How Do We Know When to Set a Boundary?

How Do We Know When to Set a Boundary?


How Do We Know When to Set a Boundary?

In response to Janet’s article “When Your Child Seems Stuck Seeking Negative Attention,” a parent says her daughter will whine and cry while making “reasonable” requests for snuggles and food and play, but when she obliges, her daughter often then refuses those things. If she says no to her daughter’s requests, “it escalates into crying hard and being truly upset.” These reactions lead the parent to suspect that her daughter may actually want to hear ‘no’ so she can have an emotional release. She’s confused as to how much attention her daughter really needs versus when (and how) to set a boundary.

Transcript of “How Do We Know When to Set a Boundary?”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury, welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m responding to a comment that was left on one of my posts. The post is called “When Your Child Seems Stuck Seeking Negative Attention.” And in this parent’s comment, she brought up a really good question, I thought, that was a question for me when I was raising my first daughter. What she’s asking is how to know when to give her child what she seems to want or be asking for versus setting a boundary. So how do we know if something is a boundary situation? And when we do set the boundary, how do we set that boundary? I’m going to be discussing all those things in this episode.

So here’s the comment that I received on my post “When Your Child Seems Stuck Seeking Negative Attention.” This parent asks:

What about when the attention-seeking behavior is annoying, but not necessarily wrong/hurtful and she’s asking for reasonable things, but just too much of them? For example, my daughter will whine and cry for me to hold her, to take a nap, to snuggle with my breasts, get her food, for me to play with her. But then when I give her those things I get the feeling she didn’t really need them. She refuses the nap, changes the subject, won’t eat. If I say no, it escalates into crying hard and being truly upset. It seems like sometimes she’s looking for me to say no so she can get the emotional release and have a boundary. But how do I know how much of that type of attention she really needs versus when to set a boundary?

So one thing I love about this is, like so many parents that write to me, this parent nails the answer. She says, “It seems like sometimes she’s looking for me to say no, so she can get the emotional release and have a boundary.” And that is absolutely what children seem to unconsciously know how to do.

This post, When Your Child Seems Stuck Seeking Negative Attention… My view that I expressed in the post is that they’re not actually seeking negative attention. So I said they seem stuck seeking negative attention, but they’re seeking for us to see them sharing feelings. And oftentimes that means they need a boundary for their behavior while still being able to get that kind of attention from us that’s specifically about us seeing them, seeing their pain or their anger or whatever feeling it is that they’re expressing.

So what I say in the piece is that when our children behave in challenging and or unpleasant ways, they’re often impulsively and mostly unconsciously seeking another kind of affirmation from us: assurance, acceptance, a sense of security, and strength in our leadership. Even if it feels messy to us in the moment — they’re screaming, fighting us, resisting, persisting — the message of acceptance from us is a positive one.  Nothing could be more comforting and powerfully healing than feeling accepted by our loved ones when we are at our worst.

Children want us to accept all sides of them. That’s not always easy for us to do, and we don’t have to be perfect at it at all, but that’s what we want to try to strive for, accepting all the feelings behind their behaviors.

But how do we see beyond when our child is seeming to demand certain things? And maybe it’s not as clearcut to us that the boundary needs to be there, that we need to say no. Sometimes what they’re asking for will be so over the top, and yet still we might get so stuck in this dynamic with our child where we’re not really even able to see that in the moment. We might not see until later looking at that, oh, they were asking for me to turn the cup the other side around because they didn’t want to use it in that hand and that was what they were upset about and getting mad at me about.

In the moment, we might just feel like: oh gosh, I should do this for them because they really seem disturbed about it. But that’s not actually what they’re disturbed about, what they’re feeling is coming from somewhere else. And it’s coming out through these somewhat ridiculous, random demands. How do we figure this out? How do we know what to say yes to and what to say no to? Here are some thoughts to consider.

The first is:

1) Understand the difference between wants and needs.

Children actually don’t have that many needs. A lot of what they request is actually about a want, a desire. Their needs are obviously: food, drink, sleep, a sense of safety, physical safety, and almost even more than that safety in their relationship with us, that we’re going to be as consistent as possible, that we’re on their side, that we love them unconditionally. Those are needs that children have.

They also need attention. They need time when we are completely theirs. Doesn’t need to be a lot of time throughout the day, but they need moments where nothing else matters to us, that we’re not distracted, that we’re just there for them. And with Magda Gerber’s approach, we utilize caregiving for those times. Because caregiving is a time when we actually need to be paying attention to each other. It’s a time we’re trying to gain cooperation from our child, that we’re doing a task together like changing a diaper or helping them with the toilet or helping them get dressed or brushing teeth, or their bedtime ritual. All of those things are caregiving, and those are the most organic times for us to try to give full attention. And Magda always assured us that that can be enough. Those periods of full attention can be enough for filling a child’s need for attention.

