Gentle Discipline and Setting Boundaries

An NPN reader asks our natural parenting mentors:

Please help. I am feeling quite upset that my normally loving two-year-old son feels like he is turning against me. He has become more independent and opinionated, which is great, and I understand this is part of his development. He is also getting into everything and doing things we do not want him to do. This is my first child, and I am aware that I need to set firm and consistent boundaries for him, but I need help on how to effectively do this in a beneficial way (i.e. teaching him without shaming him).

Here’s what our natural parenting mentors had to say:

Amy: It can be easy to mentally acknowledge that a toddler’s development is right on target when they begin to show signs of individuation. It is another thing to meet them in the moment with love and guide them towards what is appropriate as they develop their identity.

It is important to discern between what really matters and what does not when it comes to boundaries. If you look at the boundaries you want to implement, you will notice that some of them can be arbitrary; not actually necessary or not founded in anything you really feel strongly about. Other boundaries may be very clear, and if the child does not adhere to them you may feel very upset. These are determinations for you to make, and they will change as your child grows and you grow into parenthood. Be aware of the tendency to try and control rather than encourage cooperation.

You can start by making a list of the behaviors that you feel upset about down one side of a sheet of paper. It might be a long list as toddlers are often adventurous and exploratory. As adults we can forget what that world is like. Get down on the floor with him and attempt to see the world through his eyes. On the other side of the page write down what behaviors you appreciate or what you would like to direct him to do instead. In moments of question guide him towards what you have written down that you feel is appropriate or acceptable. Focus less on what you do not want and much more on what you do want. It does make a difference, and it takes a bit of practice, so be gentle with yourself and your son as you both grow.

Consistency starts within. Your child is more likely to respond favorably to you when you are calm, centered, and confident. Sometimes disobedience (I do not often use that word, but let’s use it for emphasis) can throw a parent off, such that we react in frustration or anger and end up forcing the child to comply. Force and cooperation are two very different experiences for both parents and children. Children do not want to cooperate with a forceful or punitive parent because it is scary. If they do end up complying it is out of fear, which does not allow for the development of internal motivation.

In addition to focusing on the behavior you want, in the moments you feel your son can benefit from guidance, stop and take a breath before you act. This takes practice because we can feel like we do not have the time to breathe consciously when our child is doing something we do not like. Start there, though, and focus your attention deliberately on what you want for your son. Do you want for him to feel your love unconditionally? Do you want to let him know what he can do and how to handle frustrating situations? If you are unsure about how to translate what you want into clearly guiding your son, you may want to explore positive discipline or take a parenting class.

If you find you get frustrated often, you might be falling into the punishment trap. Punishment is still used as a method of controlling children and, unfortunately, it is widely accepted. Time-outs are used punitively, as are other bargaining methods, such as bribery, rewards, and consequences. This approach to parenting does not allow us to really meet our children in a space of positive expectation and guidance. We must release the idea that punishment is necessary to teach. From there, we can direct our children towards what is appropriate as many times as it takes.

Repetition is part of the process. As you become skilled at calm guidance your son will test the waters and be reassured that you know what you are doing. It will get easier to guide him appropriately while also letting him develop into the unique person that only he can become.

Mandy: Watching our children come into their own is a wonderful, and sometimes frustrating, experience. The best advice I can give anyone is to throw out any idea of what you should do and look for ways you can work with your child.

There are two issues that most people encounter with consistent boundaries. The first is consistency. In order to truly be consistent each time, everything surrounding the situation would need to be the same. The fact is, that does not exist. Life is dynamic. Instead, I think parents should be real. The fact is that sometimes things are appropriate in some situations, but inappropriate in others. Instead of trying to develop a set of rules to live by, take everything on a case by case basis and explain your reasoning to your child. Not only will it make life easier, but you will also be modeling how to use reasoning, so that eventually your child will be able to decide for themselves what is or is not appropriate.

The problem with boundaries comes about when parents try to set boundaries for their children. Boundaries are great when you set healthy boundaries for yourself. We use boundaries to maintain our needs and to protect ourselves. However, setting boundaries for others does not work because you can only truly have control of yourself. If parents want to encourage self-control in their children, they can model it themselves.

When we feel at odds with our children, we set up a duality – us versus them. This is not necessary in a loving, cooperative relationship. Instead of viewing their behavior as contradictory to ours, we can stop and take a minute to ask what is causing the behavior. We do everything for a reason, even if we do not readily recognize why we do something. When we break down the reason behind the child’s behavior, we can better understand and address the true need and work with them in order to find a solution that works for everyone.

