The Power of Setting Loving Limits


My son LOVES chocolate. If he could, he would eat chocolate for all his meals. One morning at breakfast he asked if he could have a piece of chocolate, to which I said “No, we don’t have chocolate for breakfast.” He cried and cried and continued to beg for chocolate. Eventually he calmed down, the battle was over, but the war was not. The next morning he asked again. I decided to try a different approach. My son can be a picky eater, and I thought this could be a moment to help motivate him to eat a better breakfast. I gave him a list of things he could eat which would be followed by a piece of chocolate. At first he fought me and said “No, I just want chocolate, NOW!” I responded calmly and compassionately. I said, “Yes, you can have chocolate after you eat something else first. I know how much you love chocolate. I will sit here with you while you calm down and you can let me know what you want to do.” Eventually he calmed down, decided to have a yogurt followed by a delicious piece of chocolate. Now, he has come to understand the rules of breakfast and will pick out his food, eat it calmly, and then ask for his piece of chocolate.

Why am I sharing this story with you? It is not to teach you how to parent with chocolate! I share it because I think it highlights the important difference between what people call “tough love” and loving limits. My initial response when my son first asked for chocolate was dismissive; I told him no, and that I didn’t want to hear about what he wanted. That was tough love - I told him he was the problem and I had the solution. In my second approach I listened to what he wanted which made him feel heard and important. I empowered him to make a choice to help him find confidence in his decision making. When he got angry, I met him with compassion and limits to help him feel secure and loved while he worked on de-escalating himself. With loving limits my son was able to be a part of the solution instead of the problem.

Parents I work with often beat themselves up for being “too soft” or for “spoiling” their kids. They say they know they should be tougher but its hard. Being tough is hard and usually leads to us feeling angry and our children feeling dismissed and frustrated. What we need to do is change our mindset. Successful parenting is not about being soft or hard, it is not about being permissive or a disciplinarian, but rather it is about being a teacher and seeking out moments when our children can learn.

One young girl has been refusing to go to school. Her mom was struggling with whether to allow her daughter to miss school or forcing her to go. They battled daily about what to do. When mom changed her mindset and saw an opportunity for growth, she asked her daughter why she didn’t want to go to school. They spent time exploring her feelings. They were able to connect and better understand each other. There is still much to be resolved but the battling has decreased and learning has increased.

A teenager struggles greatly with FOMO (fear of missing out). He and his parents were fighting about him going out on a daily basis. They set rules, he would get mad about them, break them, and get punished. His anger would escalate with each punishment and oftentimes his negative behaviors would escalate as well. His parents worked to change their mindset. They wanted their son to learn and grow rather than simply be punished. The rules haven’t changed in their house but their approach has. There is room for him to get angry, when he feels frustrated he is encouraged to talk about it, and when he calms down they listen to his opinions and make changes if they see fit. He still doesn’t always get what he wants, but he has learned to better understand himself, his anger, and his parents. He is able to calm himself down more quickly and talk more openly about his feelings.

Whether you are a toddler who loves chocolate, a kid who doesn’t want to go to school, a teen who wants to go out with friends, or a parent, we all want to be heard. When we let go of our need to be punitive and tough, we can hear our children and they can hear us. Loving limits may not solve problems quickly but will provide long term growth for our children and for us. Children who feel secure, heard and loved will learn how to be resilient, compassionate and loving. When our children grow and learn, we do too, and we all become better together.