"No" is the best word ever.
I want what I want and I want it now.
Screaming "No" feels good.
You can't tell me.
I'll say "No" as long as I want.
I want to share a story to remind you it is possible to compassionately set limits with toddlers.
It's not an easy task.
You're worn out, tired, and have other children to attend to, but you can guide your little ones back to positive behaviors (instead of demanding), if you step outside your agenda just long enough to find the compassion you need to consider their experience.
Acknowledging the validity of their feelings and showing understanding for their needs and expectations is how you create shared meaning and emotional connections.
Once kids feel connected and develop the maturity to meet your expectations, your influence, opinions and ideas will be valued and considered.
Keeping your eye on your long-term goals will help you stay regulated when your toddler isn't.
So the story goes --
I was attending a family dinner at the home of my mother and step-father, who are exceptionally indulgent grandparents, heaping love on their grandchildren in every way, and that includes allowing all kinds of sweets and treats to which Mom or Dad might ordinarily say, "No!"
My nephew knows and expects this, and as soon as he arrived he headed straight for the candy cabinet, poised to climb his way to the familiar location on the top shelf in my parent's kitchen.
"No cookies, we're about to have dinner," my Mom ordered.
The little guy protested as any proper, determined two-year-old would and pushed through us both, stampeding the cabinets.
A few more emphatic "No's!" from my mother elicited some aggression from him - narrowed eyes, crumpled face and an unpleasant grunt, and she quickly gave up.
In my sister's absence, I stepped in to try and help him (and my mom) through the moment.
My goal was not to try and stop or contain my nephew's disappointment but to connect and empathize with his experience.
"I want cookies," he cried.
"I know you want cookies! They're your favorite," I said as I knelt down to his level.
He grunted and folded his arms, looking away letting me know he was NOT ready to talk, and especially not ready to move to problem-solving or interested in listening to any logical explanations.
He was still mad, and he felt it in his body.
He stomped his feet. I stomped mine (not in mockery, but in an attempt to show him my understanding).
“You're mad! Stomping my feet feels good. Helps me get the mad out."
He looked at me inquisitively and stomped again.
"You were expecting cookies. Mom-Mom always gives you cookies when you come over. I can tell you're upset that you can't have any."
"Unnnhh!" he squinted his eyes at me (I intuited through his body language that this was his way of showing agreement).
"It's not fair!" I agreed.
I stayed with him in this space - gently blocking his continued (but softening) attempts to reach the cabinet, and affirming his frustration with an understanding tone and short phrases like -
“We can’t have cookies right now."
"I can see you're upset."
"I won't let you climb the cabinets."
"I will help you.”
"Tell me more."
After three or four minutes (which seems like a LONG time - but it isn't, so be patient with your kids) he settled enough for me to eye an opening and I grabbed it --
"We're going to have the yummy dinner Pop-Pop made! Will you help me set the table?" Happily, he jumped at the invitation to contribute and cooperate.
By me staying with him through his discomfort (instead of convincing him out of it), he was able to come to a place of acceptance about having "no cookies" and was soon ready to move on.
I want to emphasize that limits were set and boundaries enforced, but there was no need for shame, blame or threats to induce him to comply, nor did anyone waste time arguing or convincing, legitimizing or rationalizing with a small child who just needed time to process.
Looking deeper at what was driving his behavior, I noticed his preference for the cookie was real, but his REAL NEED was about recreating the experience he had come to expect and enjoy - coming to Mom-Mom's house and getting a treat.
Whether his need was for nostalgia, sameness, comfort, connection - once I re-focused on his feelings, and not blindly determined to deal with the "cookie problem," he was able to shift.
You can say "NO" and stick to it in a loving way.
Don't be offended or flustered by your child's reaction to the boundaries you set.
The processing of emotion manifests in many ways and humans are unique in their tolerance and temperament.
It takes time.
It is not an attack on your parenting or your authority when kids protest your limits.
Persistence is a valuable trait. It is what we need to endure set-backs and follow through to our goals, in spite of the opposition, but it can fail to develop if we deny, discount or refuse to show compassion for our kids when we set limits.
Educate your children about better strategies when they are calm and regulated, not in the heat of the moment.
Give them a chance to settle their emotions and resolve the internal conflict they feel, and they will surprise you with amazing resiliency and resourcefulness.
Have a story, idea or thoughts about this? Share your perspectives in the comments below.
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