Emotional Regulation and Children, Part 2: Boundaries and Tantrums

Very angry child with long hair and rabbit ear costume sits on floor with arms crossed, glaringConsidering the outpouring of support and positive feedback I’ve received since my last article, “Emotional Regulation and Children: Tips for Caregivers,” I thought I would continue with a theme of parental support and tips. My job, as a child and family therapist, is to offer support and assistance to parents as they learn to manage their emotions and responses to children while also helping them teach their children how to self-regulate.

The Importance of Boundaries

One of the most important aspects of helping children, adolescents, and even adults manage their own emotions is helping them understand boundaries and their importance. Boundaries are a touchy subject for a lot of people. When talking about boundaries in sessions, I often hear the assumption that boundaries mean hard rules, “mean” rules, or that they are designed to create distance between two or more people.

But the wonderful thing about boundaries is, while there are indeed some general principles for them, the ways we utilize them are individual and unique to each situation and/or the people involved. An even more wonderful thing about boundaries? They’re easy to use and implement, even with young children. That being said, let’s explore a few techniques that are useful for handling common parenting difficulties while simultaneously supporting little children and their big emotions.

Everyone likes some degree of control, even children. As children learn to navigate the world, figure out their role in life, and learn just what they have power over, they’re going to want to show you they are in control. As this assertion of control often means refusals to listen or follow directions, it can be difficult for parents to navigate.

Take, for example, a morning battle I hear of many parents having with their young, school-age children: what to wear to school. Say your child wants to want to wear their Halloween costume or a tutu over jeans with flip-flops and a poncho, but you want them to wear something more appropriate for school or play. To navigate this struggle, I suggest implementing a boundary that allows the child control within a limitation. Allow them a choice of three outfits you picked. Will they love that? They might not, but it allows them control within reason. If they fight you, the ensuing dialogue could go something like this:

Parent: You can choose from one of these three outfits.

Child: No, I don’t want to wear any of those! I want to wear my costume!

P:  I know you do. It’s a fun and cool costume, and I’m sure you feel very tough and important in it, but you have to pick one of these.

C: WHY?

P: Because sometimes we need to wear things we don’t want to. You know, I would love to wear pajamas to work, but my boss expects me to wear nice clothes. Even though you love this costume, it isn’t Halloween, and it will make it difficult for you to sit properly in class or play at recess. Your teacher and friends will all be dressed in school clothes, and so you need to wear school clothes, too.

C: I don’t want to!

P: I know you don’t, and I see this is hard for you to understand, and that you are frustrated with me for making this rule. But I’m not going to change my mind, so let me know when you decide which of these three outfits you’d like to wear.

By setting a boundary, you are helping your child become familiar with the discomfort and frustration of being told no and learn how to manage this frustration in a healthy and productive way.

By responding in this way, you are setting a solid boundary. Your child learns you will enforce the rule and not change your mind, but also that you understand their frustration with the rule—potentially a rule they have not yet encountered. Though the measure of control they have in the situation may not be ideal, they also learn they still do have the power to make a decision on their own and master the situation, within a certain limitation. This is an important skill for children to learn. By setting a boundary, you are also helping your child become familiar with the discomfort and frustration of being told no and learn how to manage this frustration in a healthy and productive way.

Managing Tantrums

Another common challenge faced by parents and children is learning how to manage tantrums. All of us who spend time around children are likely aware of and dread the “terrible T,” the complete, full-body meltdown that leaves both parent and child exhausted, emotional, and often without a solution.

Everyone handles tantrums differently, but I tend to model them for families as follows:

Child: I don’t want to leave the playground. I don’t want dinner! (Child may begin to cry.)

Parent: I know you don’t want to leave. I can see you are having a very good time playing with your friends, but we have to go home and have dinner.

C: NO! (Your child may say they hate you, hit you, or spit, etc.)

P: Oh, wow. I can see you’re upset and angry at me for making us leave. Is that how you feel right now?

C: Yes.

P: I understand, and it’s okay if you’re mad at me. I still love you very much. But listen, we can’t hit people, ok?  Hands are for petting puppies and giving high fives. If you’re going to hit me when it’s time to come home, then we can’t come to the park anymore.

(Child may continue to cry.)

It’s common for children to fight harder when a boundary or limit is put into place. Adults do the same thing. I encourage caregivers to, at this point, get down on the child’s level, hold them close, and show them as much love as they would if the child was behaving well. My philosophy is children need love the most when they are acting their worst.

Here you might say and do the following:

Parent: Okay, Jimmy, let me come down there and give you a big bear hug. Let me help you calm down. Let’s take a big, deep breath, ok? I see how upset you are, and I’m so sorry you’re feeling so many things right now. I know it’s hard to leave, I really do, and you’re being so strong right now.

