is for parents to stick to the boundary regardless of what the child does” [is what I need more clarity on].

Second, and the thing that stands out most in your post is when my girl, “ups the ante. ” She has hit herself, and has hit me and we have made her go to her room (we yelled too, which neither felt right). You are saying that in this case, if she “ups the ante” all I need to do is stay calm, let her do whatever (except harm herself and others) and let her calm down. Then ask her questions basically, on ‘how we are going to fix the “new” problem?'”

Proactive Parenting: Okay, now I understand more about what’s going on.
To your first point: You will never magically get through to her by talking when she’s really emotional, that’s why I suggest silent support. When kids are that emotional they hear white noise, not your words. Think of it like she’s lost when she’s that emotional, and doesn’t know how to get back to calm, she needs your help. When she’s yelled at or sent to her room in that state, she become furious that you, the “all powerful mom”, doesn’t see her needs, so she probably begins using her body to express herself or up’s the ante.

To your second point: It’s not a case of “let her do whatever.” I’m not saying that at all. I am saying, calmly take control of the situation versus reacting to the situation. It’s a combination of two things, support and holding firm to the line in the sand.

Support: You need to be her rock. When a child is consumed by her emotions and angry, she needs to know then, more than any other time, that you are there for her. Yelling, sending her to her room, insisting she calm down by herself, when she has no idea how to do that, makes her fearful, frustrated and tends to create another power struggle.

The Line in the Sand: Here’s a good example. Do you watch “Parenthood” on TV? Take from this example what works for you, and throw the rest away, after all it came from a TV script.

There was a scene where the 6 yr. old was consumed by her emotions, she was hitting her Mom, throwing things, and Mom decided she’d had enough.

Mom calmly, yet firmly, took the girl up to her room and said, “Please stay in here until you’re done hitting and throwing, I’m sitting right outside the door.” (Notice mom didn’t say calm down. She used concrete language so the child could understand, even though she was emotional.)

Since Mom left the door open, the little girl took that opportunity and threw something at Mom. Mom said, “I have to close the door to protect myself, but I’m sitting right out here.” The little girl went wild, and wrecked her entire room.

This fit took an hour or more to complete. Mom felt horrible and cried as she sat there. The little girl was so emotionally exhausted, she fell asleep and stayed asleep all night. The next day, the little girl sheepishly came down to mom and apologized, then mom and girl cleaned up the room.

You can see the support, but you can also feel Mom’s firmness. How a child reacts to your support AND the line in the sand has more to do with the child’s temperament, than development. Is the child tenacious, and won’t give in no matter what? Is she feisty and mean when she’s that upset? Or does she release her emotions by screaming and then she’s done. That all depends on the individual child. These experiences end up showing you a bit more about your child’s core temperament. Only when a child has finally calmed down can you ask any questions.

Some children are like my #1 son. He would refuse to get calm, he would wreck his room and yell at me. However, if I left for more than a minute he would call out and call out, asking me to come back. Then he’d try and start it up again. At which time I would calmly, yet firmly say, “Sweetie, I will not be screamed at. You can say what you need to say again so my ears don’t hear screaming, or I can leave and come back in a minute more when you’re ready, you decide.” Notice my sentence is worded that way so he can grasp the concept through his emotions, I’m not concerned with making it grammatically correct.

Some kids are like my #2 son. He needed me to sit beside him as he released his emotions. He’d cry, and cry, and cry. Then as he calmed down he’d begin to snuggle closer until he was ready to deal with the natural consequences [fixing the damage he had done versus living with having something being taken away]. You can see how I supported them both and drew a line in the sand as well.
These BIG reactions surprise parents because they’re still occurring as a child gets older, they’re not stopping at age two like most parents believed they would. Unfortunately, a child’s BIG reactions are another way for them to express what they don’t know how to express yet. I hope this helps.
Parent: “It does help, and the examples helped tremendously too.

What I came away realizing, as I read your post, was: ‘I think I’m a bad parent if my daughter reacts in any negative way’ I see that is false now, even though I knew it was an untrue thought…I am more conscious of it now and will be able to better support her with that belief out of the way.

I like what you offer up as support and it is true. That is exactly what I want from my boyfriend when I have “thrown a tantrum”
No I do not watch Parenthood. I’m not much into TV. 🙂
Thank you again, you have brought some things to my consciousness.”

Proactive Parenting: I hope you can see how setting boundaries can improve and change behavior. That’s what Proactive Parenting is all about. Check out our products, book and coaching sessions to help you with even more specific situations.
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