Advice Behavior Problems Limit Setting Motivating Kids Parenting Tools

Limits. Love them. Don’t leave them: What to do when you set a limit and your child defies you?

Limits. Love them. Don’t leave them:  What to do when you set a limit and your child defies you?

All kids act out. It is normal. All kids are defiant, want to make their own decisions and get angry with their parents. It is even a necessary and healthy part of child development.
But it is tough on parents. It is hard to be on the receiving end of a child’s negativity and anger. It is hard to care about your child’s safety and wellbeing in the face of your child’s refusal to behave in the way you want them to and feel they need to.

For younger kids, it can be you want them to hold a hand crossing a street, go to bed, get dressed, come to the table, turn the TV off, get in the car seat or stroller; or simply when you say ‘No’ to their request.
For older kids, it can be you want them to get their homework done on time; do their chores in a timely fashion; not use electronics so much, let you to talk to the parents before you give your permission for a sleep over or party; inform you about who they are going out with and when their plans change, or simply when you say No to something they want.

It can push buttons in a parent when kids complain, balk, refuse or talk back. Sometimes it causes the parent to over react and get angry and controlling. Or it can make a parent ‘second guess’ themselves, get wobbly about their expectation or even to back off on a limit.
Reflective Parenting can help you feel stronger and more confident about what you are doing. Reflective parenting involves trying to see the world from your child’s perspective as well as your own perspective and then to consider how you are each influencing one another.

First, let’s look at it from inside the child’s perspective. When kids act out, refuse, reject or defy their parents:
The child’s protest is their way of developing their sense of self by expressing their opinions, wishes, feelings and viewpoint about the situation. Our opinions, wishes, feelings, views all contribute to a strong sense of self. Expressing them with parents is part of the practice for growing up and becoming their own person, who can’t be pushed around and doesn’t have to always go along with what others think.
Children count on their parents to be strong and competent enough to handle the situation. They count on their parents to feel sure enough about the limits and expectations they set. Children are not trying to make their parent’s life difficult, or make the parent feel helpless or make the parent feel self-doubting, guilty or disrespected.
Children, despite their protest, feel safer, calmer, and even stronger themselves, when they know the parent is in charge and will make every effort protect them and take good care of them.
Children learn a lot of important life lessons when parents stick to their guns, even though, the child is really disappointed, irritated or angry; has yelled, disobeyed, snarled or had a bad ‘attitude. Having intense negative feelings is something all people have. But for a child it can be scary. They can feel overwhelmed. They can feel out of control. They can worry about harming their parent or being unloved or abandoned by their parent. By staying in charge, not being too bothered by your child’s negativity, and acknowledging that you understand what your child is expressing, you are teaching your child it is safe to having intense emotions. Their feelings are manageable. They have not harmed anyone. They are still loved, wanted and someone is watching out for them.

These are amazing life lessons to teach your child.

Now let’s look at it from inside a parent’s perspective. Trust me, in the long run, you want your child to assert their own independent point of view- even if in the short run, it means it is hard on you.
You want your child to be able to plant their flag in the ground and say, “This is me!” or “I have my own voice” or “I have my own opinion even if you don’t like it!” If you can tolerate them challenging you, and let them know you understand where they are coming from, it sends them the message that you recognize and respect them as a separate and important person.
But understanding what they feel does not mean that you agree with them, go along with them or give in to their demands. It does not mean you should back down.
It does mean you will have to do some inner reflection. One thing you should do is to get in touch with what you want and what you feel is the best approach to handling the situation.
Listen to yourself. Your child needs you to be authentic and to parent in the way that makes the most sense to you. So, take yourself seriously on this matter. Trust yourself more. If you are confident in your approach, it is a good role model for your child. As an added benefit, it helps your child feel safer and helps them be more cooperative.
Another thing to do as you self-reflect is to pay attention to see if your child’s behavior has pushed one of your buttons- causing you to feel disrespected, hurt or helpless and to react with anger, rejection or over control; or to second guess yourself or feel guilty and reluctant to follow through on your limit or expectation. This is a time you usually have to ‘push the pause button’ and give yourself some time before you respond.
This is also where you must ‘own your own feelings and reactions’. Too often when parents over react or feel guilty or back down from their limits they put the responsibility on the child- such as saying, “It’s your fault I got so angry” or “You are too demanding.” As if the child made them do it, made them feel guilty, or hurt or angry. Parent, take responsibility! It is you that feels angry, or guilty. If your feelings are leading you to either explode or to implode in response to your child’s behavior, it is a time to think about why you are feeling that way. Why, for example are you feeling so out of control or helpless? Each parent will have their own reason. Some parents lack basic confidence in themselves. Some worry that their child won’t love them. Some worry too much about making a mistake. Some have left over hurts from childhood, like feeling judged or criticized by a parent, or rejected by a sibling. Trust me, we all have something left over that can get stirred up with our kids, especially during times of high stress and conflict.
Finally, even the most caring and responsible of parents can feel worn out with a defiant child and either give up, back down or over react. This then leaves the parent feeling badly about their parenting in one way or another, such as feeling guilty and ineffective.

