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When Setting Limits Gets Physical

What to do when your child can't manage an important limit or transition.

Key points

  • Sometimes the only way to ensure a limit is enforced or a transition is made is by physically handling your child.
  • This can feel like "manhandling" and very uncomfortable, but when done calmly and without anger, it is often the most loving response.

Time to tackle a thorny issue: What to do when your child is not cooperating with an important limit or transition—a “have-to"—and the only way to ensure that the limit is enforced or that the transition is made is by physically handling her.

For example, when your child: refuses to get out of the pool; sits down in the middle of the parking lot in protest because you wouldn't get her the unicorn at Target; is being unsafe and destructive and won't voluntarily go to the calm-down corner; or, keeps coming out of her room at bedtime.

Many parents I have talked to recently are uncomfortable with "manhandling" their child. It feels forceful and harsh, understandably.

Since my job is to help parents thread this seemingly elusive needle of staying calm and connected, while also maintaining clear limits and boundaries to keep their children safe and help them learn to adapt to life's limits and expectations, I have had to grapple with how to best handle these very tense moments. Here is where I have landed.

The first, and most foundational, question I ask myself is: in this specific situation at hand, what do the parents control, and what do they not control?

What you decidedly do not control is your child. You can't make her: agree to get out of the pool, to get up from the parking lot and into the car seat, or voluntarily go to and stay in the calm-down space. Focusing on trying to change a child's behavior in these moments rarely works, and often backfires, increasing the child's protest and dysregulation (a phenomenon I have written about recently and extensively on my blog). It also leaves the outcome in the child's hands.

What if the tactics to get your child to cooperate—threats, bribes/rewards, coaxing, using logic—don't work and your child persists? This is a recipe for a lot of anger, frustration, and escalation that is detrimental to both parent and child. (Three-year-old refuses to stay in room at lights-out. At their wits end, parents threaten to take away her doll/lovey if she doesn't stay in bed. Said child retrieves not just her lovey, but scoops up all the dolls in her room and hands them to her dad.)

Instead of focusing on what you don’t control, focus on what you do control—yourself, and the situation—and what you can do to enforce the limit or help your child make a difficult transition. Sometimes this means physically intervening—picking up your thrashing child, or a heavy, wet noodle—to secure him safely in a car seat or ensure he is in a space where he can calm down and not be hurtful or destructive.

The big differential is in the way this is done.

One typical scenario plays out something like this. The parent shouts and threatens, "That's it, if you don't get out of the pool right now there will be no books at bedtime and we will not be coming back to the pool!", as the parent angrily and harshly grabs her child from the pool. This approach is shaming and likely escalates the battle.

Here’s the alternative: You calmly say, "I can see you're having a hard time following the direction to come out of the pool (despite all the warnings you have given). I know you don't want to get out because it's so much fun and it never seems like enough time. But we need to get home for dinner. I am going to help you as gently as possible", and then you do just that, as calmly as you can. You don't react to the protests, flailing, etc, You remind yourself you have a great kid who is just having a hard time ending a fun activity. She needs your help, not anger or threats, to move on. This is loving.

Ultimately, I ask myself, what's the alternative? Leaving the outcome in the child's hands? Parents feeling helpless to keep their child safe or get them over a difficult hurdle? Parents angry, resentful, having very negative feelings toward their children? These outcomes seem much more detrimental.

If you decide to take this approach, talk with your child in advance—in a calm, not heat-of-the, moment—about what the plan will be for difficult situations like these. "Harper, you love playing in the pool so much which is great! So when it's time to leave, it's really hard and disappointing. I totally understand and don't expect you to be happy about it. Why would you want to stop doing a fun activity? To help you, I'll give you a warning so you can think about what you want to do with your last five minutes. We can also brainstorm ways to make it easier for you to come out. (This you can do with kids about 2 1/2 to 3 and older.) And you will always have two great choices: you can get out on your own if you want to be in charge of your body. But if that's too hard, I will be a helper and get you out as gently and calmly as I can. That may feel uncomfortable to both of us, but getting out when time is up is a have-to. (This is important to state because often kids will start shouting, "You're hurting me!", when you are being firm but not harmful, which is both very triggering and also mortifying when you are in public.)

The great news is you get to decide how it happens—whether you do it or I do it." Then, in the heat-of-the moment, you don't need to use a lot of language which usually just increases the child's upset. When she ignores or outright defies your direction, you can just say: "No problem, I'll be a helper," and she knows exactly what that means.

You can have this discussion about any plan you make for challenges you come up against over and over with your child: leaving preschool, staying in the bedroom after lights out, times when her body acts before her brain and she is being unsafe. You show all the empathy in the world about the big feelings she has in those moments, and here is how you are going to help her get through it safely.