Parenting Blog

Latest Posts

"Dr. Laura, I was wondering if you could do a post about empathic limits. What is an appropriate response to bad behavior from an unconditional parenting approach? For example, every time I come home with my daughter I remind her that when we go inside she must take off her shoes. She often will immediately run to the couch and climb onto it with her shoes on. I know she does this precisely because she knows she's not supposed to, and now I warn her if she doesn't get down she will get a timeout. Usually she gets a timeout. I can't not respond when she does something like this. What can I do instead of a timeout?"

“You don't seem to ever discuss discipline in terms of teaching acceptable behavior.  I really think its a lot of bull to give people an excuse not to have decent expectations. Sometimes these kids are brats and they need to be aware of it.  I'm not saying that Screaming is good but screaming or other tactics besides hugs are necessary."

The Aha! Parenting website is loaded with hundreds of pages of examples of how to teach acceptable behavior using empathic limits, so if you aren't getting enough from these posts, please do some exploring on the website.  I'm hoping you'll have an Aha! moment, which is this: 

There is no such thing as a brat, only a child who is hurting. When our starting point as parents is a close bond with our children, we are their North Star, the point around which they orient. They want more than anything in the world to protect that relationship and meet our expectations, as long as that doesn't compromise their own integrity. If our child is acting like a "brat," she's either signaling that she needs a stronger connection with us, that she's got some big feelings she needs our help with, or that she can't meet our expectation without some tailored support. After all, that (along with modeling) is how we teach acceptable behavior!

So given that Aha! insight, which would be the most effective tactics to transform "bratty" behavior into cooperative behavior?

1. Having high expectations for our child's behavior
2. Ignoring "bad behavior"
3. Screaming
4. Timeout
5. Give tailored support
6. Setting empathic limits
7. Help the child with the feelings that are keeping him from cooperating by playing
8. Help the child with the feelings that are keeping him from cooperating by crying
9. Hugs

Let's consider each of these in turn.

1. Having high expectations for our child's behavior-
Yes, this is an effective tactic. If we don't expect civility in our home, for instance, then we may not get it.  But this only works for age-appropriate expectations.  And if she knows the age-appropriate expectation and still doesn't meet it, then either she needs help with the tangled-up feelings that are keeping her from cooperating, or she needs a better connection with us so she WANTS to cooperate.

2. Ignoring the behavior
This only works for temporary issues that you can live with, like your child acting out because he's very hungry.  In that case, acknowledge non-judgmentally ("You are so hungry, you're getting very impatient...Let's calm down and get you some good food!"), address his need, and he'll be back to his sunny self.  But if your child is repeatedly testing your limits, always intervene. She is asking for your help.

3. Screaming
This is also known as the parental tantrum.  It is never an effective tactic in enforcing your expectations, except to the degree that is scares your child into immediate compliance.  When we do this in adult relationships, it erodes the relationship.  When we do it with our kids, it also erodes the relationship--so kids act out even more.  It also scares the child, so it adds an overlay of tangled-up feelings that the child will then end up "acting out" by misbehaving.   Screaming is a symptom that you've slipped onto the low road of parenting, into fight or flight, and you're seeing your child as the enemy.  Our child is never the enemy, no matter how ugly he's acting.  He's a very young human with an immature brain who is signalling that he needs our help.

4. Timeout
This sometimes stops the "bratty" behavior immediately.  However, it's a symbolic abandonment (which is why it works.) It gives your child the message that you're not there to help her with those upsetting feelings that are driving her to act out.  It creates power struggles.  And it stops working as kids get older, leaving a child who is in rebellion rather than WANTING to cooperate.

5. Tailored support
Maybe she needs a warning about the transition coming up. Maybe she needs to help you create a written schedule, with photos, of her morning routine, so she can feel in charge of it.  Maybe you need to play a game that gets her giggling about power and obedience to defuse the tension about feeling pushed around.  Maybe you need to put an old sheet on the couch for awhile to keep it clean.  But if your repeated reminders that she needs to take off her shoes before getting on the couch aren't working, move on to:

6. Setting empathic limits
Kids don't share our priorities.  Why should they?  They have their own priorities (jumping on the couch!) and no understanding of our world view (couches cost money).  So it's our job, all day, every day, to guide them.  "Shoes get the couch shoes on the couch."  The more firm and consistent you are, the more your child can accept your limit, grieve about it, and move on. The more empathic you are, the more your child will accept your limits without needing to rebel against them. Redirection is the best way to stop the behavior because it channels the energy.   "I see that's so much fun! And you know the couch is not for jumping. Come, off the couch. Let's go jump on the old mattress in the basement."