By this point I find the child has often calmed enough to listen and look you in the eyes—here is where you can get them to hear you, because they know you understand and hear them. You could give them a choice, as in the first example: you might allow them to choose which way to walk home or let them pick dinner if they are able to contain themselves appropriately.

I encourage parents not to pick their child up and put them in the car mid-tantrum, because not only does this tend to create more distress and upset, it rarely ends productively. Sometimes 15 extra minutes at the park, a validating conversation, and some patience goes a long way for you and your child.

An important step in the management of tantrums is validation of the feelings the child is experiencing. Little children have the same feelings we do, but they not only experience them much more intensely and ferociously than adults do, they also lack an adequate understanding of how to manage them. When loving caregivers apply boundaries and limitations in a safe, consistent, and fair way, children learn they will survive the emotional upset and begin to develop the ability to master difficult and unfamiliar experiences.

Learning to apply these boundaries and limitations while validating your child’s feelings is a process that takes practice and consistency. A qualified therapist can help, if you are unsure of where to begin or otherwise having difficulty. Whatever you do, don’t give up!

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Heather Zawislak, MA, LCSW, therapist in Garden City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 6 comments
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  • Marell

    Marell

    August 21st, 2017 at 7:18 AM

    The hardest thing that parents ever have to do is tell a young child no… but that’s part of being a parent and being good parent. If not for us then the boundaries and expectations for behavior will not ever be set, and then you have a group of entitled feeling kids who never think that they have to mind or do anything that anyone tells them to do. I know that it isn’t fun, but sometimes there doesn’t have to be a reason behind it other than I told you to do it, so do it.

  • Eva

    Eva

    August 23rd, 2017 at 2:11 PM

    My brother and sister in law drive me crazy because there are no boundaries whatsoever for my nieces. What they say goes and whatever they want to do, they do it, no consequences to their actions. I know I am not the mom but it seems to me that all children need some rules and boundaries, they want that kind of structure in their lives whether they know that or not. It is up to the adults in the family to establish those and be the rule setters and the teachers for goodness sake. I try when they are with me, but I only have them about one day a week. I am outnumbered on the other days.

  • roger

    roger

    August 24th, 2017 at 2:31 PM

    If they are never taught those boundaries when they are in a safe and loving home environment what happens when they don’t know how to react or behave in the real world where a loving environment is not quite so forthcoming?

  • Morgan

    Morgan

    August 24th, 2017 at 9:50 PM

    My 8 year old step daughter throws these awful tantrums over the simplest things like how her dad ties her shoes but these tantrums have stages. And these stages progress so fast. She screams her head off so loud you cant get a word in edge wise and there is nothing you can do to calm her down. Then she will start to pack or throw stuff. Once she sets her mind to something she is stubborn you cant change it. Her last stage is thrashing herself around and if you try to stop her or pick her up or anything she uses it against you and accuses you of hurting her. She will tell the next adult that she was abused by you to get you in trouble. I need advise and i need it fast. I have a counselor lined up. I am researching on what to do next. The school is informed and has seen first hand what she does and she has tried to get a teacher in trouble for supposedly hurting her when i was right there. My fear is she is going to lie to the wrong person and i am going to end up losing my children or go to jail or something or her dad is going to end up in jail or lose his other kids. I just dont know what to do. Ive suggested walks for frustration or writing or drawing pictures in a journal to show her feelings. I guess according to her family she has always been like this and has never gotten away with it but refuses to learn from it. What else can i do?

  • Heather

    Heather

    August 25th, 2017 at 8:57 AM

    Morgan – It sounds like your family is going through a lot of stress right now! Tantrums can be so challenging. I’m glad to hear that you are getting support from a counselor and that your child’s school is informed. I can’t say exactly how to handle this particular situation since I am not working with you one on one, but with lying and manipulation especially around allegations of abuse you know are false, I always recommend a serious conversation between family and the child about lying and the consequences of saying someone hurt them when they did not and how that could affect the person being accused (within developmental appropriate limits – I would never threaten a child with a parent going to jail). I think having a supportive counselor and therapist will be a big help to you going forward, best of luck!!

  • gabby

    gabby

    August 28th, 2017 at 3:30 PM

    Part of kids learning who they are and the boundaries that you or may not have established is via acting out and then seeing who is going to call them on it. If they are allowed to behave that way and still get what they were aiming for, then of course this is only going to encourage them to continue with that behavior. I mean it makes perfect sense if you think about it. The tantrum itself may not be fun but in the end if they are still being rewarded for bad behavior then there is no incentive for them to stop.

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