Man and Boy sit on bench with arms around shoulders

Setting Limits on Holidays – Part 3: Stepping in

Our kids were playing happily in the pool, but suddenly things get nasty and one child is hitting another.  In Part 1, we talked about why this happens: for some reason, feelings have taken over the play and your child has lost their sense of connection.

How can you prevent this from happening, and what can you do to help your children get along with one another?

Step 1: Special Time

In Part 2, we talked about Special Time – a one-adult-to-one-child play time. Done regularly, thisMother enjoys child playing doctor - firl is inspecting her mother's ear will help bolster your child’s sense of connection with you, which may help to keep relations friendly between your children. Sometimes, also, you can offer a short Special Time in the moment, a kind of emergency “connection injection” – as a way of interrupting off-track behaviour. This might just bring things back into harmonious balance.

But often, we need to intervene more actively, firmly and, most especially, warmly.  We have to set a limit on unworkable play, or fighting.  When we do this, we can help our children resolve the underlying feelings which have come up and which are driving off-track behaviour.

Step 2: Stop hoping it won’t happen again.

We parents are so hopeful!  Unfortunately, it’s often misplaced.  Mother distracted from work by children playing We are so tempted to indulge in hoping that what has happened every other time will not happen again. I know we are tired, and we just want a break, but when we do this, we give away our power.  Our kids tend to “blow up” predictably, but we are caught on the back foot because we didn’t see it coming – or were on the other side of the pool looking at our phone.

Step 3: Run a Friendly Patrol

Instead, if your children are tending to erupt into bickering or blows, you’ll want to start routinely running a “Friendly Patrol”. You stay close – not too close, and not giving directions or instructions or corrections.  But you’ll want to be close enough that you can pick up the escalating tone, or catch that mean glint in the eye when things are starting to get rocky between your kids.  When you do catch it – as soon as you see a hint of trouble – we recommend you interrupt the hurtful behaviour  by “bringing the limit”.

Step 4: The nuts and bolts of limit setting

There are some things which are important to understand as you move in to help your children when things have got tense between them.

  • Bring the Limit

    It won’t work to try to control or direct things from the other side of the room (or the other side of the pool, in this case). Man on bench gently grasps small child to stop them from walking off end of benchI know you are needing a holiday too. I understand that feeling, to the bottom of my bones! But your kids need you really close-by and paying full attention, or it’s going to get nasty. You’ll need to intervene, physically if necessary, to stop the hurtful behaviour. You do as little as possible to stop it, but you are right there as it starts to unfold. You do this without harshness or criticism or blame. You do it as warmly and as simply as possible.

  • Don’t appeal to reason

    There’s no point appealing to reason. It’s probably not going to work to call out “Now! Be nice to your brother!” Right now, your child’s capacity for reason is out the door. He’s full feelings. He can’t hear you, or make sense of, or care about, what you are saying. Even if he does hear you, his feelings are driving him, not this capacity for good sense.

  • Five words or less

    Hand with five fingers - Limit Setting, Five Words or LessWhen bringing a limit, that you use five words or less. Once you are saying much more than “I won’t let you do that, sweetheart.” (which is seven words!) you will probably have shifted to appealing to your child’s sense of reason. Adding “because…” is a mistake. Save the explanations for a chat at another time, if necessary, when feelings are not flaring. But you may find you never need to have that chat. He already knows that he shouldn’t hit his brother. He just can’t remember that right now.

  • Limit Early

    Move in early. Don’t wait until one of them is holding the other in a too-tight hold around the neck, or pushing him into the pool.  And don’t wait to bring the limit until you have lost your patience.  Much better to move in early, warmly and firmly than to move in late, loud and harsh.

  • Try Playfulness

    Smiling man chases young boy who is laughing. They are having gun.You might be able to head things in a better direction with a playful intervention. “I bet you can’t push me into the pool. Its going to take the whole lot of you, working together, I reckon!” And then offer just enough resistance to give them a good struggle, but make sure they win. If you draw the aggression onto yourself,  and somehow get them to gang up on you, most often their enmities are laid aside as they band together to outwit you. Their Laughter is a good sign that you have the balance right.  Laughter connects people, and releases emotional tensions (fears, to be specific, which are often at the root of aggressive behaviour).  And chasing games are one of the easiest ways to get this kind of laughter going, if you are stuck for ideas!

  • Warmly, but firmly, stop the behaviour

    Sometimes, however, things are sitting too tight for fun-and-games to work. When is like this, you need to be close, gently wrap an arm around him, and tell him you are not going to let him push his brother. You may not need to say much more (remember: five words or less).

  • You are the Safety Manager

    Odd as it sounds, your intervention, whether it brings laughter or an outburst of strongLife buoy on a hook near water emotion, will serve to connect him again with what he knows is right. But in the middle of the upset, don’t expect your child to be able to keep things safe.  The fact that you need to bring a limit has already told you that your child is in his “feeling mind” not his “thinking mind”. At this moment, he may not be able to notice or care about the things that will keep everyone safe. That’s your job. If someone gets hurt, it is your job to apologise: “Sorry honey – I didn’t get there fast enough to stop you from getting hurt.” Later, once the strong feelings have been dealt with, you may be able to have a conversation about safety – but chances are, your child already knows all this but can’t care about it when he’s upset – the motto is “If he could, he would”.

  • Hold the limit

    Mother puts out hand on television remote control to limit television timeIf your child can’t comply, then you may need to hold the limit. Don’t assume that just because you brought the limit, that your child will suddenly co-operate.  You aren’t trying to appeal to reason, so you shouldn’t assume that reason will kick in straightaway and your child will “do the right thing”.  There is a process that needs to be worked through, and in order to help that along, you may need to hold the limit and be prepared for some emotions to flare up along the way (hopefully, these will be your child’s big feelings releasing, not yours (-;

    If it doesn’t look like your child can “feel” the limit, you may need to “bring it closer” and hold it there.   For instance, the first layer of limit setting might be a request: from nearby you might say “Honey, you need to stop”. If that doesn’t work, then you might kneel down beside the edge of the pool and put your hand on his shoulder.  If that doesn’t work, you might need to get in the pool between your kids…)

  • Expect upsets

    Boy Crying - by Marco Nedermeijer tears, tantrums and laughter release feelingsWhen you move in this way, your child will often object strongly, and start to cry or rage. And it’s likely that he will rage AT you.  At this point, you’ll be doing him a big favour if you can decide not to take it personally.  Take heart: he doesn’t mean it and it will pass; and you are better able to handle the nastiness than his little brother is.

In fact, the feeling that erupts when you bring a limit is exactly the feeling that has him wanting to push his brother into the pool in the first place.  Stay warm and close, don’t argue but quietly insist that you will not let him push his brother.

Somehow in the past, he ‘caught” that feeling from some stressful experience – you don’t really need to worry about what or where. You just need to help him with it now. The depth and strength of the feelings that are pouring out of him now will reflect how deeply the feelings went in, and the depth of his trust in you.

This trust has been built through your regular Special Time together. With Special Time, your child has regular opportunities to notice that you care about him, respect him, and love him. This provides the “credit” in your relationship that will keep things good between you when you have to step in to bring a limit. He will complain: “You are a horrible mummy. You always pick on me! It’s not fair, you never stop little brother from doing what he wants!” But in his heart of hearts, he knows you are on his side.

Over time, with this kind of help from you, your child will flare less frequently. Your children will play happily together for longer. And one day, you might actually get a holiday!

No need to go it alone

Madeleine loves to help: why not book a Free 20 Minute Consultation, and she can help direct you to the best resources and support.

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©2022 by Madeleine Winter

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