How can we set limits with our children that peacefully stick? While there might not be a “magic formula,” I do know that anything is possible. With a clear intention to hold a non-judgmental space for all those who struggle to set limits, have their values heard, and to speak directly about their feelings and needs, I hope that these stories will help us to begin an authentic dialogue about setting limits for the children we love.
Where to begin? Watching my children grieve has come up in numerous ways as I have been contemplating my social and emotional coaching journey. To lose someone so close to you at an age when you need their support for all of your basic needs is something that impacts upon your choices every day. It also provides a particularly challenging lens with which to read the world. “How can I believe that the adults in my life positioned to protect me will be here when I woke up one morning and you were gone?” Thoughts like these have become concrete obstacles to my daughter’s progress and, in fact, serve to provide me with a number of “moments of opportunities” or “teachable moments” not only for the girls, but also for me as a parent and as a personal coach. Attempting to set limits has not been an easy task, however, what it has been is a vehicle to build our connection, discuss our fears, and dream big about where we will go from this place, right here and right now.
What has not worked? Trying to control the kids behaviour has not worked for any of us. Much of the “techniques” I have used have come from really great sources: times outs, rewards and punishments for select behaviour are all very common examples of behaviour modification techniques that have come in (and out!) our home. At one point I even developed my own version. It was called “The Yoda Bucket” and it was made up of a list of 5 “good” behaviours and 5 “bad” behaviours, each dropped into a bucket with a picture of Yoda on it. I explained to the girls that Yoda always taught that “The force is with you” and that they had the power to change their behaviour. When either girl displayed any behaviour from the list, the item was dropped in the Yoda bucket. At the end of the week, we sat together, tallying up the “good” and the “bad” behaviours. If more bad cards outweighed the good, some privilege was taken away (e.g., no television or video games). If more good cards outweighed the bad, they could get something back that had previously been taken away. While totally well-meaning and well-intentioned, the plan backfired. I soon realized that what I truly valued above all else was an intrinsic commitment to the new behaviours and patterns. I did not want the girls to do things to get things. I wanted the girls to want to treat each other well because they wanted to treat each other well and be treated well too. But to do that, I needed to introduce them to a new vocabulary of feelings and needs. I also had to adjust my internal dialogue to ensure that I was truly allowing them a space to change that was both accepting of where they were at while simultaneously being open (and excited!) at the prospect of anything happening.
What has worked? Much of what has worked when I have tried to set limits with the kids has been a direct result of being present with them in their grief, pain, anger, and sadness. Often times the most challenging aspect has been working through my own emotional responses to events in our lives in order to ready myself to really hold a space for the kids to feel whatever they need to feel in that moment. Taking the time to stop, breathe, check in with myself and then approach the children has been crucial. Sharing my feelings with the girls – no matter how contradictory or heavy these may be – has also helped. It’s as if these moments have made me look more human to them, and as the “Perfect Mother” image dissipates, the children and I can speak more frankly about what we feel and what we will try next to make things better. Also, being flexible continues to help me when trying to set limits. Sometimes we set our limits together like clockwork, and at other times, our clock is broken. But in both cases our intention is the same: to always start from a place of love. To emphasize this family value, we began including it in our prayers at night which prompted us to discuss what that actually means to each of us in the family. That dialogue is ongoing, and it’s one that helps to bring us together each and every day.
Consequently, the best example of successfully setting a limit with the children is much bigger than a single success story. Instead, the adventure we have been on, our growing closeness and ability to communicate through the language of feelings and needs, and, at the end of the day, our desire to be together whether it is in play, serious conversation, or in contemplative silence indicates to me that setting limits peacefully is working. I remember growing up and feeling angry when “I didn’t get what I wanted” or feeling slighted when my needs were not getting met. But today, as I spend time trying to facilitate conversations around why select behaviours like hitting or screaming are unacceptable in our home leaves my heart feeling more settled. Being direct in our discussions has truly been a blessing. When the children began fighting with each other instead of brushing their teeth before bed, I called them both down to come and speak with me. We sat on the couch, my arms around each, and asked them to tell me what had happened to prompt their fight. As each explained their side of the story, I realized that it really was possible to listen through the words directly into the feelings each child was experiencing. And as I probed for more details, I could hear that both were scared that they would get in trouble. I guessed that our old relationship which resulted in me taking something they loved away or sending them to their room for a time out remained deeply embedded in their young minds, and wanting to avoid feeling like they were horrible people who could not get anything right, they hoped to deflect blame for their fighting off of themselves and directly onto their sibling. They were scared and worried, and they needed to feel like they were both part of a co-operative and communal space that we could all call home. I asked them to think about the words we spoke each night when we prayed, and had them explain to me what some of the family values were in our house. The girls had difficulty answering. I realized then that I, too, had a part to play in the children’s lack of security when trying to live peacefully in the home. If we were not all clear on what we valued as a family, then setting limits and, more specifically, ensuring that the children realized that certain behaviours were unacceptable in our family that was non-negotiable would never work. So I shifted our conversation to focus our attention more directly on talking about what feelings we wanted to feel in the house. The kids got excited and before I knew it they were working together to share the feelings that our family wanted to feel with me. I then asked them to think about the types of behaviours that would get us to those feelings. That also worked, and it was clear that the children – despite their age difference – were becoming much more clear about the behaviours that were valued in our home. Then I asked them if the behaviour upstairs while brushing their teeth would help us get to the feelings that we had agreed on being the most important to our family. Both girls said no, and before I could ask another question they turned to each other and began suggesting ways to do things differently. After a group hug, the girls walked upstairs hand-in-hand. Teeth brushing was no longer accompanied with sounds of frustrated children, but instead the girls were smiling and giggling as they got ready for bed.
It’s important to note that our household successes continue to grow, but that does not mean that all of our challenges have been overcome. The next day at bedtime the girls feel back into their pattern of fighting when sent upstairs to brush their teeth for bed. I was frustrated but after checking in with myself I realized that a lot of my inner dialogue revolved around my failure to create a “perfect” home and that “perfection” was also reflected back to me from the girls if I could find a way to force them to say sorry to each other. But a forced sorry never really does anything, and this adventure in parenting is not about perfection. As I calmed my own fears and drew upon the positive affirmations that I had been working on to better support the development of a more peaceful home I remembered that sometimes we have to repeat the lessons and find ways to re-state our values. And that’s okay. In fact, each time there’s a breakdown in our communication we also have an opportunity to do things differently. We can practice our language of feelings and needs and we can learn to communicate in ways that more inline with our core values. It’s been a very long time of living out patterns that have not worked for us, and it will take some time to substitute our old ways with new and improved methods of working in community in the home. But if we keep our mind on the pulse of our new value system I am certain that everything will end in a big smile.
With love, light & healing,