Testing the Limits

Lately, I have been doing a lot of thinking about toddlers (and preschoolers) and how they test limits. I try not to set too many rigid rules, and to choose my battles for the things that are truly important, such as respecting one’s self, other people, and the home that we live in. When I do try to set a limit for Dylan, I usually approach the subject in a kind and gentle way. I say “please”, and “thank you”. I empathize with him if he becomes upset about the limit. In short, I try to follow every piece of advice about setting empathic and effective limits.

If I am following the advice on how to set effective limits in an empathic way, then why isn’t it working? Tonight, I took some time to read more about empathic limit setting from Dr. Laura Markham’s book, “Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids : How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting”. Apparently, when empathic limit setting does not result in those limits being respected, one of two things could be going on.

The first thing to look at when your efforts at empathic limit setting are not working is the relationship between you and your child. Regularly reconnecting with your child through hugs, playing together, or even just talking is an essential part of raising children who see you as someone who is “on their side”, someone whom they wish to cooperate with. However, it is possible to have a very strongly connected relationship with your child and at the same time encounter difficulty with setting empathic limits.

This is the exact wall that I have been banging my head against for some time now. As I mentioned before, I take the advice on setting empathic limits seriously. I also spend a great deal of time at home with Dylan, and connect with him constantly and meaningfully throughout the day. Connection is not at the root of the difficulties that I have with Dylan and the limits that I try to set for him. Some kids simply test limits more than others do. And, some moms (like me) have no idea how to handle that, so they handle it poorly.

Fortunately, Dr. Laura Markham has some ideas that may help with kids who constantly test limits. Sometimes, kids test limits because they really want something. Consistency, empathy, validating their wish in fantasy and helping him to distract himself by moving on to another activity together are all supposed to be effective techniques. If a child needs help managing overwhelming feelings, he may test the limit by lashing out. This is his cry for help, and you can answer it by noticing signs of an impending meltdown and intervening before it happens, and by making sure that you spend at least fifteen minutes of time alone with your child each day. Limit testing can also be a sign of needs that are not being met, probably because your child is unable to express them to you. Think about what you can do to help after noticing which limits are being tested. Does your child need more active time? More down time? Is your schedule too rushed? It could be anything, but chances are that if you observe closely, you can figure it out. I sure hope that these tips can help me to establish and maintain clear limits for Dylan (and Blake, as he grows).

Photo by clarita on morguefile.com.