Boundaries, tantrums and positive discipline: how to be gentle but firm

Text says "boundaries" in dark grey letters on a concrete block wall

Holding boundaries as a gentle parent

How do you hold a boundary when you are a gentle, responsive parent? 

It’s tough! Sometimes, gentle, responsive parenting can feel like we are being permissive or that we’re letting our kids get away with “bad behaviour”. It can be hard to find the balance between permissive parenting and punitive, harsh parenting. However, as parents we are responsible for keeping our children safe and healthy. At some point we need to say “no” and hold a boundary. But HOW do we do that? In this article, I’m going to give you some practical ideas for how to do just that! 

We need new parenting skills as kids get older

If you are a responsive parent, then parenting a baby is fairly straightforward. They have a need, you meet it promptly. It can be exhausting and time consuming, but for the most part, you don’t really need to consider if it’s the right thing to do. 

The situation gets a bit trickier when you have a toddler or older child. Sometimes they don’t have a need, they have a want. Sometimes that want is dangerous or unhealthy. And sometimes, you do need to prioritize your needs over their wants.

How do you change what you do?  

It’s hard, isn’t it? How do you manage the upset and tears when you’ve said no? How do you respect their need for bodily autonomy, while keeping them safe and healthy? 

However, we do need to make a mental shift in how we deal with our children as they get older. Initially, you might go through a phase where you can distract them, and quite often that’s just the easiest thing to do. However, as toddlers get older their short term memory improves. So, maybe in the past you could distract them, but now it doesn’t work any more! Or maybe you need to make changes at night time and distraction just isn’t an option. And then you say to yourself, “Ok, well, what do we do now?”

The solution: You hold some boundaries. 

At what age can you start? 

At what age can you start to hold boundaries with toddlers? I think it’s somewhere around 18 months. Maybe a little bit older for some kids, definitely not any younger than 18 months. While technically they are toddlers from the age of a year, there is a big developmental leap that happens at around 16 months. It’s usually after this age that they start to understand a bit more, and they can communicate their wants and needs a bit more clearly too. 

It’s at this age that we can start to make that big shift. We can start moving away from a blanket meeting of wants, or distracting them. Instead, we can start to hold some boundaries. But, before we do that, we need to take a long hard look at how we deal with difficult emotions. Because when you hold a boundary, those big emotions show up! 

Err on the side of kindness

Just because you CAN start holding boundaries at around 18 months doesn’t mean that you have to. You can wait if you want to, or perhaps only start with the most essential boundaries. For the most part, it’s still a good idea to be kind and gentle with your child. It’s still a good idea to meet those wants with a generous and enthusiastic “Yes!” where it’s practical and safe. 

Life is all about having wonderful, joyful experiences, not just about having our needs met. Your toddler’s wants are still important. After all, how often in a day do you do something just because you want to?  

Woman is sitting, she has her head in her hands and looks upset

Big, uncomfortable emotions

How do you cope with “negative” emotion?

As we start to hold boundaries, there are going to be some big emotions! Not just for our kids, but for us too. Often, we feel really uncomfortable because we see emotions such as anger, frustration or sadness as negative emotions. In fact we’ve often gone out of our way to avoid them when our children were babies. However, these “negative” emotions are just emotions. We need to experience all the emotions and learn not to avoid the more uncomfortable ones. This means that sometimes we (as adults) need to learn how we process those emotions in ourselves, rather than avoiding them altogether. It’s really difficult to help your children process these emotions if you haven’t had the practice yourself. 

My own childhood example 

So, for example, when I was a small child my parents would shut down any “negative” emotion from me. If I got angry or if I got upset over something, I wasn’t allowed to express these feelings. They were great parents. This isn’t a criticism. I understand where they’re coming from because both my parents were brought up in very, very strict families themselves. They both had very strict fathers who had quick tempers and would have physically hit them when they were angry.

So my parents went to the other extreme, and shut down all that anger, all that emotion. My parents never lost their temper with me. They were always very calm, always measured, and they never let me show the big emotions either. As an adult, I find it very triggering when my children get angry or frustrated, because I struggle to have a healthy frame of reference to deal with it. My gut instinct is just to stop it as quickly as possible.

