We went camping a few years ago. A real adventure – we lived in the tent for five whole weeks. We loved most of it, and it was just as lovely to return home to our 'holding' environment.
I noticed that I felt much more relaxed when I was at home. I realised that I was in a state of heightened alertness for the whole five weeks of camping. Even without being fully aware of it, I was scanning what was going on around, day and night. At home, I felt like I could close the door and switch off the radar. I felt safe and held.
I often remember that experience when I think about boundaries and children. I believe that children need boundaries, and when we set them, they can relax into them and get on with their business of growing up. They feel safe and held.
If clear boundaries are a healthy, helpful thing, why do children test them so much? I believe that often it’s because they need to know that they can trust us to hold that boundary for them, to keep them safe.
There is an art and science to setting boundaries clearly, kindly and staying connected with your child as you do that.
There is no one way that will work in every situation. I will share some ideas that will help you see the boundary that you are about to set from your child’s point of view, why they might be testing it, and what might be a good way to respond.
For example, you tell your six-year-old son that you need to go to the shops, and you hear a straight: 'I don't want to.' Where do we go from here? Here are three questions that might shed some light on the matter.
Question 1. Is your son checking who is in charge?
Once your child knows for sure that you are there for him, that you've got his back, and that you are willing to take on the responsibility of being a bigger, stronger, wiser and kind part of the relationship – a lot of parenting struggles just fall off. You might get a gut feeling that he's checking if you've got this. Sometimes you can tell because his request seems so out of character or unreasonable.
It can be tempting to go into a long debate about why you need to go and why you need to go now and what you need to get and why he has to come, and so on and so on and so on.
You probably noticed that it rarely works, and that is because he is still not clear about who is in charge.
If you feel that your child is asking you to step up and take charge of the situation - turn up the volume of your presence: notice your breath, let it go a bit deeper, and let your body go a bit softer. Take a look at your child and remember what you love about him. Feel your feet pressing against the floor. Connect with your heart. Notice the difference in how you feel, how you stand, walk and talk. When you are ready, move closer to your child, look him in the eyes, touch his shoulder, say something like: 'We need to go to the shops, buddy', and notice the difference in his response.
Question 2. Is your son asking to fill his cup?
His ability to deal with situations (especially transitions) goes up and down depending on how full his cup is/how well he can regulate his emotions at that moment.
He is likely to meet your request with "I don't want to" if he is tired, hungry or overwhelmed by the thought of facing the shops. If that's the case, filling his cup first (a cuddle, a drink, a snack, a story to listen to in the car) will make a big difference.
Question 3. Is your son engrossed in what he is doing at the moment?
If he is and the shops can't wait, you will probably find that your best bet is to:
Acknowledge just how cool it is what he is doing right now
Make a plan of how he can carry on as soon as you get back
Allow a little more time for the transition
To sum up: there are different reasons why children push against boundaries. Taking a minute to look at the situation from your child’s perspective can help you stay connected as you stick with the boundaries that are important to you.
If you would like more support with applying these ideas in your relationship, have a look at the Circle of Security Parenting course.