The point of being reflective is to save the relationship. It allows you to hear both communications your child is sending you…I don’t want to do it, but I still need you to be strong and insist I do it . It allows you to express your understanding and validation of their feelings, while at the same time, also expressing your conviction that they still have to go along with what you are requiring of them. Let me say that again. Remember that a strong parent-child relationship requires you to try your best to understand what your child is feeling and why they are behaving the way they are. But understanding and reflecting do not replace the need for limit setting or boundaries on how they can behave. Your reflection serves as your guide as a parent to be more effective in communicating, to be more consistent and to be more confident that you know what to do.

Being reflective is not a silver bullet. Sometimes despite being reflective you will make a mistake, for example by being too rigid or by reacting insensitively.
Reflective Parenting emphasizes that mistakes and misunderstanding are not only inevitable and common, they can be repaired. In fact, it is during the time of repair, where you talk with your child about what happened during the conflict and why you reacted in the way you did, that your child learns how people’s minds work. They learn no one is perfect. They learn that conflict and misunderstanding are normal and can be resolved.

These are amazing life lessons to teach your child.

To summarize: Be reflective. Be aware of what is going on inside your child; that when your child is protesting, they are simultaneously expressing their independent mind, but still wanting you to be strong enough so you can follow through on what you believe is best for them. Be reflective. Be aware of what is going on inside you; what you are wanting and what you are feeling. Hopefully this will help avoid you getting your buttons pushed quite so strongly and will help bolster your self-confidence. But if it doesn’t help  and you ‘misbehave’ yourself, by exploding, or by backing down too quickly, you get another chance. You get to repair the relationship. You get to do it better the next time, because these situations repeat themselves over and over. And these make-ups and do overs will not only add to the positive development of your child, they will further strengthen the relationship you have with your child

Some reflective thoughts and suggestions to try
Take lots of deep breaths. Take some more if you need. You can even tell your child you need to take some time before you decide what to do next.
Reassure yourself your child loves you even if they are upset with you; just like you love your child even if you are upset with them.
Remind yourself your child needs limits and boundaries even if it they act like they don’t want them; even if it means they are upset with you.
Rejoice in your child developing their own mind, their own opinions and their own perspective on the world; And applaud yourself for giving your child the opportunity to become their own person.
Give yourself an “Oscar” for your brilliant performance in standing up for what you believe in and following through on your limit, despite your child challenging you on it; and another Oscar for accepting them, despite how difficult and obnoxious they were.
Trust that there is always room for repair. Let’s say you made an error. You let your child just be upset, when looking back on it, you realize you should have been more flexible and more emotionally sensitive to their distress with you. You insist on your limit in too harsh or controlling a way. Go back and do a makeup. You can apologize and you can have a conversation about what happened- gearing it of course to whatever age your child is. Talk about what they were feeling, what you were feeling, how they saw it, how you saw it. Share with them how you see it differently now and hope to do better in the future.
As they get old enough you can start to ask them for input and suggestions as to how the two of you can handle these conflicts in a better way. A child as young as 2 or 3 may be able to come up with some ideas. This gets children into the ‘problem-solving’ mode. It does not mean you have to go along with their solutions, but it does start to build their ‘problem-solving’ muscles. The older they are and especially when they become teens, you will have to collaborate with them on these issues and come up with compromises that work for both of you.

CONCLUSION: Remember the strength of a relationship is not measured by no one being upset with each other. It is measured by how well people clarify and repair the relationship after people are upset with each other.



As a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, I have been in private practice for over 35 years, with a special interest in parents and couples.


Nothing from October 3, 2022 to April 2, 2023.