One of my clients' biggest struggles with parenting is holding boundaries. You set a rule in place but then your child asks for an exception and you say no but they keep on asking and getting increasingly upset and then you start to second guess yourself.
"What's the big deal? It'll take me two seconds. I would be really mean to say no to something so simple. I don't want my child to be traumatized by lack of response."
You give in and fulfill the request and, surprise surprise, your child has yet another request, two minutes later, that is against the rules. You start to feel resentful. Your child starts to whine. You snap. They cry. You feel terrible.
Rinse and repeat.
If something like this happens in your home, don't feel bad. You are not alone.
Children are really, really good at testing boundaries and therefore, pushing our emotional buttons.
Would it make you feel better to know that it's actually the job of young children to test boundaries? That that is their way of understanding the world? And it is your job to hold those boundaries, to show them, over and over again, that the grown ups are in charge.
When you don't do that, your child will test boundaries even more, seeking that safety from you even more. Though for sure your child will never say, "Thanks for not giving me that cookie before dinner. I really feel safe now."
Here's an example of how to set a nighttime boundary.
Let's say your child has a habit of calling you back to their bedroom multiple times each night after lights out. You find yourself getting increasingly frustrated and short-tempered about these nightly callbacks, because they are interfering with your opportunity to eat dinner and finally unwind from the long day.
Step one: Set the boundary. A boundary is something you will do, not something you need your child to do.
In this example, setting a boundary would look like saying, at bedtime, "listen, lights out will be the last chance to talk to me. I'm not going to come back after that. Is there anything you need now, before I go?"
A boundary is not, "I need you to not call me back to your room anymore after lights out, okay?" That boundary is relying on your child to act a certain way. Boundaries are only ever about our own behavior.
Step two: hold the boundary. You kiss your child goodnight and leave the room. A few minutes later your child starts to call for you, saying she is thirsty. She has apparently forgotten that there is a bottle of water next to her.
You feel your body start to react to the stress. You really want to respond and just quickly go to her and remind her that there is a bottle of water next to her, but you told her you wouldn't come back.
Your brain thinks things like, "What's the big deal? It'll only take one minute. What if she's dying of thirst? I'm being really mean by not just telling her that. Also, it would be so quick to give her the water and if I don't respond, she could call to me for an hour."
Then your conscious brain says, "Wait, Abby and I practiced for this. She's not dying of thirst. She has water next to her and a truly thirsty person would remember that. She is seeking connection and testing a boundary. This is a normal thing for a child to do. It's my job to hold the boundary anyway, even when it feels mean. She needs me to stay strong, even when it feels terrible."
3. Step three: manage your emotional reaction. You label your response as a stress response, remind yourself that your child is not in physical nor emotional danger, and focus on straw breathing.
You lay your hands on your chest and tell yourself, "It makes so much sense that I am feeling stressed." You allow the stressful response without reacting and changing your behavior. You do not go to your child. Even as her calling gets more urgent. You feel compassion for her but you do not change your own behavior. You keep breathing. Eventually she falls asleep.
4. Reconnect. In the morning, when her OK to Wake Clock turns green, you greet your child affectionately. You talk about what happened the night before, with compassion, not as a way of teaching her to change her behavior, and not as a way to assuage your guilt. “You really wanted me to come last night. I guess you forgot that your water bottle was right next to you, you silly goose! Was that hard for you? Can I give you a cuddle now?”
5. Reinforce consistently. The next night, before lights out, you remind your child of the boundary. "Remember, after lights out, I won't come back. Is there anything you need before I leave?"
You don't make it a problem if your child tests the boundary even more vigorously than the first night. You know that this is actually a common reaction to a new boundary, even more testing. You have a plan in case your child leaves her room, another boundary, to return her to her room. You don't feel angry or resentful of your child testing the boundary. (At least, not consciously!) You keep on managing your emotional reaction without changing your behavior.
After a few nights of consistency, evenings have gotten noticeably easier. You realize that the nighttime calling -- which had been going on for months before our work together -- has mostly subsided. You no longer dread evenings.
You also realize that you had to pass through that “river of misery” in order to have your evenings back. You realize that you didn’t need your child to change, but you needed your own thoughts to change.
You see that it was only after your thoughts changed that your child’s behavior changed. Your child actually needed you to give yourself permission to hold a boundary in order for her sleep to improve.
Where do you have trouble holding boundaries with your children? What are you making that mean about them, or about you? Schedule a free sleep consultation or a free life coaching consultation -- depending on the type of boundary -- with me and let's help you shore up your resolve so you can have the peaceful parenting experience you dream of.
Abby Wolfson is a pediatric nurse practitioner, certified child sleep consultant and certified life coach for parents. She divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.