Boundaries, limits, and children’s challenging behavior within whole-person relationships

A child in a bike helmet on a playground makes an angry face

As parents and educators, we’ve been reflecting lately on parenting challenges we face in dealing with our children’s challenging behavior in a respectful and effective way that remains aligned with our values of supporting each child’s optimal whole-person development in the context of safe and secure attachment relationships. 

A child in a bike helmet on a playground makes an angry face | childcare early childhood education daycare louisville lafayette boulder colorado
Children don’t give us a hard time, they have a hard time

A challenging child versus challenging behavior

First and foremost, respectful interactions with children begin with how we view challenging behavior. Is the child giving us a hard time, or is the child having a hard time? Is a child “misbehaving,” or are they showing misguided behavior?

We believe that all human behavior is simply our best attempt to get our needs met based on our belief system and our development. A child’s challenging behavior can be reframed as their mistaken belief about how best to get their needs met. Remember, they’ve only been on the planet a few short years! Children are not simply miniature adults born knowing what is expected of them!

Let’s imagine a young child who is running laps around the kitchen, shrieking, dysregulated, and unable to listen to a verbal direction to, “please use walking feet.” Or, imagine they’re expressing big emotions that tonight’s dinner is pasta and sauce, rather than cookies and ice cream, and they’re taking it on toys or hands that want to hit or hurt. 

On the one hand, our culture has conditioned most of us to judge the child, with a label like disruptive, spoiled, whiny, or rude. These are all judgments that a child IS a certain way, rather than a child is engaging in a BEHAVIOR and is ACTING a certain way.

I know I certainly wouldn’t want to be labeled as being my own worst behavior in a moment when I’m personally feeling emotionally dysregulated- how about you? When we separate a child’s behavior from who they are, we can more easily see our own role in respectfully guiding children to build skills, practice expected behaviors, and learn what to do based on our modeling. 

When we model a whole-brain/whole-person approach, we can remember that children actively show us when they are not yet developmentally capable of managing their feelings, expressing their emotions in an adaptive way, and controlling their own behavior just yet. In fact, when a child is emotionally dysregulated, they literally can’t self-regulate and are fully reliant on an adult to co-regulate. Children are born with still-developing brains, and need time, maturation, and practice to be able to self-regulate. Children quite literally “borrow” the calm of a safe adult with whom they have a secure attachment relationship. We would never expect a newborn baby to self-soothe, yet we often expect that a toddler or preschool-aged child should be able to meet our expectations for acceptable behavior!

At the core of challenging behavior are the nuances between boundaries (the positive expectation of what is permissible to do), and limits (the negative prohibition of what not to do). Our relationships with our children strengthen when we set positive and enforceable boundaries over expected behavior by stating what we will do or how we will respond to a situation. 

Empowerment versus Power-Over: Are power struggles really necessary?

Healthy and effective boundaries often replace the need to impose control over what another may or may not do and engage in an unnecessary power struggle with our child. Power struggles with toddlers or teenagers are far from the ideal relationship dynamics we hope to nourish with our children as parents!In fact, while children are young, it is usually true that we can over-power children and win the power struggle, though this often happens at the cost of our “relationship bank account.”

However, winning a power struggle with a teenager is far less likely, because the power of our influence rests in the strength of our relationship with our child. We believe that as parents, we best help children thrive when we seek to empower them to know what to do, rather than exert power-over them to control their behavior. 

Dealing with “Challenging Children”: When possible, enforce a boundary over imposing a limit.

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Whenever a boundary can replace a limit, the outcome tends to lead to more pro-social, cooperative behavior.  No matter our age, none of us enjoy being told what to do! We would all rather exercise our own autonomy to make an independent and informed decision within the acceptable and expected parameters. Offering choices, and giving away control to our children in ways that work for all of us helps children practice social skills and behaviors and build an empowered self-concept.

As parents, life often goes more smoothly with young children when we set and enforce clear boundaries as much as possible. A boundary relates to our own actions and actually has little to do with what another does or does not do. This can look like simply using an “I” to describe the behavior we will do in response to a situation and then follow through. For example, “this loud noise hurts my ears, I’m going to walk into the living room for a few minutes so that I feel calm,” or “I will put on music after you are buckled into your car seat”. 

Set limits around safety and respect

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Boundaries do not equal permissiveness or lack of expectations for behavior! Our roles require discernment about when to use boundaries and when to use limits. With young children, it is also critical that we set clear limits around anything to do with safety or respect. I.e. “I’m not going to let you hit the dog. Do you need me to help you keep your hands safe by holding you, or should we find a stuffy that is okay to hit?” and for adults to not allow an unsafe behavior.

It is our job to keep children safe, even if they don’t like our stopping an unsafe behavior! But we can still stop unsafe behavior, set limits respectfully, offer choices, or redirect unwanted behavior in ways that align with positive relationships with our children.

