What is a good response to pushing boundaries?

April 20, 2018

We went on a camping trip 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 come back home to our 'holding' environment.


When I noticed just how much more relaxed I felt when I got  home I realised that for the last five weeks I was in the state of heightened alertness. 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.


Having clear boundaries is a healthy, helpful thing.


That brings up two important questions:


1. If boundaries are such a good thing, why do children push against them?

2. What is a good response to pushing boundaries?


Let's assume that you are setting an age appropriate boundary that is not too limiting and not too far off so that the child does not know where it actually is. If that is the case, asking yourself three further questions will likely help you understand why your child is pushing against the boundary and what might be a good way to respond.


Let's have a look at a simple example. Say you tell you 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? I invite you to ask yourself:


Question 1. Is he checking who is in charge?


That is the trickiest situation and the most important to see through. Once your child knows for sure that you are there for him, that you've got his back, that you are willing to take on the responsibility of being bigger, stronger, wiser and kind part in the relationship – a lot of parenting struggles just fall off.


Sometimes you have 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 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, because your child 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 up of your kind and clear presence. Notice the difference in how you feel, how you stand, walk and talk. Once you have found it, simply go closer, look him in the eyes, touch his shoulder, say: 'We need to go to the shops, buddy' and notice the difference in his response.


Question 2. Is he asking to fill his cup?


His ability to deal with the situations (especially transitions) goes up and down depending on how full his cup is/how well he can regulate his emotions in that moment.


He is likely to meet your request with 'I don't want to', if he is tired, hungry, 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 he 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 how he can carry on as soon as you get back

  • Allow a little more time for transition


To sum up: your child's behaviour that may seem annoying, unreasonable, even manipulative is their way of expressing their genuine need. Those three questions can help you get an insight about what is going on for them and find a way to meet their need. 


P.s. If you would like support to implement those ideas in your day-to-day parenting – head to my calendar to book a consultation.





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Forest Row, East Sussex, UK

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