A couple of days ago, when I refused to let my 6-year-old play more video games, he declared that he was having the "worst day ever." He didn't just say it, though. He shrieked the words before he stormed away and slammed his bedroom door. Yesterday, after I told my 4-year-old that he couldn't have another snack before lunch time, he squinted in my direction and told me—slowly and deliberately—that I am "a mean, mean mommy."
How we set limits during this strange and stressful time is a theme that's coming up over and over during my virtual workshops and sessions with parents.
In the past week alone, I've gotten the following questions:
"How do I make my daughter understand that her behavior is not okay?"
"We usually take away screen time as a consequence, but we can't do that right now due to remote learning, not to mention our own busy jobs; what can we do instead?"
"What do we do when it's so obvious that we have no leverage?"
It's not about leverage. I promise.
In pre-pandemic life, I spoke a lot about the importance of parenting with both love and limits, the two L's. I cited decades of research suggesting that children thrive when parents are loving and warm, while also structured and boundaried. It's a myth, I would say, that when either love or limits go up, the other must come down.
All of this still holds during the pandemic. I've stressed the importance in my practice of the primacy of the parent-child connection during this time. I've given less attention to setting limits, in part because I'd rather parents double-up on love right now than double-down on "discipline." That said, no matter how much I don't like the word (hence, the quotation marks), it's a concept that has been coming up again and again, and one that's important.
I like to think about limits as a container of sorts, or a fence, inside which our children feel safe. It's their job to push up against the outside of the container, and ours to ensure the walls don't fall down as a result—even if they do sometimes need to bend a bit. Right now, that metaphor is more important than ever; during this time of uncertainty and instability, our children need to feel that we, their parents and caregivers, can hold and contain them. The love, I like to say, is the way we say to our kids, "I get you." The limits are how we say, simultaneously, "I've got you."
So how do we show our children we've got them during this stressful time? Here is a 4-step guide.
1. Take our cues from preschool and elementary school classrooms.
When you walk into a classroom for young children, some of the first things you see are visual prompts that remind children of desired expectations and behavior. Pictures of children with their fingers to their mouths remind kids to speak in their inside voices. Posters about kindness and friendship abound—they are part of the culture.
There's a schedule for the day and a calendar for the month. You will notice teachers using phrases like "listening ears" and "thinking caps," along with songs like "the clean-up song," to reinforce important messages. Young children are constantly reminded of what's expected of them in bright, colorful, fun ways. They are "in the soup" of the values and expectations that are most important.
No one has the bandwidth to turn their home into a classroom right now, but investing a small amount of time and energy in creating some of these prompts (and learning or making up some accompanying rhymes and songs) is well worth your time.
2. Get to the root of the behavior, the why.
Trite as it may be, now is the time to think about the iceberg analogy more than ever. Your children's negative behaviors—defiance, whining, explosive outbursts—are the tip of the iceberg, the part that's visible. What's hiding underneath the water's surface? All of the thoughts and feelings that underlie those behaviors. Given everything going on right now, I can guarantee you that those include uncertainty, instability, worry, confusion, overwhelm.
Your child may not be able to put these feelings into words, or even have them in conscious awareness, but just as we are in the middle of a collective trauma, so are they. That is taking its toll on them, just as it is on us.
3. Put yourself in your child's shoes.
This is perhaps the greatest tool we have at our disposal as parents; it builds on the point above and embodies the very essence of empathy. It also helps us understand why, for example, typical behavioral approaches likely won't be effective right now.
The exercise itself is quite simple; let's say you were, consciously or not, feeling stressed, uncertain, or unstable. As a result, you snapped at someone you love, such as your partner or a close friend. What would you need in that moment? What would feel containing, that is, help you feel safe and secure? Because that's what your children are going to need. They need quiet tones, understanding, acceptance, nurturing. What they don't need, what will likely even make things worse, is your coming down hard on them.
"But then what if they think it's okay to act that way? That anything goes? Don't I need to take something away from them, to show that this behavior is unacceptable?"
Go back to you snapping at your loved one and remember what was at the root of it. Did you snap because you knew it would be okay? Because you thought to yourself, "Hey, it's totally acceptable for me to call my partner an idiot, so I think that's what I'm gonna go ahead and do"? Of course not. Right now, our children are acting out because they are stressed, not because they are learning that it's okay to do. The more we can re-regulate their nervous systems, foster their feelings of calm and safety, the more likely those behaviors will decrease over time. To the extent there is a time and place for behavioral tools, now is not it.
4. Reiterate the limit in a moment of calm.
OK, so you snapped at your loved one, and maybe they snapped back, or maybe they were able to contain you by maintaining their state of calm. Either way, they might come back to you later, when you're eating dinner or sitting together on the couch. "I really didn't like it when you spoke to me that way earlier," they might say. And you'll be able to hear it. You won't get more dysregulated (read: angry, anxious) because you'll feel safe and connected. And then your loved one will remind you of the posters around the house about kindness, and the "Importance of Not Snapping" song. Oh wait, you're not five. But you get the idea.
Which is to say: circle back to step one. Wash, rinse, repeat.
This post was originally published on Psychology Today.