"Dr. Laura....What do we do when the limits we've empathically set are not adhered to? How do we "enforce" without crossing the line into punishment? For example, when my 3 year old hits me or his baby sister when I'm nursing her, and ignores my verbal limit?"  

Most parents have some version of this question: how to "enforce limits" without punishment. So let's dig deep on this.

When you set a limit and your child doesn't accept it, there's a reason. He's showing you as well as he can that something is so wrong inside him that he can't cooperate with you, as much as he loves you and wants to please you. (And kids who have good relationships with their parents DO want to please them.) But right now he can't. So he's sending you an SOS.

In other words, your child is ignoring your limit because he needs help with the big feelings or unmet needs that are driving his behavior. He's trying hard to tell you that he needs help, but he doesn't have the words.

Of course, if your limit is over something that matters, like hitting, you need to insist on that limit. In fact, if you ignore the "message" that your child is sending with his "misbehavior," he will just have to increase the misbehavior until you respond to his message. (That's why permissive parenting doesn't work.)

But insisting on your limit never means punishing. Punishment doesn't address the cause of the misbehavior, so it doesn't prevent future episodes. In fact, responding with punishment tells him that he's a naughty person who can't control himself and needs to be punished. Unfortunately, kids believe everything we tell them about themselves, so that's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since the only reason kids choose to do what we want -- as opposed to what they want -- is that they hope to please us, punishment destroys the only reason kids behave to begin with.

But of course he can't hit the baby. Luckily, punishment is not the only way to insist on your limits. There's always another way to uphold your limit.

Instead of punishing, here's your formula for holding limits.

1. Move in to uphold the limit physically (not angrily.) Catch his arm as he goes to hit. Say kindly but firmly "Hitting hurts. No hitting."

2. Acknowledge the feelings or desires under your child's behavior, which is how you help your child past those feelings so he can cooperate. Let him know you hear what he's saying, and that you want to help with what's upsetting him. You say, with as much understanding as you can, "It looks like you want ....."

3. Tell your child what he or she can do instead. You might say, "You can tell me what you want and I will always help you."

Let's use these three steps to hold the limit when the child flaunts it. In this example:

Your three year old hits his baby sister as you're nursing her. You're angry, but you remember that a kid who's aggressive is a kid who's frightened. You realize he's scared you don't love him any more, and as a result he's furious at the baby. These are just feelings, and feelings pass.

You take a deep breath and say "Hitting hurts. I won't let you hit Maya. It looks like you want me to hold you right now. I see how upset you are. You can tell me, 'Hold me, Mama!' Would you like to snuggle up and read a book with me while I finish feeding Maya? Then I can play your game with you."

Sometimes it works, especially if you empathize and try to fill the need he's expressing. Other times, those feelings are just too much for him. So he scowls and tries to hit her again. What can you do?

You insist on your limit of no hitting, and you keep everyone safe. You might hold his hand, or get between your kids, or pick up either the baby or the three year old. In this case, your options are limited because you're nursing. So you stand up, still nursing, so he can't reach her. That's how you "enforce" your limit. Not with "force" but by putting your whole body into it to intervene and stop the behavior.

Now you let him know you hear his SOS, and you give him a tool to safely show you the depth of his feelings, and also to express them more fully. You say "You're feeling so bad and you want me to know, so you're hitting. It's so hard when you want my help and my hands are full. It's ok to be mad, AND I won't let you hurt your sister. But you can show me how mad you are by stomping your feet very hard. I will watch how hard you stomp."

Notice you aren't sending him away to "get his anger out." That doesn't help. He needs to show YOU how upset he is, so he feels understood. Most kids will stomp a few times, although because it is a new situation and you're a step removed (standing up holding the baby in this case), many children won't feel safe enough to really let loose. You can encourage him by saying what you see and completely accepting his feelings: "I see you stomping so hard!...Wow! You are mad!" (Presumably, he feels your attention on him enough that it's safe for you to sit down on the couch to finish nursing now while he stomps.)

Then you try to reconnect with him. You say "Will you come look in my eyes? I have something to tell you."

When he comes over, you put your arm around him and look him in the eye and say "Thank you for showing me how you feel. I see how upset you are right now that I am feeding the baby when you want me to be with you. Sweetheart, I could never love anyone more than I love you. There is always enough love for you, no matter how much your sister gets.  I want to snuggle with you right now, and I want to play your game with you as soon as my hands are free. Will you come snuggle with me and we will read your book while I finish feeding the baby? Then we can play your game." 

Ok, so you've enforced your limit (no hitting) and you've listened to what your child is telling you. But the real work here is helping him resolve the tangled up fears that are triggering his aggression. That work starts as soon as you can put the baby down so you can give your son your full attention.

Now you use prevention to make ongoing changes in your child's life that resolve the feelings triggering his behavior. This includes:

  • Creating an opportunity for your child to "show" you those upset feelings that are pulling him so off-track.
  • Strengthening his connection with you (Yes, I know you feel connected. But big emotions can make kids feel disconnected, so you have to work on both the emotions and the connection).
  • Noticing when your child starts acting unhappy and intervening BEFORE he hits.

How can you do these things? They're detailed in 5 Preventive Maintenance Habits to Keep Your Child Out of the Breakdown Lane. That's why it's one of my most popular posts -- it gives you the tools to turn things around permanently. So your child doesn't need to act out to send you an SOS.