Seonaid: The hardest thing that we have to do as parents is raise our children in such a way that they eventually leave us. They start out as tiny babies, but eventually become full-fledged adults with lives entirely their own, and we have to provide them the space to make that transition. So, congratulations on having an independent and opinionated toddler! It means things are going in the right general direction. In the meantime, though, you are quite right. It is about boundaries and modeling. It is hard, and sometimes it feels bad.

This is the part of parenting that I was probably least prepared for, not the teaching, but the learning. I am going to start off by saying a hard truth. Your son’s behavior has nothing to do with love or lack thereof. He is learning how to influence the world around him to get what he needs and what he wants. You are the part of the world that is closest to him right now. You are the one who gets him food, security, and love, and he is trying to learn effective ways to get those things from you. In the process, he will try all the strategies known to human beings, including crying, screaming, throwing things, amusing you, teasing, and, as he gets older, telling lies and half-truths and sneaking around behind your back. Trust me. It is all coming.

In my experience, toddlers are much more emotionally capable than our society gives them credit for. Calming down, breathing deeply, and expressing their feelings clearly is a skill that can be taught, the same way that learning to dress themselves is.

I have found that Marshal Rosenberg‘s Nonviolent Communication has been a fabulous tool. He has a list of words to describe feelings that spans two pages, and it opened my eyes! It turns out that the most effective way that has been discovered for influencing the world around us is to clearly identify our needs and desires and ask for them directly. If they get a chance to, by the time they are four or so, a child who is feeling lonely and needing attention can learn to walk up to you and say, “I am lonely and I need a hug. Can you please stop working and read me a story?” They can also learn to hear the response, “I am busy right now, but I will take a break and play with you in fifteen minutes. Can you find something to color until then?” They can also learn to say, after some disappointments and frustration, “Mommy, I think you will forget. Can you put on the timer?”

This same child will still get overexcited, climb the couch, jump on the bed, dump out an entire bag of flour, draw on the walls, cut up their sister’s homework, and make up fourteen excuses to get out of bed just one more time. They are just moving the world around; it has very little to do with us. Our job through all of this is to ride our own emotions, keep our eyes on the goal, and learn to give guidance and feedback as gently as possible under the circumstances.

The thing about boundaries that was not really clear to me when I was starting out is that they go both ways. Your child has emotions, and you have emotions. When they come into conflict is when things get difficult. At a very deep level, we are doing the same thing as our children, trying to get the world around us to behave according to our expectations. In our case as parents, the part that is frequently closest to us is our children. Here is the hard part. We are told that, as parents, we are not only entitled to, but also responsible for making our children conform not only to our own expectations, but also to the expectations of the people around us. It is messy, and challenging, and, as you said, it feels awful.

I expect my couch and flour to stay where I put them, and the walls not to be drawn on. I do not like getting yelled at, and I really do not like getting yelled at when I am at the grocery store and there are other adults around who might go home and write about it on their blog. However, that has nothing to do with my child, or the noise they are making, or the lines they are drawing on the wall. It has to do with my expectations, and my desire for control, and my concerns about what other people think about me. Getting past that is liberating, because it lets me deal with the situation, rather than my reaction to it. It gives you time to redirect, provide alternative activities, and gives you a moment to hear that the temper tantrum is really about being tired, or frustrated, or lonely, or over-stimulated.

So, here are a handful of practical responses when things are feeling overwhelming, and you are on edge.

  • Take a deep breath. Unless danger is imminent, calm yourself down first. Then deal with the situation.
  • If your child is simply doing something you do not want him to do, distract him. Give him something else to do, while explaining why what he was doing is not allowed. Demonstrate what you do want in this situation.
  • If there is already a rule and it has been discussed, you can state a reminder, and a consequence to follow.
  • If he is over-excited and unable to hear your words, which happens, you can intervene. For example, I still have to take the cat out of my son’s hands from time to time. First, I protect the cat. Then I sit down with my son for both of us to calm down. We do breathing time, and we talk about why he was not able to be gentle.
  • Talking through things during all these years has taught me one thing above all else. It has taught me that my kids cannot hear me when I yell at them. They might stop whatever they are doing, but it is only because of a fear response. They can never tell me why I am upset until we talk about it calmly, and they have never changed a behavior because they were afraid of being yelled at, no matter how much they dislike it. Having conversations allows for emotional coaching in identifying my child’s and my own feelings.

    So, to make one last point. A lot of what we consider to be misbehavior is simply not understanding what it is that they are doing to the world. They are very new, they do not understand danger, and they do not understand the difference between a sand pile and food. They do not know what will happen next. That is what they are trying to learn. It is our job to keep them safe and help them through that process. It is amazing what we can learn in this process if we leave ourselves open to it. I wish you many gentle times with your baby.

