Does "gentle" parenting mean no limits?

family dynamics limits screentime Aug 20, 2021
setting limits with kids

When looking for parenting input it’s important you sound out the approach to make sure it’s one that really answers your questions. Some parents have concerns that the Hand in Hand approach may offer the nurturing input that kids need but not give enough guidance on boundaries. Read on to find out more about the approach and how we set limits in a loving, warm and trauma-informed way.


Not permissive but authoritative

You can be reassured that our approach is not a permissive approach; instead we encourage limits, as many as needed and at the earliest point possible. 

You will learn how to set non-punitive limits with warmth and feel really clear about what intervention is needed when. In terms of common issues such as a child hitting their brother, this of course needs to be stopped. We suggest it’s good to uphold a zero tolerance policy to anyone getting hurt in your family. 


A different approach to limits

I would also offer a slightly different emphasis from the more traditional ‘Stop that, we don’t hit, that’s not nice’, which leaves a child with a sense of shame and further disconnection.

Instead of making children wrong for their behaviour, the responsibility for what happens actually falls on you, the parent. We know that when a child is hitting or teasing it’s a signal that they are physiologically out of whack. They have lost their sense of connection with others; their prefrontal cortex is down. Their thinking has gone wonky and from this warped state, they hit their brother. 

When you leave the responsibility for making the hitting stop to the child (by issuing a request that they stop), they physiologically can’t hear you and respond, so it sets them up to fail. You are also setting yourself up to be cross with them for not complying (and from there the typical spiral of emotional reactivity from both of you that we know doesn’t end well). 

Therefore in those moments what’s needed is for you with the (hopefully) regulated adult brain to step in and physically stop the hitting by putting your body between the children, holding the hitty hand etc. You might say ‘I can’t let you hit your brother’ (the emphasis being on the ‘I’ because it’s you taking responsibility rather than placing the onus on their temporarily impaired brain to do anything beyond its means). 


What we are really doing is bringing our presence to the situation to counter the lost connection that is driving the behaviour. 

We are showing ‘I’ve clocked your signal that you need me and I’m here’, which feels responsive and safe to a child. Usually if we’re in good enough emotional shape ourselves, our presence and physical intervention is enough to kickstart a recovery process. 

It could be recovery from a day of having to hold it together, a backlog of minor upsets that have accumulated, or a small threat that they perceived in the recent interaction with their brother. We don’t need to know, we just need to trust that our children are good and always have a good reason for what they are feeling, their levels of connection and ultimately, their behaviour going wonky.

The way that kids recover from getting knocked off centre by their frustrations and disappointments is by ranting/crying/raging/yawning/squawking/trembling/giggling. When their feelings start to pour out in this fashion in response to the limit we’ve set, we stay close and listen until they are done (staylistening).


We worry that if we don’t scold or reprimand, we are teaching that it’s fine to do this again. 

This anxiety is a throwback to the behavioural parenting paradigm that is prevalent in our culture. We can remind ourselves that there is nothing to teach. Our kids are wired to pay attention to what is acceptable behaviour; they already know that hitting one’s brother is not the right thing. They didn’t actually even want to hit their brother, they just lost it (and they feel bad about it). 

Instead we focus on fostering their overall capacity for emotional regulation by supporting them to recover from the bumps and bruises they haven’t yet been able to process. We also work on the state of our own nervous system so we can signal safety to our kids. 


We build resilience by helping our kids become familiar with tolerating discomfort

The other thing we do that can be missed at first glance is encourage kids to stretch out of their comfort zones frequently by setting limits around all the ways they are avoiding challenging themselves. 


But doesn’t that mean I’m beholden to having to listen whenever I want to set a limit?

With regards to making ourselves available to Staylisten, of course you get to choose when you set limits that are going to require time to listen to the outpouring of feelings. Sometimes you just need to get somewhere or cook dinner or whatever. In those moments you do whatever gets you through. You pick up the shoeless child in one arm and their shoes in the other and toss them (gently) into the car. 

You fall back on whatever cajoling, distracting, or bribing is needed at this moment and you trust that you’ll be able to work on this backlog of feelings when you have time. When you get really pro you even schedule for it. 


This is a human and forgiving approach for parents 

It’s not about getting it right. It’s about making sure that, overall, you are responding to kids’ emotional needs enough that they can progress towards becoming the more centred, caring, intelligent and resilient version of themselves. 


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