Being a Confident Leader: Setting Limits With Empathy

Being a confident leader is something that many of us grapple with everyday. Finding that balance between being the solid, dependable rock our children need us to be and still recognising, understanding and accepting the beautiful independent little people our children are becoming is not easy, especially when it comes to setting limits and providing boundaries for them.

Being a Confident Leader

When we think of limit setting, we usually think about managing our children’s behaviours, guiding them to make good choices and helping them learn the difference between right and wrong. Recently, though, I have begun to see that limit setting is much more than just a behaviour management tool. Limit setting can the ultimate show of empathy and understanding.

The other night, My 4.5 year old, wonderfully spirited and sensitive daughter was struggling in the lead up to bedtime. She was tired after a long day at Kindy and was having a hard time seeing things through rational eyes. She also seemed to be unsettled by my husband’s unusually stressed and short-tempered demeanour.

She was objecting to having a shower (or a bath). I was in the shower already and she was to join me but was digging her heals in. We both knew that getting her into the shower was not going to look pretty. She was not going to make the choice to go in herself, we avoid using rewards and bribes to make things easier so eventually we were going to need to bite the bullet and set the limit.

Setting the limit

When setting limits, it is important to choose words wisely and use a tone that is confident 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 empathise and at the same time lets the child know your expectations.

Respectful parenting expert, Janet Lansbury talks about adopting a CEO type persona when setting limits. She explains that children can become unsettled if they sense they are gaining too much power in the parent – child relationship. They need their parents to be able to lead them and take charge when it matters most.

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. We knew she was tired, we knew she needed the shortest path to sleep possible and we knew that waiting patiently for her to make these decisions for herself was never going to happen, not whilst she was in this state.

We acknowledged, “You really don’t want to have a shower.” We compromised: “Would you like to stand on the edge and I will wipe the paint and mud off you with the washer or would you like to do it.” She couldn’t choose. she objected to everything. She swiped the washer from my outstretched hand.

Being a Confident Leader: Using Empathy

At this point, it was clear my daughter was not in a state to rationalise or cooperate within the guidelines we had set for her. 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, we recognise that these screams of angst are not what is really being screamed for.

If we could translate the screams into rational thought, we might hear something like “Please help me, Mum, I am losing control. I am scared and don’t know what to do. 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.”

So, I took over. “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.” She screamed in protest throughout but did not fight against me. In total, I took about one minute to get her clean enough to be able to head to bed.

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 so I folded it patiently and put it away. I told her she could choose something else. She couldn’t choose (I could have predicted this given her state of mind but I wanted to show her I was still listening to her trying to respect her need for autonomy).

At this point 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 choosing and told her I would choose for her now. I took out some bed clothes and asked if she could put them on herself or did she need my help?

She protested strongly; kicking, swiping and shouting that she wanted to choose. 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 feel her pain 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 her head to be on her pillow and I was the one who could get her to the place the fastest.

I remained confident. I knew she needed me to take control for the night.

She pressed herself into the corner trying to get away from me. I acknowledged and empathised once more: “You are having such a hard time tonight, huh!? I am here for you and I will help you.”

She screamed again, “I want to choose my PJs!”

I replied gently, “You wanted to choose your PJs. You can choose your clothes tomorrow but now it is time to put these ones on.”

She kicked and swiped again.

I asked if she was going to help me. She indicated she wasn’t, 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 PJ shirt to put her arm in. She put her arm in 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. 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 4 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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