3 Responses to Gentle Discipline and Setting Boundaries

  1. Meaghan Jackson

    This post came at the perfect time for me. I am struggling a lot with my 3year old and now my 18 month old. I want to be gentle but I get exsperated and worn down sometimes. I appreciate your honesty that it isn’t easy and is a journey.

  2. Karen

    Lately my 21 month old boy is hitting me in the face quite hard, grabbing my glasses and using them to hit my face, kicking me in the face throat and breasts when I am changing his diaper, etc. He does these things when I am paying attention to him and having positive interactions, so it isn’t like it’s anger he is having trouble controling. I’ve been using time outs but they do feel punative and aren’t helping to change the behavior much. I don’t yell, but by the end of the day it is more and more a struggle to stay completely calm. I do tell him it hurts and explain being gentle, etc. He is delayed in language development but I think he understands what I am saying. Once he starts with these behaviours he will continue until I put him in time out. Speaking to him calmly, politely, or firmly and sternly neither seem to have an effect at breaking the cycle once he starts. Any suggestions?

  3. Amy  

    Hi Karen 🙂

    Thank you for asking the question about aggressive behavior and alternatives to time outs. There are non-punitive ways to approach the need for space when parent or child has reached that point. Here are a couple of links that may help (I’ll elaborate a bit below also).

    Thomas Haller and Chick Moorman, parents and authors, offer how to use time out productively in Time Out for Time Out:

    Dionna also offers some alternatives to the standard punitive time out in her article Top 10 Ways to Avoid a Time-Out:

    We have four children at our house and I’ve tried many different parenting styles. What I’ve noticed is that repetition is part of the process no matter what. I have also noticed that punitive measures do not result in the mutually respectful relationship I work to create; they actually work against it. Often punitive measures teach what we don’t want instead of what we do want. Our children often need a bit of direction toward what will work for the family instead of so many directives to what is *not* appropriate. In situations like the one you mentioned it would probably help to think of 20 alternatives to what he is doing that would work for you to connect with him in the moment (more on that below).

    What we find to work most consistently in challenging situations is first learning to stay calm in various circumstances. I do this through practice and simple meditation:
    It may seem funny to incorporate meditation when we’re talking about aggression, but I find it helps in at least two ways – I teach myself how to maintain true calm and I model how to become calm when I may be upset initially through paying attention to my breath and body. It sets a powerful example for the children that rubs off when Mom can stay calm or come to calm quickly no matter what; even while communicating boundaries.

    Next, we get to decide what boundaries we set for ourselves and our family. I find that boundaries are more often respected when a focus is on what we do want rather than a long list of no’s. It’s also nice to include verbal children in the discussions about what works for the family; they often have some very valuable input (like no yelling from parents, etc.)

    With young children a boundary may be that we like to be touched gently so if a young one pulls hair, grabs, kicks, or otherwise harms then we gently direct them to what is okay with us. For example, Grace is 14 months old and will occasionally pat someone hard. We ask her to touch gently, while modeling to her what we mean in the moment. We gently touch her arm or gently place our hand over hers to show her what that feels like. She will transition her touch with that direction. With a little older child it may take a bit more repetition and communication of what will work for the child to transition because they are learning to transform a behavior that is a little more embedded, but with loving consistency and honoring the child while communicating it can change.

    I really feel that this starts with how we approach the situation from inside of ourselves in the ways we think and feel. If we feel that we must punish or implement a negative consequence to teach then that will be the end of the line (time out or something else). When our child reaches the line we implement said consequence.

    If we approach each situation with our child as an *opportunity* to teach and model and appropriate behavior (even when that includes some space and feeling through one’s emotions without harming) we don’t have to rely on punishment to teach. We can rely on our connection to our children and our own ability to be consistently directive and positive, when needed.

    So, since repetition is part of the process, what would it look like to direct him to something more appropriate when these situation arise? Could he give you a high five? Can he clap his hands, ask for a hug, wrestle, or something else? You could say something like, “It’s not okay to hit or it hurts when you hit, but you can give me a high five.” You can even leave out the “it’s not okay or it hurts part” because that usually conveys disapproval and often as parents, we get stuck there. When we can focus our attention on the desired alternative behavior we can collaborate with our child in bringing it about. It’s a true shift in perspective and attention.

    One exercise I use to help me focus on my children being able to do other things than those that I find annoying or troublesome is the whole body camera: This gives me a reality check on who my child really is so in the tough moments I can help him/her get back to balance.

    We are a picture of balance (or not) for our children. We can learn how to guide them modeling the behavior we want to see and deliberately through teaching the behavior we want to see. This sounds like one of those opportunities for you and your son. I hope what I’ve shared here helps a little bit; it’s a journey!