Don’t dismiss your child’s emotions

It’s not always anger that we feel compelled to shut down. What do you do when your child gets sad or upset? Often, our gut reaction is to try to pacify them, saying things like “Oh it’s ok, it’s really not that big of a deal.” We find it hard to let our children feel sad and so we either dismiss those emotions, try to distract them, or try to use logic to tell them why they shouldn’t be upset. When that happens to you as an adult, how does it make you feel? Dismissed, patronized, like the person doesn’t care? Our children are no different. We need to learn to sit with our child’s sadness and not dismiss it, just so we can feel more comfortable. 

A street sign says Happiness

Happiness is short-lived 

I once asked a question in my Facebook group: What is your goal for your children? Around half of the members who responded said they would really like their children to be happy as adults. The other half said that they would like their children to be able to manage their emotions well and have good mental health. 

I think that the second half of the group were on to something important. The thing is, happiness is just an emotion. And emotions are transient. They are not a permanent state. Of course, you will be happy on occasion, but you can’t be happy all the time. If you try to get rid of all negative emotions, then you are missing out on the fullness of life. 

We can’t have “positive” emotions without “negative” emotions

If something is important to you, then invariably it has the potential to evoke strong emotions in you, both positive and negative. So, for example, when you love your child they bring immense pleasure and happiness. The flip side is that you will also experience anxiety and fear about them coming to harm. You can’t have one without the other. Therefore, you can’t be a happy person all of the time. You need to experience some sadness in order for the happiness to exist! 

So really what we’re trying to do for our children is to show them that these emotions are a normal part of life. It’s not about trying to get rid of them or ignore them, but learning how to process them, how to work through those emotions. Healthy boundaries are part of this. 

Do these examples resonate with you? Is there a particular emotion that your child displays that you find hard to deal with? How do we work through that? As is often the case, it starts with us as parents, and how we deal with those emotions ourselves.

Support with the big emotions

Our job as parents isn’t to stop our children getting upset at all, it’s to help them work through these big emotions. I am not suggesting for a minute that we make our children upset or make them cry in order to help them process their emotions. However,  if the situation arises, we’re not going to try and shield them from that emotional experience either. If we need to hold a boundary, we’ll do it, even if it means they get upset. Our job is to stay with them, react with empathy, and help co-regulate their emotional state. 

What is co-regulation? 

It basically means that we give them some of our calm and control in the moment. So, when your child is crying and screaming, you don’t give them what they want, or negotiate or explain. What you do is this:  take a deep breath, notice how you’re feeling in the moment. If necessary, do something to help yourself deal with the uncomfortable emotions you’re feeling. Perhaps you feel powerless, or panicky, or perhaps you can feel yourself starting to get angry too. Deal with your emotional state, and then calmly, stay near your child and empathize. All they need to know is that you are not overwhelmed by their behaviour and that you care deeply for them. 

Keep their hearts soft

Dr Gordon Neufeld (a developmental psychologist) talks about a particular approach to caring for children that is rooted in a secure attachment. He explains how we can hold boundaries, while still maintaining a secure attachment with our children. When children feel that we are being unreasonable, unkind, or dismissive, it can “harden their hearts” against us. If we threaten to remove something they love (like an ipad) if they don’t display compliant behaviour, we harden their hearts against us. (Neufeld, 2022)

When we act with compassion and understanding (even while holding this boundary) it keeps their hearts “soft”. They trust that we have their best interests at heart and even though we say no, they trust us. When their hearts are soft, they are still in secure attachment with us.

A woman is standing blowing bubbles. Her child is standing behind her and looks upset.

Move from mad to sad 

When children become overwhelmed by their emotions, their bodies enter that “fight/flight” state. It’s not a pleasant state to be in! It’s driven purely by physical responses rather than logic. When we stay with our children and offer empathy and support in a calm manner, we help them move from this “fight/flight” state to one of calm. Often, as they realize that the boundary is still being held, there are tears. This is good! It’s part of the process! 

We have become conditioned to thinking that tears are bad. However, tears in this context (again, with your supportive presence), help to release the build up of cortisol and adrenaline. The tears act as a release valve and help bring your child back to that state of calm. Dr Neufeld refers to this as moving from mad to sad, or moving from tears of frustration to tears of futility. Your child has accepted that boundary, they has moved from being angry about it to accepting it. As uncomfortable as that may feel, the process is good. (Neufeld, 2022)

What does this look like in practice? 

You say no

So, for example, if you say “No” to little Jonny who wants a cookie before dinner, he may get upset. Sure, you could give him the cookie and he’ll be happy but we know that’s not the best action, right? It’ll ruin his appetite for the more healthy food that he should be eating, plus (and perhaps more importantly), he doesn’t learn to deal with that emotion of frustration. 