All kids will naturally test limits to see if they're firm. That means for now you'll need to stay with her as you enter the house and help her get those shoes off, every time, before she heads for the couch. Eventually, it will become a habit, and neither of you will even think about it.

But what if she darts away from you and makes a beeline for the couch, before you can get her shoes off?  She's sending you a signal that something's getting in the way of her cooperating with you.  What?  Emotions. Kids store up their feelings, waiting for a safe chance to release them with a compassionate witness.  That's you. If you get to the bottom of these tangled emotions, you'll stop "bad" behavior before it starts.

Sure, you can make her "stuff" those feelings, by screaming at her or punishing her.  She'll comply, eventually--until she's old enough to rebel. The teen years won't be pretty.  And you'll never be as close as you could be, to this person you brought into the world.

Or you can help her with those feelings.  That will help her cooperate with your agenda.  It will teach her emotional intelligence.  It will make her more able to meet your expectations as she gets older.  And it will bring you closer. How?  Play when you can.  Cry when you have to.

7. Help the child with the feelings that are keeping him from cooperating-- Play when you can.
Take a deep breath and repeat after me:  "It is not an emergency. We can play with this."  Keep your tone light and playful, so you get her giggling. "Excuse me?!  Are you on that couch with your shoes on?! We'll see about that!  I'm the couch protector, and I always get my girl!"  Scoop her up, laughing, and toss her over your shoulder.  As you run around the house with her, take her shoes off and drop them where they go. Sing a silly chant about how much you love her and you'll never let her go.  Keep dropping her on the couch and scooping her up again. Finally, collapse together on the couch for a good snuggle.

The next time you enter the house, before you go in the door, tell her you want to play the game again, but first she has to take her shoes off with you, right inside the door.  Transform the game from one of defiance into one of re-connection and celebration.  Use it any time you need to interrupt "bad" behavior.  Giggling releases upset feelings almost as well as crying does. It also creates more oxytocin, the bonding hormone, so when you and your child are laughing together, you're bonding.

8. Help the child with the feelings that are keeping him from cooperating--Cry when you have to.
What if she doesn't giggle?  Won't let you take her shoes off?  Gets angry and defiant?  She's beyond play. Those big feelings are bubbling up, and she's trying to keep them down with anger.  Summon up all your compassion. Look her in the eye. Set your limit clearly and kindly.  "Sweetie, you know shoes get the couch dirty. I won't let you wear shoes on the couch."  If you're able to stay compassionate, she may burst into tears. Hold her while she cries, if she'll let you. Don't talk much, just tell her she's safe. If, instead, she lashes out, remember that the tears are right behind the anger. She just needs to feel a little safer to let them out. You build safety with your 24/7 empathy for your child, as well as with play, and with physical connection. Which brings us to:

9. Hugs
I agree that hugs are not our only tactic to reconnect and create cooperation.  But they are probably our most useful. Hugs help our child feel safe enough to cry and let out the upsets that are driving her to act out.  Hugs reconnect us, so our child WANTS to cooperate.  And they remind us that our child, even if he's acting "bratty," is our beloved. Hugs rescue our child from the low road he's stumbled onto and pull him back up onto the high road with us. Hugs are no substitute for 24/7 empathy and daily one-on-one reconnection time with your child, but nine hugs a day are essential for him to thrive.

I'll be doing more posts focusing on empathic limits in the near future, but for today, why not try more hugs?

Like what you're reading?  You can get these posts every day in your Inbox,  free!  Subscribe.
Tuesday, May 13, 2014 | Permalink | Blog Home
Pin It

