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Linnea Walter, Kitchener ON
Over my years as a parent, I finally learned the importance of saying “no” (and sticking to it). I learned that the structure those boundaries give is very important for our children—no matter how old they are.
Often, “no” happened when we went shopping, it could be for groceries or for other needs. The dreaded candy aisle would be coming up and I would start to prepare myself mentally as I had a strong “no sugar rule”. Sometimes, I was able to prepare my kids—I might have said something like, “I know you are going to want to buy some candy, but the answer will be no. We are only buying groceries, no candy.” In the store, I might say, “we are close to the candy aisle—should we avoid it?” If my child said yes, I would comment that it was a good decision. If they said no, I would remind them of the plan and we would head down the aisle together. I felt that it was still important to allow my child some choice over the situation—going down the aisle was a choice; buying candy was not. This didn’t always work and sometimes there were still meltdowns in the candy aisle—but it worked a lot of the time. (Click here to read more about managing meltdowns.)
Children learn through the “no’s” in their lives. They learn that things do not always go their way. They learn what is ok to do and what is not ok to do. They also learn to trust the strength of their parents. Structure and boundaries bring security and predictability to their lives. Children feel safer when they know their parent will take charge and provide the limits they need to succeed. They need us to be in charge because it is often overwhelming to them when they are in charge.
It is certainly hard for our children when we tell them “no”. Statements such as “No, you cannot have that toy just because you saw it in the toy store” or “No snack. Lunch is in 10 minutes” or “No, you have to be in by 9:30. It’s a school night.” can bring on tears of disappointment, resentment or anger.
It is our job to support our children through these moments of disappointment so that our children can grow. We know that children need to learn to how to handle the frustrations a “no” answer might bring. Certainly, learning to put off immediate self-gratification gives our children the ability to wait for things they may want and the strength to reach their goals. These are also opportunities for us to help our children develop the emotion regulation skills that are necessary for all of life’s challenges.
I was not always good at this, particularly early in my parenting but, over time, I got better and better at it. My kids were my best teachers. They taught me about why setting limits was important (well, maybe they did not teach me that on purpose, but I learned it by watching them grow and thrive), and they taught me about how to set limits that helped them manage their big feelings and make positive choices.
Here are some strategies that I learned (and that worked for me)…..
Empathy. I learned pretty quickly that when I took a few seconds to try to understand what they were feeling, it made a huge difference in their reactions. I might express my understanding that this is hard—or disappointing, frustrating, seems unfair, etc.—and let them know I had an idea of how they might be feeling as I too wanted things I could not have.
Tuning in. I had to learn to “read” my kids and where they were on the “I am going to lose it scale”. I learned when to come close—a hug and distraction worked well when they were in the “early” stages of losing it but was not the best approach when they were really angry. Then, I learned to back off a bit; stay nearby but stay quiet and give them time to come around. I certainly learned that arguing or demanding cooperation at this time was not effective!
Providing help when needed. I learned to offer help or suggestions, when appropriate. For instance, sometimes, I applied the “drink a glass of water first rule” when a snack was asked for. Or, offering choices that my child had some control over, like whether or not to go down the candy aisle.
Gentle humour. Sometimes a funny face or comment really worked. A funny comment like, “I know your world might come to an end” with some silly body gestures could have us laughing instead of arguing! My kids and I love to laugh, so I brought laughter into the situation when I could.
Patience. I was not always successful and temper tantrums certainly happened! This is when my patience had to kick in. I had to manage my own emotions—frustration, embarrassment, anger—I felt all of that many times. It wasn’t easy but I knew that if I lost it, so would my child.
As parents, we want our children to be happy and healthy in themselves so they can be productive in society. The ultimate gift we can give our children is self-discipline, which has to come from within. Self-discipline starts with boundaries, expectations and an understanding that life says ‘no’ sometimes. We, as parents, set the boundaries out of our love for our children, even when they are looking at us with tear-filled eyes or are shouting the dreaded “I hate you!” I know that they don’t realize it in that moment, but our limits say “I love you!”
Linnea Walter is a parent of three children, who are now young adults. She is also one of our Experienced Parents and looks forward to chatting with parents about setting boundaries….or any other parenting concern. Click here to read her profile.