You empathize 

Our job as parents is to empathize: “I know, cookies taste so good, don’t they? I’d love to eat one right now too”, while holding that boundary. As the emotion of frustration erupts in little Jonny, we don’t try to make him stop feeling that emotion. You can say something like “Oh, you’re really mad and frustrated right now aren’t you? I’ll be right here for you.” That way, little Jonny doesn’t feel like that overwhelming emotion is so big that it’s going to push you away, or that it’s too big for you to handle. It may be too big for him right now, so he needs your presence to help him deal with it. 

There is a complex process going on in his brain right now – his amygdala is being flooded with cortisol and adrenaline and the “fight or flight” response is being activated. In order for him to learn how to process big emotions, he has to work through them. Telling him to go to his room, or be quiet or else… that doesn’t help him process those emotions. 

The tears signal he’s processed the emotion

Instead, you sit with him and wait. Eventually, when he realizes that there really is no cookie, he’ll start to cry. This process of moving from mad to sad, or from tears of frustration to tears of sadness – THAT’S where the magic happens. That’s where emotional health is built, and his little brain starts to develop the capacity to process emotion. As he cries, those tears wash the cortisol and adrenaline out of his system, helping him calm down.

Parent differently

Traditionally, parenting has been about controlling our childrens’ behaviour. Gentle, responsive parenting is different. It’s about being in charge, but not in a punitive way, but rather guiding and directing. We’ve already looked at dealing with emotions, and so we know that we can’t control our child’s emotions. All we can do is hold space for those emotions and help children process them. Now, we have to think about how we are going to get our children to do what we ask without the threat of punishment. 

Be the Alpha

The term “alpha” can easily be misconstrued as someone who is in charge by force (or by high levels of testosterone and physical size!). Being the alpha person in the relationship has taken on very negative connotations over the last few years. With people like Andrew Tate talking about “alpha males” you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s about control and domination. However, that isn’t what we’re talking about here. 

Parenting is hierarchical not democratic

Attachment and caring is hierarchical. What that means is that when we are in charge, we are being the alpha in that situation. When we look after our children, it means that we are being alpha. When someone looks after us, they are being the alpha in that situation. 

We often think that gentle parenting is about everyone being on a level playing field and that we collaborate with our children and always respect their wishes. While it can be appropriate to engage with your child in a collaborative approach, ultimately your role as a parent is to care for your child. They need to know that you will keep them safe and hold boundaries for them. This actually will make your child feel more secure. In terms of attachment, your child needs to feel like you are in control and that you are not phased by problems that crop up or by their behaviour. Dr Neufeld (2022) calls this being the “alpha” in this situation. 

Some children are particularly sensitive to this. They need to feel like someone is in charge. So, if they feel like you are unsure about what to do, or if they sense that you can’t cope with their big emotions, then they might become bossy and domineering. In the absence of a strong alpha in their life, they become the alpha. This is not the normal order of things. 

With my eldest, I often was too democratic with decisions. As she got older, she became bossy and domineering. Learning about the importance of being an “alpha” was a light bulb moment for me. When she started worrying about something, or started trying to dominate a situation, I would very firmly and calmly let her know that I was in control and that I would manage the situation. She didn’t need to worry about it. It was my job to fix it. It worked wonders!

An adult's hand is holding a child's hand

Be authoritative 

We can be kind, compassionate and firm. You don’t want to just capitulate and say, “Okay, well we’ll stay for a bit longer”. It’s important that you say no, and then do what you said you were going to do! 

Children are designed to push against boundaries. The toddler years are about working out what they are capable of, and also, what they can get away with. “I do it!” is a common phrase for toddlers. They LOVE trying to see what they can do. But sometimes, there is a lot of frustration involved too. Often when they discover that they can’t fly, or climb a wall, or you won’t let them do something dangerous. In that moment, they may become frustrated or have a tantrum. But guess what? Your job isn’t to keep them happy all the time, it’s to keep them safe, hold that boundary and help them process those big emotions.

There is no place for coercion

I think we all agree that smacking and physical punishment is not acceptable if we want to use gentle discipline. But what about coercion? Coercion is threats, bribes, rewards, white lies…  This is super hard, right? Because the assumption is that we still have to control their behaviour and if we can’t use physical punishment, then what do we do instead? You have to gain your child’s cooperation in another way.

