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Sunday, 25 March 2001

Setting Limits with Young Children

Written by  Patty Wipfler

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Children love to cooperate. They're great at playing, trusting, and learning. They want to feel close to their parents and loved ones.

But every day, things happen that hurt children's feelings. They want more time for fun and intimacy, they get frustrated because there are things they can't do yet. There are many difficult moments for a child every day, no matter how hard we parents try to protect them.

When children's feelings are hurt, they release those bad feelings immediately -- this is the healthiest response. Crying and tantrums, with plenty of trembling and perspiration, and eventually laughter are the natural way children heal from bad experiences. When they are finished expressing their feelings, they feel 100% better. They can understand again that you love them. They can listen and cooperate.

We tell children not to cry, we punish them for misbehaving if they throw a tantrum. We have been taught that these actions are inappropriate. So our children try hard not to express their feelings, and the pressure inside them builds.

When children are under stress, they lose their patience, their love of fun, their easygoing ability to make each day a good one. At these times, they tend to do things that don't make sense. They'll begin to squabble, to insist on having things someone else has, or to want one thing after another, without gaining satisfaction. These are the times when, if they ask for orange juice, what you pour isn't enough. When you pour more, then they don't like the thingies floating in it. When you take out some of the thingies, they are upset about the one that's still floating there.

At times like these, we parents can play a positive role. We can set limits on our children's behavior to help them relieve their stress, and regain their own good judgment and joy in cooperation. When you think your child is being unreasonable, here are the steps to follow.


Get down so you are at eye level, and simply ask what's going on. Ask your child to tell you why she's yelling, or why she has to have the blue dress that's in the wash. She needs to talk about the upset she feels, if possible, to someone who isn't upset too. She is feeling hurt and far away from everyone.


If she is insisting on unreasonable behavior, you must step in. Tell her what you think is reasonable, and then make sure that her unreasonable behavior doesn't continue. If your child is yelling at her brother, tell her it's not helping to yell, and ask her to stop. If she can't stop, pick her up gently and bring her with you into another room. If she's throwing toys in anger, put your hand on the toy she's about to throw, and say, "I won't let you throw that." If she is insisting that you take more thingies out of the orange juice, you can say, " I think the orange juice is OK the way it is." No punishment is needed, no lectures are needed, no harshness is needed. Simply step in.

Children who are under stress can't think coherently. They can't process what we tell them, so they don't do what we ask. You must expect this, and step in, gently but firmly, to see that they don't continue to do irrational things.


This is the "stress release" step, the one that will help your child immensely. After you have stepped in , your child will most likely begin to cry, storm, or tantrum. This is CONSTRUCTIVE. It is your child's way of eliminating the tension that made her unreasonable in the first place. If you can stay close while she cries or storms, she will continue until she has calmed. She'll be better able to listen, to be cooperative, and to make the best of the situation. The hurt that had taken her over has healed now. And your listening will have accomplished more than any lecture, time out, or threat. You will have rebuilt the closeness between you.

This article is reprinted from:
Parents Leadership Institute
P.O. Box 50492 o Palo Alto, CA 94303
(650) 322-LEAD or www.parentleaders.org


Last modified on Tuesday, 09 April 2013 14:54
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Patty Wipfler

Patty Wipfler is a mother of two sons, director of The Parents Leadership Institute, and author of the "Listening to Children" booklets, which outline more fully the approach she briefly sketches in this article.

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