All parents know that as children develop, they go through stages were they particularly ‘test the boundaries’. During these stages, children often focus on testing out particular family expectations. Suddenly a daily task that caused no distress or grief whatsoever becomes the centre of vocal and angry objections. These ‘boundary testing’ times can be very stressful. You might wonder what you did to cause your child’s sudden anger and defiance, or you might be at a loss to know how to respond. How do you make both your expectations and your love abundantly clear? Well, I’m going to share how I handled a recent ‘boundary test’ with my daughter. You’ll get to see exactly how a real life parenting researcher handles it: not edited book-perfectly but as a human being in messy reality. Finally, I’ll distill my experience into some simple tips.
At the time of this ‘boundary test’ my daughter was two and a half and the testing centred on teeth brushing. In the past, teeth brushing hadn’t been an issue. It started with her responding to my requests to open her mouth by pursing her lips into a little O shape like a goldfish. I gave her the benefit of the doubt – perhaps she was experimenting, or being humorous? I played along, making different shapes with my mouth too until I got a wide enough mouth from her that I could slip the toothbrush in. This continued for several days, and I wondered: is this a passing game, or is she ramping up for a challenge? Sure enough, the challenge came. She refused, with anger and tears to open her mouth at all. In that first interaction I also gave her the benefit of the doubt – perhaps she was tired, or sickening for something. I didn’t back off altogether (that would have reinforced her tantrum) but I did lower my expectations to merely getting the toothbrush to touch her teeth at all, and I thanked her for letting me brush her teeth once that was achieved. I ended the interaction before it escalated. As time passed, it became clear that she wasn’t sick. The next time her teeth needed brushing there was another tantrum.
We were in the thick of a boundary test and this particular boundary, brushing teeth regularly, was one we couldn’t compromise on. I started by talking about the issue to the two other people who also brush her teeth, my husband and my mum. She was testing the boundary with everyone. We hatched a plan. We would need to be persistent, to weather the storm. We would also talk to her about why teeth needed to be brushed, not when we were actually trying to brush her teeth, but during the day when she was calm and happy. I knew that, for the next several days, teeth brushing could take an hour or more so I planned my day accordingly. As we enacted our plan, my husband and I ran into an unforeseen stumbling block. My daughter, already several minutes into full meltdown, yelled that she wanted daddy not mummy to brush her teeth. Of course, we had no issue with her choosing who she wanted to brush her teeth. But we could not respond to angry yelling lest we reinforced the tantrum. I said that we could do that if she asked in a normal voice, she did and I passed the toothbrush to my husband. Going forward we decided that we would give her every choice that we were happy to give at the very beginning of the interaction so that she couldn’t throw a reasonable request at us mid-tantrum. So now, before brushing her teeth we ask if she wants to have her turn first or second and we ask (if both of us are in the house), if she wants mummy or daddy to brush them.
So, what did being persistent and weathering the storm actually look like? I’d get her toothbrush and tell her that it was time to brush her teeth. I’d let her choose if she wanted to have her turn first or second, and, if my husband was in the house, if she wanted me or him to brush them. With her choices locked in, and once it was my turn to brush, I’d ask her to open her mouth wide. If she objected I’d say something like, ‘I know you don’t like it, but I have to do it to keep your teeth healthy’. If she still didn’t open her mouth I’d say something like, ‘We have to brush your teeth. I’ll wait until you are ready.’ I’d then sit silently near her. If she asked me to play or talked to me about something else I’d say something like, ‘I’d love to play with you. I need to brush your teeth first. As soon as your teeth are brushed we can play.’ Any objections or yelling I’d simply ignore. If she was clearly feeling sad or angry I’d say something like, ‘I can see you are feeling really sad about this. I can understand that but I still need to brush your teeth. If there’s some way I can help, like by giving you a hug, just let me know’. If she asked for a hug I’d give it. I would not, however, respond to the tantrum behaviour itself (hugging a child in response to tantruming may reinforce tantrum behaviour and it may also be unwelcome). In fact, I was silent most of the time. I actually said very little. I took deep breaths and kept myself calm and centred. I tried to project, with my stance, body language and facial expression that I was completely accepting of her and her feelings, that I loved and adored her exactly as she was… and I was going to keep patiently waiting, as long as it took, for her to be ready. Eventually, she’d open her mouth. I’d slip the toothbrush in and say something like, ‘Thank-you that’s a lovely big mouth. Let’s get rid of those germs and keep your teeth nice and strong’. I wouldn’t push it. Just getting the toothbrush in was enough at first. The first few storms that we weathered were big, long and emotional. Within a couple of days, they’d become short objections. Soon, teeth brushing returned to being easy.
So, how can you handle the next ‘boundary test’ by the children in your life?
- Start by giving the benefit of the doubt. Often children are just playing around, or tired, or getting sick.
- When suddenly confronted with ‘defiance’ it is okay to lower your standard to the bare minimum and get through an interaction without escalation. That way, you can wait and see what’s really happening and calmly think through how you’d like to respond.
- It isn’t about ‘winning’ an interaction. It is about shaping behaviour gradually with time. Let go of winning.
- Communicate with the other carers in your child’s life including your partner, family and childcare provider.
- Be flexible. Unexpected stumbling blocks are a part of life. It is okay to adapt your plan. If you are really uncertain, you can exit that particular interaction in order to give yourself time to think and get advice.
- Give your child every choice you can at the outset. Respect all reasonable requests.
- Explain why a particular expectation is necessary, at a time when everyone is calm and happy.
- If you know that persistence is necessary, then plan for it in your day.
- Be persistent in weathering the storm. Wait patiently.
- Ignore tantrum behaviours.
- Don’t play or interact until your child has done as you’ve asked. Let her know that’s what you are doing.
- Acknowledge your child’s emotions with acceptance and love.
- Don’t comfort in response to tantrum behaviours (firstly, that might reinforce tantruming and secondly, your child may well not want you to hug them when they are angry with you!). However, if your child is clearly distressed then you can say that you are willing to give a hug if asked. If your child asks for comfort it is fine to respond to their request with comfort (by doing so, you are reinforcing asking for comfort not tantruming – that’s a good thing!).
- Stay calm and loving (take deep breaths!).
- Say little.
- When your child does as you’ve asked, thank them.
- Don’t push it. Bare minimum is enough for now.
Apply it to your life: How do you handle ‘boundary testing’? Try out some of my tips with your child. What works for you?