View Older Comments

Grace commented on 29-Feb-2012 05:32 PM
These steps are very helpful, and I think we would probably solve any relevant problem before we got to the end of your list. But I would like to ask you about children who don't want to be hugged. When my 2 yr old son is angry with me, he usually doesn't
want to be held, and if I do hold him for any reason, it will escalate his anger into a screaming, thrashing rage. If I don't need to restrain him (which usually happens if he's trying to hit me or hurt himself), I will tell him that he can have a cuddle if
he wants one, but he hates to be touched before he's calmed down.
Betty commented on 29-Feb-2012 07:00 PM
The description in the above question regarding the child doing precisely what she knows that she is not supposed to do is brilliantly explained by the work of Dr Gordon Neufeld who refers to this dynamic as an instinct in us called COUNTERWILL. When we
do the opposite of what we are told do in reaction to perceived coersion we are experiencing counterwill. I would highly recommend a visit to for details on a four hour DVD that explains the Counterwill dynamic, what it is, how it
works and what parents can do to work with their children when experiencing bouts of counterwill.
annette commented on 29-Feb-2012 11:33 PM
thank you for this! This is one of the best articles I have seen on this subject matter. You show the "what not to do" WITH the "do this instead". Wonderful!!! And everything here is tried and true from my experience...even, unfortunately, the "don't"s.
mamapoekie commented on 01-Mar-2012 03:35 AM
Sorry, Laura, but I really need to object to your title here! It's very disrespectful to speak of kids that way and you're not showing any empathy at all, just negativity and setting up parents to be judgmental. There are enough people in the world disrespecting
kids as is, so please, let us, bloggers on parenting, not carry out this hatred
Laura Markham commented on 01-Mar-2012 07:41 AM
Grace- When your son thrashes like that, it's fear coming up. Fear is what's often behind anger. But it doesn't feel good when it comes out, although we always feel better afterwards. Here's the thing. "Forcing" your son to experience that fear by forcing
a hug on him is unnecessary, possibly disrespectful, and often counterproductive. He can giggle it out instead, at another time. So respect his limits. Just move in as close as you can, tell him he's safe, stay as compassionate as you can to help him feel
safe enough to go under the anger, but don't force touching on him. At other times, physically roughhouse with him (play bucking bronco for instance) in ways that help him giggle out his fear. And of course, as you said, cuddle him as soon as he's ready after
his meltdown.
Laura Markham commented on 01-Mar-2012 07:48 AM
Betty- Thanks for bringing up the idea of counterwill. It is what I was addressing, but without using the term. Otto Rank was the first to talk about counterwill, which is simply the healthy human response to feeling controlled. If a child does not feel
connected at that moment to the parent, she will reject attempts to guide her. That's a good thing, if she is not convinced that the adult has her best interests in mind! So the "cure" for counterwill is always to reconnect, as Neufeld emphasizes. But also
(and Neufeld doesn't really address this), the parent has to be aware that strong emotions that the child is trying to fend off often make kids feel disconnected from us, so the child needs help to "feel" those emotions and let them go. Then he feels reconnected
and more open to parental guidance. Make sense?
Laura Markham commented on 01-Mar-2012 07:58 AM
Mamapoekie- I totally understand your shock to see me use that word. I should have put it in quotes, since I was quoting the person who wrote in to me. I personally cannot imagine ever seeing a child as a "brat." But I have found that the majority of people
do see their child's behavior as "bratty" at times, and they are so very relieved when I acknowledge it, because they also love their child. My goal is to start from where those parents are-- "my child is being a brat" -- and help them get to "my child is
acting like this because he needs my help." I have been deluged by responses of relief and gratitude from parents to this post -- which is essentially the same post I have been writing virtually every day for years. The difference? Parents have been able to
forward it to their friends who think their child is "bratty" and those parents are able to consider things from their child's perspective. So I hear you, and I agree, that the very word is disrespectful and shocking. Obviously, I would never use the word
brat to describe a child. But that's the word my reader used when she wrote her objections about my approach. Now, I realize that she was using it for a purpose, to provoke me, because she knew my attitude would be diametrically opposed to hers. But that is
precisely why I chose it for my title--to reach people like her. Was it the right decision? We probably will never know. But I am convinced from the parents who write to me privately that reaching beyond the audience who agrees with us (you and me) is saving
lives, one small step at a time. So I really appreciate your giving me a chance to elaborate on this choice of title. As you know (I hope) I have tremendous respect for your work and I don't think you and I disagree on much of anything related to parenting.
This may be a place where we respectfully disagree.
Betty commented on 02-Mar-2012 01:53 PM
Thanks for your reply. I have been studying Dr. Neufeld's work for years and find his message quite the opposite. He speaks frequently about deep-rooted emotions in children that need to be honoured by parents and at times contained to decrease the alarm
that these emotions can provoke. He is an advocate of parents making room for these big emotions while keeping the child safe. As the child develops, he speaks about the importance of the child taking up a relationship with these emotions so that the child
does not become stuck. He addresses big emotions in almost all of his DVD courses. Anyway, all the best. Betty
Laura Markham commented on 03-Mar-2012 10:11 AM
Betty, Thanks so much for your continued conversation. I confess that while I have interviewed Gordon Neufeld and of course have read his book several times over the years, I have not seen his dvd courses. Naturally, he can go into more depth in those,
and I am glad to hear about his focus on emotion in them. I consider Gordon a fellow traveler in our approaches to attachment and parenting, and it sounds like his approach to emotion is also very consistent with mine. And thank you, Betty, because you've
inspired me to reread his book--which I have always loved--and to interview him again, specifically about emotion, for my upcoming Interviews with Parenting Gurus series. In the meantime, for anyone who doesn't know the wonderful Gordon Neufeld, here's a link
to an interview I did with him a couple of years ago:

Hide Older Comments