no limits for a difficult child

Dear blogging nana,
I am a neighbor of a lovely family.  We have gotten along well for years, often visiting and even having dinner together.  They have 3 children now all under the age of 5.  Here’s the problem:  the second child seems to be totally out-of-control.  She has broken things here while visiting and responds with a tantrum at any attempt at making a limit.  The parents and I are probably equally stumped.  What do you think they should do?  What do you think I should do.
equally stumped from the plains.

Hello stumped,
Good questions.  Here’s my thoughts.  Of course children need limits. We need to make the limits not only so our lives with our children are fun but also because children need reasonable limits in order to make sense of their world and to have something to push against when there are heavy feelings to deal with [to be elucidated below].

The trick for most of us is setting limits firmly and kindly.  It’s tricky, I think, only because none of us experienced this kind of limit-setting when we were young.  Either the limits were wishy-washy or they were harsh.  And often they were both.

The second point is that children have a right to their feelings and a right to have someone close as they feel them.  So it might look like this. We say,  “No, you can’t throw that cup across the room, hon.”   You go over to the child and as gently as you can remove the cup and [maybe] the child.  And then you stay with the child as she struggles and cries and tantrums.  That’s healthy.   The child cannot really fully unload those tensions without both the firm limit and the closeness of the adult.

Just an aside, as the child is in the throes of this emotional release, don’t talk much.  Just reassure the child that you’ll stay close while she is feeling so bad.  This process often takes longer than we think.  But like most things it takes as long as it takes.

Which leads to another challenge–what to do when you’re out and about surrounded by disapproving adults–do the best you can!  If possible, bring the child to your car or a more private place.  If that’s not possible, try to give the adults around you a quick education, to wit, “My child just needs some time to unload some feelings; don’t we all need that sometimes?”

But a more important question for the writer is what should the writer do?  In general, I think the role of non-parents, especially older non-parents, is to support this new generation of parents.  This means different things for different people.  If the parents are open to information, share it.

Unfortunately, many parents, due to many factors, including the blame our society puts on parents when their children have struggles, interpret shared information as criticism of their parenting.  Parenting is so hard; it is such a heroic act just to stay in there [as Rosie MacDonnell said to her husband, if I didn’t kill them, I did my job].   Advice, even good advice, even advice that would make the parents’ lives easier, is more than they can bear.

I think that if the parents are in this second category, they probably need a long period of encouragement.  They also need listening.  They need someone to listen without advice or judgement so they can start thinking, without having to defend their position.  Then they can really assess what makes sense in raising their child.  Their initial conclusions might not make much sense to you, but if they can actually think, test their thinking and re-think, they’ll eventually move toward a more rational policy.  This takes time.

And last, I think you need to be exceedingly appreciative of yourself for whatever efforts, awkward or tentative, that you make in their direction.  For sure, young families need a huge amount of that kind of attention, mistakes and all.

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