Now that’s different than their want for attention, which might be 24/7. There is a difference between need and want. Children also need a loving physical connection with us. They need to be touched and held, some children seem to need it more than others. But again, with the approach I teach, we prioritize that touch and holding are conscious experiences. So we are not just holding our child or touching our child with our body, but with our mind and heart. We are present with them. As with other types of attention, children don’t need this all the time, they need moments here and there.

A child may want or request for us to pick them up and want us to carry them everywhere always. One way for us to differentiate between a need and a want for holding is for us to consider the second thought I want to share…

2) Tune in to ourselves

Because when we tune into ourselves, we can answer these questions. And a lot of us aren’t in the practice of that, we’re more in the practice of Let me keep you happy. Let me keep you from being upset with me. I’ll do whatever I can. And I’m not even considering myself here. And part of that is because we might be confusing wants with needs. So that’s why it’s important to consider and clarify these for ourselves and remind ourselves of them.

And then comes… What can I do wholeheartedly? What can I do in a way that’s comfortable for me? when we’re talking about our child’s wants. In this case, the parent says her daughter “will whine and cry for me to hold her.” So if this is a moment where I am sitting comfortably and not in the middle of getting food ready or doing something else and I’m available, then “Yes, I would love to hold you.”

If my child started hitting me or jumping all around while I’m holding them, then that’s going to be a no for me. “I’m not going to hold you now but if you’re a little calmer, I’m here, I would love to hold you.”

Or “I don’t want to hold you right now because I’m doing these things. But in a little while, I’m going to be sitting in that chair and I would love to have you with me.”

But what we often get stuck doing because we think we should and I’ve been there so I’m speaking from experience is, oh, I’ve got to pick up my child and carry them over here and carry them over there because maybe they need me to hold them. So right there we’re confusing wants with needs and we’re not listening to ourselves. We’re not tuning into our wish to not add that burden of physical effort to our day just to try to appease our child.

Then the next one she brings up is that her daughter wants to take a nap. And by the way, she never mentions how old her child is. I’m imagining a toddler though because she sounds like she’s very articulate and older than an infant or very young toddler. She wants to take a nap. So with naps, rest is a need, but it’s not something that we can make happen. But what we can do and what I would do, where I would put the boundary there is to designate rest time every day where your child is in her resting place, whatever that is, and there’s no requirement that your child falls asleep, but it’s rest time. And that means they can play quietly, they can talk to themselves, but we’re going to take a break from each other and it’s rest time. So for that period, however long the parent wants to make it, an hour, a half-hour, have that as a dependable part of your child’s day, have a boundary around that.

However, in terms of my child needs me to help them take a nap. I would have my limits there. I’ll lie there with you, I’ll maybe read to you or I’ll sit with you and we’ll do our ritual of reading. Maybe we sing a song, whatever it is, but then I’m done. So I’m not going to be there for you for an eternity while you say you want to nap and then you actually don’t. So that is a need, but there are also boundaries around it is how I would handle that.

Then she says snuggle with her breasts. I don’t know if that’s going to be breastfeeding or just snuggling. That’s sort of like holding. If the parent is available, if the parent’s comfortable, tuning into ourselves, this is something I want to embrace fully right now. Or, am I only wanting to do it because I feel like my child maybe needs it or I have to and I’m obligated?

Those kinds of experiences are never that comfortable for our children and it’s important for us to know that. That for our child to be especially physically close with someone who’s really distracted and doesn’t want to be there is not a healthy setup. It’s not a healthy setup for them. It’s not healthy for us either or for other relationships that they’re in. It’s not a dynamic that we want to encourage.

So that should give us even more freedom hopefully to say no to that. And we can always say “no, but this is when I’m available for that.” And if she’s whining or crying, I would empathize while I’m holding my boundary. So, “I would love to do that later. I’m going to be over here and later I’ll have a moment I can sit and would love to have you snuggle with me and be with me, but not now.” Then if she reacts we say, “I know you really want that now, but I’m doing this.” And we continue on our way.

I know that I said being available for holding when our child is upset can be a need, but not in these instances when what they need more is a boundary and to be able to be upset with us about us saying no, and we’re being reasonable because we’ve tuned to ourselves. This isn’t a need that our child has, it’s a want, the need is really to express the feelings as this parent nailed at the end, when she said, “She’s looking for me to say no so she can get the emotional release and have a boundary.” She’s looking for that leadership. She’s unconsciously looking for a way to spill her emotions all the way. We can give her that by tuning into ourselves, being honest with her and with ourselves about what we really want to do right there, and trusting that it’s not only okay but the best thing for her to share with us. So she can share and she can follow me around and I’m still going to be doing my thing. “Oh yeah, you still want me to sit with you. It’s really hard to wait,” while I’m holding my own. I’m not feeling guilty or that I’m doing the wrong thing and I should feel bad and feel sorry for her because that is actually a very healthy exchange.

