I often have parents ask me if giving empathy and comfort to their upset children is rewarding them for misbehavior. I’m sure you’ve been in the scenario where you set a limit on a behavior and your child reacts with crying, yelling, arguing, whining, etc. Some parents seem to be of the belief that holding a firm limit means ignoring the child’s upset or keeping a stony resolve. I’ve even seen some parents goad the child on, seeming to derive pleasure from making them more miserable. The thinking goes something like this: If I offer a hug or soothe my child in some way after I’ve reprimanded them, isn’t that ‘giving in’ to my child?
I’m of the belief that we can be kind to our children even when we are being firm about their behavior. We can soften to their emotional reaction to having been told, ‘No’, while simultaneously holding to that ‘No’. We do this by separating the child from the behavior. Remember, limits and consequences are about teaching the child that certain behaviors or words are unacceptable, and offering them a prosocial alternative. If you’re setting limits from a place of punishment then it’s harder to make that distinction between child and behavior. It’s easier to withhold comfort and refrain from helping our kids calm down because in that moment we’re likely thinking some version of: “You were naughty and you deserve what you get” or “Good! You should be upset!”
Setting a limit with the intention to teach children allows us to affirm the child’s inherent goodness while still correcting the behavior. We can assure them that they are still loved, that they are not a “bad kid,” but that they made a mistake and need to correct it. As the mother of a sensitive child who often dissolves into tears the second she is called out, I often get frustrated that she is so quick to upset. I try my best to remember that she can’t get the teaching she needs about her behavior when she’s crying, covering her ears, and running away from me (yup, that’s her MO), and so my most effective parenting move – if I’m going for skill development – is to guide her in how to calm down first (being a calm presence myself, breathing with her, using loving touch), and then when she’s calm I can go back to the limit and address her skill deficit. She doesn’t ‘get away’ with any bad behavior. This approach might take a little longer, but it is effective. It creates a home environment where people are allowed to make mistakes and still feel loved and supported. It moves children away from shame over their behavior to self-reflection. In other words, it calls children ‘in’ rather then ‘out.’
So do we send the wrong message when we comfort kids after setting limits on them? Think about what you would need and want in that situation if you were the child. Would some gentle-kindness and reassurance help or hinder you in processing your behavior? What might it feel like to be told, “You are a good person. This isn’t about you, it’s about a behavior that is harmful and needs to stop.” Most of us haven’t been told that. When we mess up and someone calls us out, we get upset. We might feel anger, sadness, shame, or blame others for our behavior. It is the same with our children. As parents, we could stand to be reminded of that more often.