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“My Child Is Impossible”: Re-Framing Setting Limits


3 minute read

The best book I’ve read on disciplining children is called "Setting Limits With Your Strong Willed Child: Eliminating Conflict by Establishing Clear, Firm and Respectful Boundaries" by Robert Mackenzie. Unlike many self help books which give you laundry lists of things to change (and equal numbers of opportunities to fail to change), this offers a simple re-framing of the problem that helps parents stop being so angry at their rebellious or stubborn child.

Mackenzie points out that our kids are hardwired to figure out how things work in the world — no surprise there. But one of the things they try to figure out is how we, their parents, are going to relate to them. Of most interest to children is the question of what parents are going to do when the child wants one thing, and the parents want another. This makes sense: when we are happy to let our child play on the iPad, there’s no effort required on the part of the child. But when we tell them they’ve had enough screen time, all kinds of questions come up: “Are my parents determined to take away the iPad? If they can be persuaded, what’s the best method? Would a temper tantrum convince them? What about tears? Whining? Bargaining? Sneakiness — pretending to accept their decision and then grabbing the iPad when they’re not looking?”

Some children aren’t very curious. In effect, they say to themselves “My parents have made their decision, so it’s time to move on and find some other way of entertaining myself.” Lucky indeed are the parents of such a child.

Most children are more inclined to do some research before accepting the parental decision. They might try the temper tantrum to see if we will reverse our position. Or perhaps wail inconsolably. They might try different tactics on us versus our partner, or try to set us against our partner. (“Mummy always lets me — why are you so mean?”)

As parents, we usually see this behavior as ‘bad’ and will often punish it. We become frustrated or angry with our child for not listening, for being naughty, rebellious or disobedient. We try to stamp out the behavior, but unfortunately, we’re sometimes too stressed or exhausted or embarrassed — so we just give in.

And when we give in, our child’s research question has been answered. Given enough tears/temper/whining/bargaining/etc. we will give in, at least in some circumstances. This is a fascinating discovery from the point of view of our child. We control many aspects of their lives, and the knowledge that sometimes they don’t have to take no for an answer is exciting and empowering.

Sadly for we parents, our child’s knowledge that “sometimes I don’t have to take no for an answer” is highly reinforcing. The key word is “sometimes”. Psychologists have shown that animals (yes, that includes your child) will eventually give up on a behavior if that behavior isn’t rewarded. But you don’t need to reward that behavior very often to ensure it continues. Once in a long while is enough. So when we resist giving in to a temper tantrum a dozen times in a row, but then give in on number 13, we assure ourselves of at least another dozen or two temper tantrums. This is called intermittent reinforcement, and it’s very powerful. Just notice how the occasional win can sustain gamblers through devastating losses.

So by giving in to bad behavior we’ve just taught our child that such behavior gets rewarded, and encouraged them to persist in that bad behavior through intermittent reinforcement. But our child’s research efforts don’t end at this point. There are an endless variety of situations and behaviors to investigate, and our child — if they’re very curious — will test many of them. And as they get older, what used to persuade us no longer does, or isn’t appropriate anymore. The screams of a toddler give way to outright defiance of a teenager. But in each case they’re — entirely unconsciously — asking “Can I get my own way?”

So the first takeaway from this is that when our children behave badly when we say no, it’s not because they are rebellious, difficult, naughty, badly behaved brats. Rather, it’s because they are efficient, hardworking, curious researchers who are investigating the key question in their short existence: “Who runs my life?”

Keeping this in mind is important because it can take away some of the emotion inherent in situations where we’re in conflict with our child. When we’re faced with offspring who are crying, or screaming, or shouting that they hate us, or refusing to do what we want, or all of the above and more, we have a choice. We can take their behavior personally and become angry and frustrated, wondering what we’ve done to deserve this hellion. Or we can remember that our child is investigating their world, and experimenting to find out how committed we are to what we’ve asked of them.

The second takeaway is that it is important for us not to give in to bad behavior; it doesn’t take frequent slip ups on this point to ensure that our child’s behavior is reinforced. Of course, that’s easier said than done: we all get tired, or embarrassed or overwhelmed and we surrender to our child’s will of iron (or lungs of iron as the case may be.) But there’s nothing to stop us from saying “You get your way this time, but tomorrow, when I have my energy back, you’re going to find out that there’s a consequence for your behavior.” Follow through on that, and you will have sidestepped any intermittent reinforcement.