Is it really a consequence, or a punishment in disguise? 

Often, we talk about “consequences” which are, to be honest, often just another word for punishment. So, for example, if our child hits their sibling, the “consequence” might be that there is no tv for the rest of the day. This isn’t a logical consequence of hitting though! It’s just punishment. Plus, by removing something he loves, this will be counter-productive because when you remove something they love, you harden their heart against you. 

The logical consequence of little Jonny hitting his baby sister is that you comfort his baby sister, but in his presence. If you were to take her away from the room, then you remove your presence (that attachment that he so desperately needs). The logical consequence of not picking up his toys is that the dog chews one and breaks it (this happens regularly in our house!). But, as parents we are responsible for helping our children prevent that favourite toy being chewed up – small children are not particularly good at seeing into the future or understanding cause and effect. 

We connect instead of control

If we want to discipline our children gently, it’s not about control. We’re not controlling their emotional response, because we CAN’T. They will react to a boundary, and that’s ok. We can of course set limits on certain behaviours eg they aren’t allowed to hit. But we hold space for that emotion. This is where that gentle discipline comes in, it comes from a deep connection with your child and it is about understanding that they are doing the best that they can, given their circumstances, given their level of development. So how do we parent through connection, without punishment, without coercion, without control? 

Attachment should be sought at every stage of our children’s lives. This means that they shouldn’t feel responsible for making too many decisions, or that they need to behave in a way that guarantees our love and presence. They should feel like we are in charge and can cope with anything that life (or our children!) throw at us. Neither should they feel like they need to fight for our attention and connection with us. They should be able to “rest” in our presence, knowing that we will give them our attention freely, that our presence isn’t dependent on their behaviour.

Look at the emotion behind the behaviour  

Remember, we can’t control our child’s behaviour. The traditional parenting methods have been all about control – you use coercion, threats, punishments etc to get them to behave in the way you want to. HOWEVER, as responsive parents, I’m saying we need to go deeper – look at the emotion that fuels the behaviour and address that.

Shift their attention

Small children, especially children under the age of six, can really only focus on one thing at a time. (Neufeld, 2023) They will have one main attachment figure, they will either be sad or happy, but not both, and if they are immersed in an activity, they will find it hard to shift their attention onto something else. So basically, they just can’t multitask!

This means that if your child is engrossed in something, you have to shift their focus from what they are doing, onto you. So, for example, if they are watching tv, you would maybe get down beside them, get on their level, try to make eye contact with them, ask them about the tv program. You might say “Oh, that looks really interesting!” When they make eye contact and tell you about it, you smile, nod, and then say “Okay, when this tv program is over we’re going to turn the tv off because we need to go get ready for dinner.”

If they in the playground, you’d go over to them, engage with them for a little while and then once they are focused on you, you can say “Okay, 5 more minutes and then we’re going home, ok?” It is important that you shift their attention back onto you because you’re the person who’s going to then move them in a different direction.

A young girl is smiling and holding both thumbs up

Get them in a “yes” state

Remember how I said small children can only focus on one thing at a time? Well, if you find that they are particularly defiant and saying “no” to everything, we can use that singular focus to our advantage! Start asking them questions that you KNOW the answer will be “yes” to. (Neufeld, 2023) For example, do you like icecream? Do you like dinosaurs? Is your favourite Paw Patrol character Chase? Once you have got them to say yes a few times, they’re smiling, nodding at you, then you can start getting them to do what you want! They are now in a “yes” state. 

I used to do this while getting my second child ready for school. If he was resisting getting dressed, I’d start asking him “yes” questions. As he got into a “yes” state, I’d hold out his shirt and without realising, he’d let me put it on him! I wish I’d known this trick when my eldest was that age. It would have stopped a lot of pre-school battles! 

Is this manipulation? I don’t think so. It’s helping your child shift their focus onto you and to move from one emotion to another. And honestly? It’s a lot more pleasant than negotiating, or threatening them! 

Be compassionate rather than logical

Often what we try to do is reason with our kids and say, “Hey, we need to go now because we need to do this before we get home.” Most toddlers and preschoolers aren’t particularly logical and they won’t care WHY you need to do something. Instead, we need to be firm and empathetic. “Oh, I know! You were having so much fun at the park and now you’re sad because it’s time to go.”