It’s much less healthy to say okay and now I’m a little bit resenting her and uncomfortable and it’s not setting me up well for the rest of my day because I’m giving up my own comfort and wants for my child. Sometimes that’s necessary but a lot of times it’s not. It’s much better for us to be true to ourselves and direct and honest with her.

Then the example of getting her food. So food is a need for sure, but not all the time. If she’s just recently eaten and she wants more food, it’s fine to say, “I’m not going to take out more food right now. I hear you really want it now.” Or maybe there’s something you can set out for her, a snack that is no trouble for you at all. And then draw your line right there. That’s as much as you’re going to do. So now she says, “Well, I want more.” Or, “I want different.” Or, “I want something else.” That would be a no, always welcoming her to share how much she disagrees with your decision, and how upset she is about it.

See this as a positive experience that she gets to share feelings with you, and also know that you’re her safe leader. We’re not as safe when we’re giving in, because it affects our mood. It affects our own self-care and our comfort. We’re not going to last as long if we’re trying to please someone in negligence of ourselves, not listening to ourselves.

And then playing with her the same thing, I’ve got a few podcasts about that. When you’re available for playtime, I would practice taking a more passive role so we’re not using up our own energy creating play, that we’re allowing our child to be the one to do that. It’s better for them, better for us.

But if we’re not even available to be there with them while they’re playing, we’re not. And again, we can say, “This is when I’m looking forward to that, at that time with you after your nap.” Or whenever it is that we can do that wholeheartedly and give our child the gift of actually being with them when we’re wanting to be with them. Rather than this other more ambivalent agreement that we might give them to try to avoid something that’s probably unavoidable, as this parent so wonderfully realized. That’s where she says, “She refuses the nap, changes the subject, won’t eat. If I say no, it escalates into crying hard and being truly upset.”

Yes. So these whines and demands, they’re very often a kind of constipated meltdown. How can we help?

We can do these things that are healthy for us too, tuning into ourselves, reminding ourselves of the difference between wants and needs and then the third thought I want to offer is:

3) Err on the side of boundaries

You can always change your mind. So when in doubt about a child’s demands or whines, I would say no. Because if we’re doubting, it’s very likely because we are ambivalent about wanting to do it and we actually really don’t want to do it. And we’re just trying to please our child. So I would assert my boundary there knowing that if I have time to think about it, not because she’s upset, but because I reconsider. “Actually I can put this stuff away, it’s not a big deal and I would love to sit with you right now.”

If we come to that, we can change our minds just like that. So we’re never stuck. But if we don’t set a boundary early like that, then it’s going to be harder for us to be the calm, safe person that we want to be that helps our child co-regulate rather than adding more stress through our own emotions and discomforts.

And then the fourth point I want to make:

4) Remind ourselves of this typical dynamic and how children unconsciously push for boundaries to release feelings

So we talked about that a little bit, but practicing this understanding that this is so commonly what children do, just as this parent noted, and there are certain times of life when there’s just more stress in the family and their life at the moment so there will be more of this. So be aware that that’s a very good possibility.

If we’re aware and we expect it even, then it’s going to be easier for us to feel comfortable with it and to set our boundaries and feel a little better about it. We’re never going to feel great that our child is upset, of course, but feel a little better than we would if the healthiness of this dynamic wasn’t clear to us.

Then the fifth point I wanted to make is something I already said, which is:

5) Whining and demands are like a constipated meltdown

So we’re keeping our antenna up to recognize that’s what’s going on. It’s going to get away from us all sometimes. But the more aware we are that this is a common possibility, the less it’s going to get away from us, and the more we’re going to have conviction in listening to ourselves and standing up for ourselves, trusting that our child needs to disagree with us a lot of the time, they need to share those feelings. They need to know that we feel capable of being a leader for them. And a leader has to lead when it makes people happy and when it doesn’t and feel a sense of their own security and confidence in both of those scenarios.

Of course, we’d much rather be the leader that makes our child happy, but that’s not the job. The job is to be the leader. That’s what our child needs and wants from us in their heart and that’s something that we will very seldom hear about from them directly. Some children do express it. I share success stories about that all the time of children that actually express a “thank you for stopping me” or “saying no to me” or whatever it is. It always blows me away when I hear those stories. But I’ve come to understand that’s what children do feel in their hearts when they’re not saying it.

So here are all those points again:

  1. Understand wants versus needs
  2. Tune in to yourself
  3. Err on the side of boundaries, you can always change your mind
  4. Understand this typical dynamic and how children unconsciously push for boundaries to release their feelings
  5. Whining and demands are often the precursors to a meltdown

I hope some of this helps. Thank you so much to this parent for her comment. And please check some of my other podcasts on my website There are 200-and-something of them at this point and they’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And I have two books, they’re available at Amazon: No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting.  You can get them in eBook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or, and in audio at Actually, you can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.

Thank you so much for listening and for all your kind support.

We can do this.




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