Young children possess a complex mixture of exciting and challenging attributes. On the positive side, children between the ages of 2 and 8 can be affectionate, fun and energetic. On the less positive side, they can be squirrely, impulsive and defiant — sometimes all at the same time.
So how can you improve upon the challenging dynamics between you and your child? Try setting boundaries. I recommend the following four-step boundary-setting process to help you navigate your young child’s challenging behaviors.
1. Convey love
Above all else, our young children need to know they are loved. Colossians 3:14 encourages, “And over all these virtues put on love” (NIV). Conveying love is the basis for all health and growth in the parent-child relationship. Love that is shown helps the child feel safe enough to be able to learn boundaries without being overwhelmed or highly resistant.
Notice, however, that I didn’t simply write, “love your child,” but “convey love.” Make sure to communicate love in a way that your child can understand and tangibly experience. Be in the practice of conveying love and creating a foundation in your child’s mind that says, I am safe and cared about.
You can enter your child’s world every day by playing on the living room floor with her and allowing her to join you in your own daily tasks. Many times throughout the day, give her your full attention (without the distraction of electronic devices), ask her questions and listen to the answers. At the end of your time together, give her eye contact and say, “I love playing with you!” She may not respond, but she’s listening and recording the experience.
2. Set the ground rules
Communicate clearly to your child what is, and isn’t, acceptable behavior in your home. Healthy ground rules provide clarity for your child. Ephesians 6:4 says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
A set expectation may address a specific situation, such as, “I need you to take your nap when I ask, without arguing about it.” Or this can take the form of a written list of basic how-we-behave-in-our-family ground rules that you regularly reinforce with your kids, such as using kind words, exercising quick obedience and showing respectful behavior. Children need to know where the lanes are in order to stay in the correct one.
3. Allow freedom
This step may be the hardest part of the sequence. Sometimes allowing your child to make the wrong choice is necessary, so he can learn from it. One day, your child will have to take responsibility for his own choices, but he needs freedom to make some mistakes. The more you try to force your child to do or not do something, the less effective you will likely be. Remember, you are helping her establish self-control from the inside, not parent-control from the outside.
This certainly doesn’t apply to something the child is too young to handle. Any parent with a 3-year-old running toward a busy street would certainly go pick her up to save her. But if she chooses to scream at you when you ask her to clean up her toys, you need to let her know she can do that — that is, when it’s quickly followed by Step No. 4.
4. Establish consequences.
A consequence is the result of a behavior — good or bad. The consequences you utilize should be in response to what your child does and reflect the truth found in Galatians 6:7, which says, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.”
A helpful negative consequence is something the child will not be happy about but is not harmful to her. For example, the screamer may need to go to time out in another room, or lose dessert or TV privileges. Use discernment to make sure the consequence fits the behavior and is not overreactive or underreactive.
Finally, remember to follow through, follow through, follow through! When a child’s repeated negative behavior is exhausting, you will be tempted to not deal with it or continually warn the child of consequences without actually following through. Unfortunately, that response trains the child to just ignore and outlast the parent.
Even if you’re tired, follow through with consequences in love. Remember that parenting is an “oven” for a future results. The desired outcome is a loving, responsible and responsive adult who will make his way in the world and find relationships, purpose and meaning. It’s about the future, not the present meltdown.
Dr. John Townsend is a clinical psychologist, a marriage and family therapist, a popular public speaker and the co-founder of Cloud-Townsend Resources. For more in-depth information on parenting young children, read his book Boundaries with Kids co-authored with Dr. Henry Cloud.