The Art of Setting Limits with Your Insatiable Child
“More!” It’s one of the first words children learn and for some, it seems like they never stop saying it. More screentime. More playdates. More sweets. More stories. More time before bed. It’s discouraging, to be hit with all these more’s after a day of giving, giving, giving to your children. And it can feel like a zero-sum game. Yes, and your child “wins” but you end up feeling depleted and resentful. No, and the barrage of negotiations, accusations, and tears that leave you feeling like a lousy parent even though you did the right thing. There must be a better way.
Actually, there is. These 4 steps can help:
1. Know that there is nothing wrong with your child.
Children want things. We all do. Your child isn’t selfish or ungrateful or bad. They are young, and they don’t know how to wait, or deal with frustration, or let go of an activity they are enjoying. Over time and with patience, you can teach them these important life skills.
2. Recognize the want.
You can put your child’s desire into words without capitulating to it. Remember what it’s like to long for something you cannot have. It’s hard. Validate that with your child, “I know, sweetie. You want that [whatever it is your child wants] so badly. It’s hard to have to wait.” You’re still saying no, but you are doing it empathically.
Your child isn’t going to immediately stop crying. They aren’t going to thank you for understanding how they feel. But rest assured, your child is getting something more valuable than whatever they are begging for. By seeing and understanding your child, you are laying the groundwork for emotional regulation. You are teaching your child how to put big feelings into words, which is a prerequisite for learning to ride them out.
3. Allow your child to feel what they are feeling.
Carl Jung, one of the founders of psychology, famously said, “What we resist, persists.” Whatever we strain against doggedly follows us around. That goes for feelings, too. Think of a time you were worried, and someone said, “Don’t worry about it.” Or a time you were angry and tried to simply push the feeling away. How did that work out?
We feel what we feel. And it is only after our feelings are acknowledged – by us or someone who loves us – that they can begin to dissipate, or we can figure out how to cope.
4. Provide acknowledgement and love.
Children learn to manage feelings not by having them catered to but by being seen and supported by loving adults. Punishing your child for what they are feeling or banishing them until they get their feelings under control sends the wrong message. Scrambling to make the feeling go away by giving in to it, or trying frantically to distract your child, are counterproductive, too.
The goal is never to make your child not feel what they are feeling; it’s to love them right through their feelings. To help them learn to soothe themselves, which starts with being soothed by you. This has nothing to do with saying yes. It has everything to do with supporting your child as they learn patience, or perseverance, or frustration tolerance, or whatever it is they need to learn.
Many of us weren’t parented this way, so it can be tricky to tolerate our children’s big feelings. Practice helps, as does remembering that feelings are messy, and that’s okay. Because as uncomfortable as they sometimes are, feelings are always finite. The trick is to recognize what we are feeling and calm down enough to use a healthy coping skill.