Happier Holidays – How To Step In And Set Limits

Staci S. Wright

In this series we’ve been exploring how to set holidays up for the fun and relaxation time you all deserve. 

In Part 1, we saw how kids can go from playing nicely one minute, to a sudden switch into fighting and tears. We covered how this happens when a child loses their sense of connection and feelings overtake play, and what you can do to help your children get along with one another.

Connecting in Special Time

In Part 2, we talked about Special Time – a one-adult-to-one-child play time that, done regularly, bolsters your child’s sense of connection with you and can keep relationships friendly between your children. 

Sometimes you can also offer a short Special Time in the moment, a kind of emergency “connection injection” – as a way of interrupting off-track behaviour. This might just bring things back into harmonious balance.

But often we need to intervene more actively to set a limit on unworkable play, or fighting. We need to be firm and, most especially, warm.  

When we do this, we can help our children resolve the underlying feelings which have come up and drive off-track behaviour.

For Step 3, we will look at the ways you can step in and stop the behavior, firmly and warmly. 

Part 3 – How to step in and stop the behavior

Step 3 begins by re-evaluating your own expectations.  

We parents are so hopeful that the behavior won’t show up again. We are so tempted to indulge in hoping that what has happened every other time will not happen again. I know we are tired, and we just want a break, but when we do this, we give away our power. 

Unfortunately, our hope is often misplaced. While our kids tend to “blow up” predictably, we are caught on the back foot because we didn’t see it coming and were on the other side of the room looking at our phone.

Keep up a friendly patrol

Instead, if your children are tending to erupt into bickering or blows, you’ll want to start routinely running a “friendly patrol”. 

You stay close – not too close, and not giving directions or instructions or corrections – but you’ll want to be close enough that you can pick up the escalating tone, or catch that mean glint in the eye when things are starting to get rocky between your kids. 

When you do catch it – as soon as you see a hint of trouble – you can interrupt the hurtful behaviour by bringing the limit.

Step 4: The nuts and bolts of limit setting

There are some things which are important to understand as you move in to bring a limit and help your children when things between them are tense.

  • Bring the limit
    It won’t work to try to control or direct things from the other side of the room, playground or pool. I understand, to the bottom of my bones, your need to have a holiday, and your kids still need you really close-by and paying full attention. It actually stops things getting nasty. Because you are right there if hurtful behavior unfolds and you can intervene, physically if necessary, and without harshness, criticism or blame. You can do it as warmly and as simply as possible.
  • Don’t appeal to reason
    There’s no point appealing to reason. It’s probably not going to work to call out “Now! Be nice to your brother!” because, as we’ve seen, your child’s capacity for reason is out the door. They are full of feelings that keep them from hearing you, or making sense of, or caring about, what you say.
  • Five words or less
    Try to use five words or less when bringing a limit. If you are saying much more than “I won’t let you do that, sweetheart.” (which is seven words!) you have probably shifted to appealing to your child’s sense of reason. Adding “because…” is a mistake. Save the explanations for a chat at another time, if necessary, when their feelings are not flaring, although you may also find you never need to have that chat. After all, your child already knows that they shouldn’t hit their sibling. They just can’t remember it in the moment when they do hit out.
  • Limit early
    Move in early. Don’t wait until one of your children is holding the other in a too-tight hold around the neck, or pushing them into the pool. And don’t wait until you have lost your patience before you bring the limit. Instead, it’s much better to move in early, warmly and firmly than to move in late, loud and harsh.
  • Try playfulness
    You might be able to head things in a better direction with a playful intervention. “I bet you can’t push me into the pool. It’s going to take the whole lot of you, working together, I reckon!” And then offer just enough resistance to give them a good struggle, but make sure they win. If you draw the aggression onto yourself,  and somehow get them to gang up on you, kids will often lose sight of their own frustrations with each other as they band together to outwit you. Their laughter is a good sign that you have the balance right.  Laughter connects people, and releases emotional tensions (fears, to be specific, which are often at the root of aggressive behaviour). Chasing games are one of the easiest ways to get this kind of laughter going, if you are stuck for ideas!
  • Warmly, but firmly, stop the behaviour
    Sometimes, however, feelings sit too tight for fun and games to work. When it is like this, you need to be close, gently wrap an arm around your child, and tell them you are not going to let them push their brother or sister. You may not need to say much more – remember: five words or less.
  • You are the Safety Manager
    Odd as it sounds, your intervention, whether it brings laughter or an outburst of strong emotion, will serve to connect your child again with what they know is right. But in the middle of the upset, don’t expect your child to be able to keep things safe. The fact that you need to bring a limit has already told you that your child is in their “feeling mind” not their “thinking mind”. At this moment, they may not be able to notice or care about the things that will keep everyone safe. That’s your job. If someone gets hurt, it is your job to apologise: “Sorry honey – I didn’t get there fast enough to stop you from getting hurt.” Later, once the strong feelings have been dealt with, you may be able to have a conversation about safety – but chances are, your child already knows all this but can’t care about it when they’re upset – the motto is “If they could, they would.”
  • Hold the limit
    If your child can’t comply, then you may need to hold the limit. Don’t assume that just because you brought the limit, that your child will suddenly co-operate. You aren’t trying to appeal to reason, so you shouldn’t assume that reason will kick in straight away and your child will “do the right thing”.  

There is a process that needs to be worked through, and in order to help that along, you may need to hold the limit and be prepared for some emotions to flare up along the way.

If it doesn’t look like your child can “feel” the limit, you may need to “bring it closer” and hold it there.   For instance, the first layer of limit setting might be a request: from nearby you might say “Honey, you need to stop”. If that doesn’t work, then you might kneel down beside the edge of the pool and put your hand on their shoulder. If that doesn’t work, you might need to get in the pool between your kids…

  • Expect upsets
    When you move in this way, your child will often object strongly, and start to cry or rage. And it’s likely that they will rage AT you.  At this point, you’ll be doing them a big favour if you can decide not to take it personally.  Take heart: they don’t mean it and it will pass; and you are better able to handle the nastiness than a little brother can.

In fact, the feeling that erupts when you bring a limit is exactly the feeling that was in them and driving the desire to be mean to a sibling.  Stay warm and close, don’t argue but quietly insist that you will not let them push or fight with their brother.

Children can often get caught in a feeling from some past stressful experience. You don’t really need to worry about what or where, you just need to help them with it now. The depth and strength of the feelings that are pouring out often reflect how deeply the feelings went in.

And also the trust they have in you. This trust is what you built through your regular Special Time together. With Special Time, your child has regular opportunities to notice that you care about them, respect them, and love them. 

This provides the “credit” in your relationship that will keep things good between you when you have to step in to bring a limit. They will complain: “You are a horrible mummy. You always pick on me! It’s not fair, you never stop little brother from doing what he wants!” 

But in their heart of hearts, they know you are on their side.

Over time, with this kind of help from you, your children will flare less frequently. They’ll play happily together for longer. 

And you will be able to enjoy your holiday. 

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