Setting limits with empathy means we:
- Stay connected while we set limits.
- Set limits in a way that empathizes with our child's feelings and helps him process them.
- Resist the urge to make our child suffer or feel bad while we set limits.
Let's consider an example. Avery and her mother are at the playground.
Mom: “Avery, are you getting hungry?"
Mom: "It's time to walk home and make some yummy peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. Would you like to walk or ride in the stroller?”
Avery: “No Mommy, I’m sitting on the swing.”
Mom: [verbally empathizing with her and acknowledging how she must be feeling] “You're having so much fun on the swing. You wish you could stay and swing for a long time. [Setting the limit] AND we need to fill our hungry bellies! Time to go home!”
Avery: “No Mommy, I sit here on the swing.”
Now, we all know this can go on and on and on. The two and a half year old will get hungrier, and the mom will get more frustrated. At this point, Mom could use humor. Few children can resist a game. She could begin gnawing playfully on her child's wrist, and scoop her up, pretending to eat her. In the ensuing laughter, leaving the playground might be easy.
But Mom is too hungry to play right now; she's ready to leave. She decides to set a clear limit and ask her daughter to cooperate. She begins with empathy, or an understanding of her child's feelings.
Mom: “Avery, you love swinging, don't you?"
Mom: "Even though it's lunch time and we're getting hungry, you wish you could stay in the swing, all day, don't you?" [Wish fulfillment]
Mom: "I wish you could, too. That would be so much fun, wouldn't it? (Finding a point of agreement.) AND STILL, now it's lunchtime so it's time to go home."
Notice the words "AND STILL." If Mom had said "BUT" it's time to go home, Avery might have felt like what she wanted didn't matter. (You've probably noticed that when someone says "XXXXX, BUT..." the words before the "but" are somewhat invalidated.) Phrases like "and still" and "even though" help us validate the child's perspective even while setting the parent's limit.
Mom: "You have a choice, you can jump down like a baby kangaroo and hop along with me. Or I will pick you up and you can ride in the stroller." [Mom gives a choice, either of which is palatable to her. This helps Avery save face and gives her some control.]
But Avery doesn’t select one of these choices.
Mom: (speaking warmly but firmly) “Avery, I see it's too hard for you to leave the swing yourself. I will help you down and into the stroller."
Notice Mom doesn't make Avery feel like a bad person because she couldn't "obey." Mom acknowledges that it was just too hard for her.
Let's assume Avery howls as Mom picks her up. Conventional wisdom says to wrestle her into the stroller and ignore her crying, so we don't "reward" her crying with attention. But that breaks our connection with our child. What's worse, we give her the message that her emotions are bad, and we will only attend to her if we like what she is expressing -- in other words, that our love is conditional.
So should we try to distract our child from her upset? “Wow, Avery, look at that cute doggie right there!” We've all felt that impulse. But what message does distraction send? "Your feelings aren't important" or "Your feelings are unacceptable, maybe even dangerous, so we'll pretend they don't exist"? (Would you feel loved and understood if you expressed unhappiness and your partner or friend responded by distracting you?) In general, children need us to listen to them and accept their emotions, even when we have to set limits.
Avery: [Begins to howl as Mom picks her up from the swing.]
Notice that even though Mom has been super patient, the child still cries. That doesn't mean she's doing something wrong. All children will test limits and insist on what they want. That's part of their job description; it helps them develop. And our job as parents is to guide our children and set limits. That means that sometimes children will get upset and cry. No need to get defensive or try to talk them out of their feelings. We do need to set limits, and they're allowed to be disappointed. What do they learn? They don't get everything they want. But they get something better: A parent who accepts them and understands, no matter what.
Mom: (empathetically) “You're crying. You don't want to leave the swing. It's hard to stop swinging when you were having so much fun. I know you wish you could swing all day, even though you're hungry. And now it is time to go home and eat. Let's sit for a minute on this bench; I will hold you while you cry."
Despite the fact that the other parents at the playground are staring at us, we are not failures because our daughter is crying. In fact, crying is good, and helpful, for a two year old with big feelings. She needs to express them and show them to us, not to "stuff them."
As she cries, if we can hold her and help her to feel safe (instead of strapping her into the stroller and pushing her home, sobbing), she may even begin to cry about other things -- that big dog that barked at her this morning, or the way Daddy snapped at her when he was in a rush, or how much her knee hurt when she fell yesterday but she didn't cry because she was with Grandma who told her what a brave big girl she was and big girls don't cry. What a great opportunity to get all this off her chest! In fact, often kids "pick fights" by resisting our limits, exactly as Avery did with the swing, precisely to get the opportunity to cry like this. So holding our child while she cries is a tremendous gift.
As she cries, we stay connected by holding her. We keep the tears coming -- yes, on purpose! -- by empathizing and reassuring her that she is safe: "You are sad, you don't want to go home, I am right here, you are safe."
If she is angry and twists away, we stay nearby and stay connected with our voice: "I'm right here. You're safe. You'll feel better soon." We breathe deeply to stay calm. We ignore the curious looks from passersby.
Finally, she begins to calm. She is snuggled in our arms. We give her a big hug. "You were crying. You were sad. Now you feel better. Let's go home and get those yummy sandwiches. Do you want a drink of water before you get in the stroller?"
After a good cry in your loving presence, your child will be free of whatever feelings were making her stick to her position at the expense of getting along with you. She will feel relaxed and cooperative. (When kids are rigid and insist on getting their way, that's often a red flag that they need to cry. Just like with adults! :-))
The first time you do this, your child may cry for a long time. Crying is never a bad thing; she's showing you her pent-up upsets. Or she may think that her crying will convince you to let her swing more. Obviously, empathizing with her feelings doesn't mean you rescind a limit that's important to you. (If you can, it's best to start setting limits like this at home, when you actually have the time and energy to sit with the meltdown. This preventive maintenance will make your playground meltdowns much shorter or non-existent.) Before long, your child will climb reluctantly from the swing and into her stroller when you say it's time for lunch!
This was a toddler, but you can adapt this to any age child. Just empathize, set your limit clearly and kindly, and if your child gets upset, welcome the tears. The most important part is dropping your own unhappiness that your child is unhappy, so you can accept your child's upset with compassion, even while holding your limit.
Because you were able to set your limit with empathy, she'll have learned:
- Disappointment can be weathered. That's the beginning of resilience.
- Your limits are firm. She may not like them, but you're on her side, so she'll accept them. That's the beginning of self-discipline.
- Feelings are manageable. That's the beginning of emotional regulation.
- How she feels matters to you; SHE matters to you. That keeps her seeking guidance from you.
Here we thought this was a crisis, but it turned out to be a wonderful opportunity for teaching essential life lessons.
Think of it as love in action.