Dealing with “Challenging Children”: A holistic approach to child development and challenging behavior 

To connect behavior to emotional regulation, often, children express challenging behavior because they can’t yet overcome their own impulses. Again, children don’t give us a hard time, they have a hard time, especially when challenging behavior shows us that they can’t yet access optimal thinking and decision-making capacities.

A child struggling with challenging behavior has mistaken beliefs about how to best get their needs met and relies on integrated adults to encourage a more effective way to meet the need by deeply attuning to the needs behind the behavior. All behavior is a communication attempt to get a need met, and the role of effective adults is to discover the underlying need being addressed through the behavior and seek to support the child to develop a positive replacement behavior in a way that strengthens, rather than damages our relationship. 

Integrated children rely on integrated adults

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Struggling children need our help in the form of appropriately embodied adult authority in setting limits and boundaries, and in sharing our own state of whole-brain integration as adults. This can actually allow us to be most effective in encouraging the kinds of behaviors we’d like to see instead.

When children struggle with big feelings and challenging behavior, it is often because their developing brains are not yet able to independently self-regulate and self-integrate. Young children need adults to keep them safe by limiting unsafe behavior, especially when they can not (yet). We wouldn’t expect them to be safe around a hot stove or a busy street by our spoken words alone; we actively help them stay safe.

When a child is dysregulated and does not have the capacity to engage in helpful, pro-social behaviors, they are demonstrating needing guidance (discipline, or instruction) in an acceptable way to express their feelings via appropriate behavior. Our goal is to support children to build self-leadership skills to get their needs met in a more socially adaptive, skillful, and positive way. Limits, or the knowledge that an adult will appropriately interfere keep a child safe, plus the co-regulation of an adult within the context of a safe and secure attachment relationship, support the mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing of a child.

Children rely on the enforcement of healthy boundaries within which they effectively learn to make positive choices. Children rely on limits to say safe, keep others safe, and demonstrate respect for themselves, others, and property. To the extent possible, children also benefit when we can offer choices as much as possible, or validate the real experience that children may not like the limits we set.

For example, “It looks like you do not want to get into the car seat.” That’s not a choice. “Would you like to climb into your car seat yourself, or would you like me to help you into your car seat?” The presumptive close is another great tip to use with choices: “After you buckle into your car seat, would you like to listen to classical music or jazz in the car?”

Dealing with “Challenging Children”: Boundaries help children feel safe and thrive in the long run

Boundaries are like a backyard fence- within healthy established boundaries, a child has the freedom to move and experiences safety and security- their freedom to explore and push the margins exists within the safe confines of a firm container. But without a boundary, children experience anxiety- it is emotionally terrifying and unsettling for a young child to have too much power. 

Healthy limits and boundaries create safety and structure that is neither overly permissive nor authoritarian/punitive. Healthy boundaries are an appropriate application of our authority as adults, and in the long run, lead to far greater levels of cooperation from our children. Plus, our relationship stays intact!

Our goal is to optimally encourage and inspire the behaviors we want to see as much as possible through modeling. This demonstrates respect for both adult and child, rather than wielding our authority over children because of our position of hierarchical domination. 

We all share the ultimate goal of wanting to support children to thrive and be successful in life. Our objective in all discipline, or teaching, is to empower children with the skills and intrinsic motivation to know what to do.

As parents, we’re playing the long game. While it is our responsibility to ensure the health and safety of children today, we also want them to mature into positive, adaptive, and skillful thoughts, feelings, and behaviors for the rest of their lives. We do this through the impact of our safe and secure attachment relationships. The power of our influence likes within the strength of our relationships. 

Setting boundaries and limits with children is an appropriate embodiment of our authority with children, but we build positive relationships with children intentionally and respectfully. 

Here are a few simple ways to support the long-term cultivation of positive relationships with children:

  • Make deposits into their emotional “love bank” by simply “noticing” or affirming your child with a wave, shared hand signal, a smile, or words of affirmation
  • Strive for a ratio of about 5:1 positive to negative interactions (most limits can actually be re-worded into a positive statement)
  • Seek to give children attention when they are engaging in any sort of positive, appropriate behavior that you’d like to see more of. (i.e., begin by affirming & praising that you noticed the child picked up their shoes!). Give a high-five or enthusiastic and affirming thumbs-up instead of, or ideally at least before, the correcting feedback that they may have not yet remembered to pick up their backpack, jacket, hat, and water bottle off of the floor too!
  • Active listening- give your children your full attention, and respond with your facial expressions, words, and body language
  • Avoid test questions or questions that have a clear right or wrong answer. Instead, ask curiosity questions that result in a back-and-forth relational exchange. Our goal is to empower children to do the thinking and learn how to think rather than tell them what to think

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