Being a Confident Leader: Setting Limits With Empathy

Being a confident leader is vital for our children if we are wanting to use discipline to guide them to develop their own self-control. When we think of confident leaders in our own lives, someone who flies off the handle at every misdemeanor is not an image we would typically conjure nor is someone who shies away from conflict, lest we hurt someone’s feelings. A confident leader is a balance between these two images and is something that, as an emerging respectful parent, has taken me some time to get my head around.

Being a Confident Leader

To set a limit with confidence over sternness and understanding over anger takes practise. It often requires us to reflect on the limit we are setting to consider why we are setting it and how firm we are on it. This varies from household to household and is largely based on our values. Sometimes we must set a limit because we are looking after our own needs ie. Not letting a child pull all the washing off the line just after it was hung up. A limit might also be set for a safety reason (the child’s, another person’s or an object’s safety). It could be that a limit is set because it is kinder to the child that we make that decision for them because at that time, they are not able to make a decision that is in anyone’s best interest. When we have this understanding in mind, it is easy to be confident setting it.

One example might be that I am going to strap my two year old into her stroller because she is having a hard time staying safe on our walk to the store. She is upset about this but I am confident in holding the limit and helping her into her seat because I know I am making a good parenting decision for her safety. I also recognise her perspective and feelings about my parenting decision and accept the feelings and even the fight that she is putting up against my limit. She is entitled to have those feelings and express them to me. I will stay firm on my limit.

So, how might setting a limit with confidence play out? Here is an example from a time my 3.5 year old daughter was being particularly uncooperative after a day at Kindy. She was tired after a long day and had a lot of strong feelings to share with me about her day away. In this instance she was objecting to having a shower (or a bath) and I was able to be there for her to set the limits she needed to get through the process and get to bed. The emotions that ensued were ultimately very therapeutic and connecting for us both.

Setting the limit

When setting limits, it is important to choose words wisely and use a tone that is matter-of-fact and unwavering, yet loving and kind. A child can still be given some autonomy in the limit setting by offering acceptable choices within the limit. This shows you understand and at the same time lets the child know your expectations. Becoming flustered at rattled in the interaction gives a child too much power over you and your feelings. This power puts the child in a very uncomfortable position as they would rather know that they can be handled by their caregivers, no matter how out of themselves they become.

Helping my daughter into the shower was what she needed. She couldn’t not have a shower as she was filthy from playing in the mud and had significant portions of the paint pot over much of her body. I knew she was tired and emotional, but I knew I was making the best parenting decision I could in that moment to find the shortest path to sleep possible whilst listening to her feelings. I knew that waiting patiently for her emotions to pass to put her in the shower would only delay the inevitable.

I acknowledged through her screams of protest, “It’s hard to have a shower after a long day at Kindy!” somewhat matching her intensity rather than staying robotically calm. I compromised: “You can stand on the edge and I will wipe the paint and mud off you with the washer.” She couldn’t rationalise though, she objected to everything. She swiped the washer from my outstretched hand.

It was clear she was not in a state to be able to cooperate . We could have listened to her protests and left her as she requested; this was certainly what she was screaming for, but when setting limits with empathy and acceptance, we recognise that these screams of angst are not what is really being screamed for.

If she could have translated her screams into rational thought, I might have heard something like “Please help me, Mum, I am losing control. I am tired and I’ve had such a big day. I missed you and I fell down once and George took the last blue cup and it was so hard. I can’t make my body cooperate now and I need you to take over. I need you to love me and do what you know is best for me. Please don’t make me do this alone by leaving me.”

And, really, moments like this, respectful discipline becomes the ultimate connecting tool. Allowing her to share her feelings with me and being able to be in that moment with her, helping her and being her loving parent after a day apart, is what makes those bonds between us strong.

So, I took over with deliberate gentleness, in an unrushed way, allowing her feelings. “Thank you for letting me know you need my help. I will start by gently wiping your feet… Now I will rub the paint off your arms etc.” Despite her screams of protest she did not fight against me.

Afterwards, we made our way to her room to get her dressed for bed. She wouldn’t wear what was waiting for her on her bed but also wouldn’t choose any herself. She had more to share and she was becoming more tired. She was stalling, whining and even stumbling around the room. She was losing control and needed a strong, confident leader.

I took over again. I explained that I could see what a hard time she was having and that I would now dress her. I took out some bed clothes and invited her to help put her legs through the holes. She protested strongly; kicking, swiping and shouting that she wanted to do it. I kept my cool. She needed this from me.

She was in such a state that she was incapable of moving forward at this point. I could hear her protests but at the same time, I recognised that my actions were coming from a genuine place of empathy. If I didn’t do this for her, she was going to feel worse. What she needed was to be free to protest and express her feelings and for her head to be on her pillow as soon as possible and I was the one who could get her to the place the fastest.

She pressed herself into the corner trying to get away from me. I acknowledged once more: “You wish you could dress yourself! Yeah, I hear that! It’s hard for you tonight. I am here for you and I will help you.”

She screamed again, “I want to choose my PJs!” shimmying further into the corner. I sat with her patiently and lovingly. I let her know through my words and my tone that I could feel her angst but I forged forwards with confidence. I told her I would put her clothes on for her and explained that I would need to hold her to do this if she was not able to help me.

I moved towards her and held out the first arm of her shirt to put her arm through. She did it herself and slumped gratefully into my arms. Nearly asleep, she wearily put her arm through the next hole and moved helpfully albeit sluggishly so I could get the rest of her clothes on her.

When I had finished, I lay with her, holding her as I felt the relief wash over her and take her towards a peaceful slumber as she lay in my arms. I reassured her: “When you are having a hard time, I will always be there for you. You had a big day at Kindy today and it was hard. I will always try to understand and help you as much as I can. When you are mad, I will still love you. When you are sad, I will still love you and when you are angry, I understand and, I will love you even more.”

She listened contentedly before saying. “Mummy, do you still love me when I pull your hair or yell at you and Daddy?”

I held her tightly and said I love you always and forever. There is nothing you can say or do to change that.”

And with that, she rolled over and drifted off to sleep.

I had supported her by recognising that her stalling and limit testing was a cry out for help. Even through her screams of protest, she knew this too and in her 3 year old way, I felt her gratitude when she was finally able to stop making decisions and lay her head on her pillow.

My parenting is inspired by Magda Gerber’s RIE approach. If you are interested in learning more you can find some good information here or I highly recommend these books (affiliate links)

Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect (2nd Edition)  ~ Magda Gerber

Your Self-Confident Baby: How to Encourage Your Child’s Natural Abilities — From the Very Start
~ Magda Gerber

Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting  ~ Janet Lansbury

No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame ~ Janet Lansbury



2 thoughts on “Being a Confident Leader: Setting Limits With Empathy

  1. Tamz

    Thanks for sharing this, I think a lot of gentle/respectful parenting advice doesn’t cover this, we often have the exact same thing around bedtime!


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