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Posts Tagged ‘Setting limits’

Temperamental Fit Between Parent and Child

Dr. Kyle Pruett AIt is good to remind ourselves that our children are developing in very close proximity to us and to our own capacities to feel shame and invoke our consciences in useful, constructive ways.  It will help to take a brief look at our own styles and think about how they will affect our children at this age.

The temperamental “fit” between parent and child plays a big role in the limit-setting process.  If this process is to work well, the challenge is to keep drawing your child toward greater and greater self-control.

The fit or match between your style and that of your toddler will never be perfect, nor should it be.  However, thinking about how you affect each other can greatly increase the ease with which you set limits for her and help her stay in control when she is threatening to “lose it.”

When you are well tuned to your child, both of you are likely to feel more in control.  As a result, your child doesn’t have to resort to ever more dramatic tactics, like shutting down completely or running away.

By the same token, repeated misreading of what a child needs in the limit-setting realm, coupled with too little or too much discipline, leaves her feeling confused and that she has failed as a communicator.  These feelings, in turn, lead to a sense of uselessness and hopelessness.  So it’s a good idea to periodically reassess your style and that of your child to see where differences could be helpful or troublesome.

Sometimes Limits Are Hard to Maintain

Dr. Kyle Pruett ADespite that importance of limits, parents sometimes have trouble setting and maintaining them.  Part of the problem stems, no doubt, from the changes in today’s family structures and lifestyles.  Some common issues:

  • I don’t want to be the ogre:  Parents who are unable to spend much time with their children (because of work, separation, or divorce, for example) may be concerned about how they are view by their children in the limited time they have together.  Anxious not to be the “Wicked Witch of the West,” they cave more easily and often.  But children are relentless in their search for limits since, at this age, they can’t set their own.  The result of the caving is more testing, rather than less.  Better an occasional stand-your-ground action than a non-stop war of attrition.  With limits, children – and the limited time parents have with them – will be much happier.  The bonds between parent and child also will be stronger.
  • I’m too tired:  This is a common problem of working parents.  They come home after a long day, looking forward to some pleasant time with the family, and, boom, they get hit with whines and cries.  Caving again may seem the quickest route to peace.  And, in the short term, it might be.  But it only increases the frequency of testing.  Once again, standing firm for important limits will make those pleasant evenings the norm, not the exception.
  • Giving in is a treat for the child:  It isn’t.  Freedom in life is a treat for us grownups because we have, in general, mastered the self-control needed to use it properly.  A toddler hasn’t.  Limits are the controls that make his life safe, secure, and happy.  Don’t deny him these essentials.

Ask the Expert: Setting Limits, Discipline & Distraction

I have an 18 month old who is into everything. I feel like I am always telling him “no.” What are the appropriate limits to set for him at this age?

If you are “always telling him ‘no,’” then you probably have that nagging feeling that you are not getting through or that he couldn’t care less. Some “experts” feel that 18 months is too young to set limits, given that children at that age have yet to understand the relationship between cause and effect, or the difference between right and wrong. I am not one of those “experts.” As you imply in your question, limits are necessary at this age, especially around the ever-present issue of safety.  However, saying “no” repeatedly just teaches your child to ignore you. This is called habituation – when the brain actually pays less attention to the familiar. For this reason, I am a big fan of distraction – not headbutting – at this age.

The tired old adage, “practice makes perfect,” is a cornerstone of teaching acceptable, responsible behavior to a child. Limit-setting for about the first two years of life rests on you – specifically on your ability to distract and, if needed, remove your child to ensure safety and socially acceptable behavior. These actions (plus child-proofing the premises as much as possible) have been shown over and over to be the most effective ways to keep behavior in check without quashing a toddler’s delight in exploring and learning.

What is being taught in distraction and removal (along with a firm “no”) are patterns of what’s acceptable and what’s not. When your actions are consistent, each repetition sinks a little deeper into the well of your child’s memory. This happens even before his cognitive powers are up to the task of understanding the whys of safety rules or of more complex concepts, such as value and ownership, which govern what he can and can’t do with objects.

The first sign of memory related to limits is when you see your child looking over his shoulder as he moves toward some forbidden object. You probably noticed some of these “catch me if you can” grins and challenges to your “no” back when your child was just crawling. You also have probably experienced many a bout when your child has dissolved into tears after spilling or breaking something. Herein lie the seeds of shame – healthy shame, the kind that regrets an error or mistake. And, yes, there is a conflict. Your child’s desire to please you at this stage runs head-on into his need to figure out the boundaries in his world.

Fortunately, the solution to both sides of the conflict is the same – consistency on your part in maintaining the rules. Consistent repetitions of the same words and acts by you enable your child to begin to feel embarrassment and shame when he breaks the rules. This is a very healthy development, one that is central to his ability to control his own behavior in the future, when you are not around to act as police officer. If this process goes as it should, by 36 months your child should show the beginnings of self-control as well as the first signs of a sense of right and wrong. These are the foundations of conscience.

Unlike physical skills, such as walking, a conscience doesn’t emerge on its own. It is a product of parental guidance and teaching, and its early signs are clear markers that you are getting the job done.

Key to your success is your child’s desire to please you. These are important assets for you to use in this 18-month period. The process is slow and time-consuming, but in the long run more than worth the investment of your patience, time, and effort. This is when your approval is a powerful tool to coax a child to verbalize his wants and needs rather than to act out his emotions. Conversely, withholding your approval and/or showing disapproval are strong motivators for little ones to stop unacceptable behavior.

There is no denying that there is a rise in negativism around 18 months. Maybe they start to “act no” more often because they hear it so often! It is hard to know which is “horse” and which is “cart” here, but the new motility of toddlerhood is a heck of a lot of fun for any ex-lap child. Regardless, it is our job to keep them safe; therefore limits matter.

There are, of course, limits to limits. You can’t force your children to sleep, eat, go to the bathroom, think the way you do, or speak on demand. There are also times when it is necessary to back off – when they are spent and you are exhausted, or when you are going to lose anyway.  Won’t eat any dinner? Okay, but no cookies. Don’t want to go to sleep? Fine, lie there then. This doesn’t mean you should NEVER cave, however. Surprise your toddler every once in a while, just for the sheer pleasure of seeing the amazement on his face. Saying “yes” occasionally will actually revitalize your “no.” Besides, perfect parenting is extinct.

Finally, and essentially, the way you set the limit is every bit as (and often more) important than what the limit actually is. Emotional intensity does not make limit setting more effective, it’s just the opposite. So keep it cool and business-like; limit setting should be customized, but never personal.