Logic won’t work

Don’t try to explain why your child can’t have a cookie before dinner, or why you need to leave the park once they have started to get upset. That rational, logical part of the brain is only just starting to form in toddlers, and when they get upset, that part doesn’t work at all! In that moment they are being governed by their emotional brain. Their body is flooded with cortisol and adrenaline as they enter that fight-flight state. In that moment, they genuinely do feel out of control.

Empathy, always

Instead, empathise. “I know, you’re really sad that you have to leave the park.” “Oh, cookies taste so good, don’t they?” Let them know that you understand how hard it is. 

Give choices 

There is a fine line here, because you can overwhelm children with choices. However, if they are reluctant to do something, then you can give them a choice about how they do that. So for example if you want them to get ready for bed, you can ask them “Do you want a bath or a wash before bed?”. They still have to get clean before bed, and they do HAVE to go to bed, but you’ve given them some choice about how it happens! 

Be careful about offering them choices at all steps in a transition to another activity because this can actually be really overwhelming. Remember, sometimes your job is to be in charge and just look after them. It’s about finding that balance where you know that you can connect with them, give them some degree of agency, while holding that boundary and moving them towards the end goal. 

A woman is cuddling her toddler

No matter the behaviour, there is no separation

Our children have to feel like there is nothing that they can say, or do, that will result in us leaving them. I often see parents using separation as a threat, eg “If you don’t come now, I’m going to leave… OK, bye!” (I’ll admit, I’ve even done it myself on occasion!) Or parents use the thinking step, or time out, or send children to their room. It may suppress their emotional reaction in the moment, because small children are so desperate to be with us. However, in the long term this is going to backfire. Big time. It might work in the moment, but long term you’ll just see more defiance, more “bad” behaviour. Remember: children have to learn to work through the emotion, not suppress it.  

Separation (or the threat of separation) will cause problems 

They may crave physical closeness, and become afraid of separation. This may play out in their imagination (fear of being kidnapped for example), or nightmares or being afraid of being left alone at night.  They may be extra sensitive to disapproval, as they sense that disapproval can mean separation.

They need to know we are big enough to cope with their big emotions

Our children need to feel like we are big enough to cope with whatever emotions or reactions they have. Don’t forget: they find those big emotions scary and overwhelming too! So they need to feel like we can cope with it all. Not only that, but children need our help to process those emotions. The more help you give them when they are little, the better they will be able to process it on their own as they get older.

Rupture and repair

Of course, sometimes children get angry and reject us, or lash out. Sometimes, because we’re human, we don’t deal with their behaviour in a way that is gentle or compassionate. There is occasionally a rupture in that secure attachment that they have with us. This is going to happen from time to time. When that happens, the goal is to repair the relationship. 

Throughout our lives there will be many times where there is rupture and repair in our child’s relationship. The repair part will look different for each child. If you do hold a boundary and feel that your relationship with your child becomes ruptured, then working on repairing it after will be helpful. This gets more tricky as children get older and engage their rational brain a bit more, but with a toddler it usually comes down to physical connection. That ruptured relationship may easily be resolved with a breastfeed, or a long cuddle. With an older child, it’s ok to apologize to them! Tell them you made a mistake and that you’ll work hard on not doing it again. 

It's a learning experience for everyone

Honestly, I’d love to say that the information that I’ve shared in this blog is how I parent every day. I’ve definitely got better at it as my children have got older. I do wish I’d known all of this when they were younger. It would have made dealing with those tantrums so much easier! 

One thing I’ve learned is to apologize to my kids. When I make a mistake and get cross, or dismiss their emotions, or try to suppress their reaction – I’ve learned to take a big breath, and admit that I’ve messed up. 

My hope is that as you read this, it helps you navigate those big emotions and set boundaries in a way that is fair and compassionate. If you would like help with parenting, feel free to get in touch! I often find that boundary setting is an important part of changing sleep for toddlers and older kids, but clients sometimes get in touch for some general parent coaching, which I love doing! 

References

Neufeld, G Intensive 1, course completed April 2022

Neufeld, G Making Sense of Preschoolers, course completed February, 2023

Published by Rebecca Scott-Pillai

Rebecca Scott-Pillai is a paediatric sleep consultant and lactaction consultant (IBCLC) based in Lisburn, Northern Ireland. She lives there with her two kids, two cats and dog! With over 20 years experience working with families, Rebecca uses her knowledge and experience to provide collaborative flexible plans for gentle, responsive families.

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