The Magic of Boundaries

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

There are no magic wands.

We wish there were, of course. Imagine how easy it'd be to get a promotion or to pick winning lottery numbers or to stop a child's fit in the store. (If you've never experienced that, trust me - parents will do almost anything to stop that.)

There's also no magic wand to make kids change their behaviors. Parents are disappointed when I tell them that, and then I pile on by saying that things will probably get worse before they get better.

That doesn't mean that working with families is a waste of time. Positive change is not only possible, but I see it every day. There's just no shortcut to help kids make choices that you want them to make.

That makes sense when you think about it. We all live in systems, where everyone has a role and reacts to each other in predictable patterns. If someone changes what they do or what they expect, it's normal to test that.

Take the screaming kid in the store. He wants a candy bar. It's a simple request that makes sense to him. He likes candy bars; it's at eye level in the store; he got one the last time.

But this time, you say no. "It's almost lunchtime," you explain.

That makes sense to you (and other adults) but not to your child. He just thinks, "But I want a candy bar. I don't understand why I can't have it. I'm going to cry."

And that's where you get tested. The kid wails, and people stare at you like it's your fault. So maybe you'll give in just this once. What's the harm? And that's how your little trooper learns that crying gets a candy bar.

When you say no the next time, he cries again, but you're determined not to give in this time. Does your child just give up? Nope. He tests you again because it worked the last time. If the crying doesn't work, maybe he'll kick a magazine stand. And if that doesn't work … well, you get the idea.

This is called anextinction burst, and it's what other people often do when you make a change. (This is true in every kind of relationship, not just with parenting.) Your child isn't really an out-of-control monster; he's experimenting to see if you mean what you say. If you don't give in, the extinction burst eventually stops because it's not working.

Some parents "choose their battles" when this happens, but that can backfire, too. "On again, off again" confuses kids about what the boundaries are, which encourages more acting out in the long run than it prevents in the moment.

Extinction bursts are expected and normal. (That's true of kids of any age, not just toddlers.) They don't last forever; once your child is sure of the boundaries, the fits are likely to stop. Good thing, too. If they didn't, store aisles would be clogged with 3-year-olds throwing tantrums.

-Carl Grody, LISW-S, is a licensed independent social worker who works with families at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington.