A basic skill that most parents are continually trying to master is the setting (and enforcement) of clear, direct limits and boundaries. This is a particularly *fun* part of parenting because as your kids grow up, the rules for how to do this best keep changing. Ugh. On top of that, it’s hard for most parents to know where to set the limit for non-negotiable behaviors. There are many factors at play that can make holding your ground on certain limits challenging.
I love this example from PBS, specifically talking about a topic that I have deep, deep experience with – a toddler bargaining for a midnight snack after refusing dinner. Oof. When you have a picky eater, you basically jump at the opportunity to feed them something – anything – that they’ll actually eat! In this example, the parents give in, parenting reactively because there are nutrition concerns at play and, of course, that ever-gnawing feeling every parent has that they are doing something wrong. They are using their emotions to make the decision.
In this example, though, it’s very clear that the toddler is in charge. Her dads regroup, take a proactive stance, and find a middle ground offering for her, on their terms. It takes their toddler a couple of nights to get on board, but she does eventually. Implementing strict boundaries can be painful at first, but once the new rule has been accepted as law, the benefits of providing this boundary not only helps you maintain control as a parent, it allows them to experience a certain freedom within those bounds that develops them into responsible, socially aware humans.
There are generally considered to be three types of parenting styles: reactive, wavering, and proactive. Each parent will naturally gravitate to a different parenting style, which can make things challenging for partners. It’s important, if you are co-parenting, to get on the same page as your partner, hold the same rules, and enforce them the same way.
If you have set limits for your children but still find yourself constantly in conflict, reacting in anger, frustration, fear, or impatience you are probably parenting reactively. Children with reactive parents are often also highly reactive and emotional, and test boundaries both in and outside of the home.
If you are a wavering style parent, you have set limits but you struggle to follow through with the appropriate discipline. You may find yourself constantly talking about consequences but not doing a lot of actual disciplining. Your child has probably noticed your inconsistency and is testing your limits intentionally.
This style of parenting is defined by strong, strict boundaries with consistent consequences. Bad behavior is immediately followed by appropriate discipline. This parent is able to implement those disciplines without acting out emotionally. They are confident that their rules are growing their children into responsible people who are able to handle life’s challenges.
If you believe that your parenting style is less proactive than you wish, the great news is, it’s never too late to change. Being a proactive parent involves self-awareness as well as a deep sense of awareness of your child and their emotions. Here are some practices that can help you move toward proactive parenting:
Become aware of your thoughts and reactions to your child’s behavior in the moment. What emotions are you feeling right now? What are you believing to be true about your child right now? What are you believing to be true about yourself as a parent right now? Can you set aside expectations you had for yourself or your child and meet your child in the moment they are in?
A lot of times, difficult parenting moments can strike an insecurity, fear, or unmet need in you. When you find yourself reacting strongly to your child’s behavior, stop for a moment and see if you can identify the deeper reason why you are upset, and give yourself some grace in that moment. Remind yourself that you are not a bad parent, you are a human going through a difficult time.
Your willingness to be close to and respond with care to your child’s big emotions helps them grow in their ability to regulate their emotions. Every time you give your child a safe and calm space to express their feelings, you are teaching them how to handle difficult things on their own.
Sometimes it is just time to take a break. If you are overly upset and not able to offer that calm and safe space for your child because your emotions are overly volatile, it’s time to step back. As an adult, recognize that your child is not at fault for your emotions and it is up to you to regulate yourself before you can help your child regulate themselves. If you can determine that your child is not in immediate danger, step away and practice some of that self-awareness and self-compassion we talked about earlier.
Remember, children lack the emotional regulation skills that we have as adults. They need you as their guide to lead them to a more calm state, so they are able to identify and more effectively express their emotions. It can help if you are able to look under their behavior to identify what emotion they are reacting to. Think of yourself as an external brain guiding them toward a greater understanding of their emotional capacities.
Yelling gets you nowhere. This is one of the hardest things because it can be difficult to feel as though you are being heard above the chaos. Start by getting on their level and inviting them to take several deep breaths together with you. Breathe deeply together. Remain calm, reassuring, and firm regardless of their ability to find calm.
In an effort to help give your child language to describe what they are feeling or experiencing, try describing to them what you are noticing, “I can see that you came home from school very upset. You seem like you are feeling angry, did something specific happen to make you feel this way?”
As a fellow human, it’s ok for you to share how the situation has made you feel as well. This normalizes having big feelings and models healthy ways to express them. Do not place blame on them or shame them for your emotions. Rather, express that all actions have an impact on the people around them and that it is possible to react in a calm manner even when feelings are strong.
Especially if your child is expressing themselves in a physically dangerous way or seems to be a danger to themselves, stay physically present with them until the issue has been resolved. If your child appears to be safe and you need a time-out to calm yourself down, take a short break and return to continue resolving the issue. It might even help to explain why you needed to take a break.
It can be tempting to jump immediately to consequences, especially if the child is being volatile in action. Remember, it is your job as an adult to teach them to regulate their emotions and reactions. Until they are fully emotionally mature, they need your help. Once they have been calmed down and their emotions have been identified and resolved, you can decide on an appropriate consequence for bad behavior if needed.
When you are both calm enough, talk to your child about a healthier way to express the particular emotion that was identified for the future. Make sure you identify a role for both of you in that scenario, and use specific examples or language you could use to really make it memorable.
This article from Psychology Today has some great ideas for when you and your partner are trying to get on the same page about parenting more proactively together: