Patty Wipfler [handinhandparenting.org] talks about “bringing the limit” to the child when they aren’t cooperating and can’t listen.
Patty calls this “off-track” as it’s a lot more accurate a term than “misbehavior” and “manipulation” and “bad behavior.” When children are “off track” we have to give up verbal prodding. When the child is off-track, they can’t think and they can’t process verbal instructions or demands. We parents [and grandparents and aunts and friends] need to move in physically to stop the irrational behavior with as little emotional charge as possible, and then listen. Be quiet, but pay attention, while the child reaches down inside herself to notice the feelings that drove her off track, bubbling up for emotional release with crying or laughter.
It’s “Listen, Limit, Listen.”
Listen: you listen to the whole situation for anywhere between a half-second to a minute or two, thinking, “Is my child off-track, or am I? Is a limit really needed here? Or does my child just need some information?”
Limit: if a limit is indeed needed, you bring the limit. You don’t announce it, you don’t stand back and say it and expect your child to cooperate. She can’t. You bring yourself, and the limit, and make the limit happen. You can do that with a big boisterous snuggle. You can do that with a hand on their hand, that’s ready to throw something at a sibling. You just reach in and stop the irrational action.
Listen: you stay and pay attention. There might be laughter, and you stay with that. There might be a tantrum or tears, and you stay with that. And this listening step is what takes the sting out of setting limits–your limit is firm, but your attention is theirs. They get you. Not the chance to throw blocks, or to eat another cookie, or to go to the movie that is rated PG13 that you don’t think will be good for them. They do get your warm, caring attention.
And bringing the limit is one of the things that makes our approach different from other approaches out there–we don’t expect a child who’s in the grip of feelings to suddenly care or respond to the things we say to them. We stop talking, and get to their side, with the gift of the limit. And we stay, and listen.