This week, I did private consults with two different families for a version of the same problem: kids who could not handle it when their parents said “No.”

In one case, the dad of a teen said his son became furious if Dad said he couldn’t have something he wanted. “Everybody else has it—why can’t I?” His father offered a variety of reasons but the 14-year old dismissed every one of them as “stupid.” He calls his dad selfish, mean, and clueless, and then slams the door of his bedroom, enraged.

Another couple told me their five year old more or less ran the household. “He’s like a little tyrant if we deny him something! And he takes his anger out on his little brother. We know we should be the ones in charge, but whenever we try to stand our ground, he gets more aggressive!”

Most of us understand that kids need boundaries and limits, but if we’re at the mercy of long-standing patterns, it can be difficult to start fresh and establish ourselves as the confident Captain of the ship.

What to do? Here are a few things I shared with my clients this week:

     • Get clear. Children are exquisitely attuned to us and can pick up even the subtlest indication that we’re not certain of where we stand about whether to hold to a limit, or to give in…this time.

     If you’re going to tell your child that they can’t have something they wants, be as clear as you can that this is for the best and that you’re not going to change your mind. This will reduce the likelihood that you’ll get tangled up in long, drawn-out debates.

     • Be prepared for a storm. It’s normal for children to get frustrated when their longings are thwarted. Don’t expect your kids to accept your limits right away, or understand your reasons.

     Remember: although ship captains would rather not have to navigate through rough waters, they face storms with confidence and determination, handling the ship with a steady hand. (Or at least they act that way!) The more you’re prepared for your child to howl in protest–without shaming them or telling them to be quiet—the sooner they’ll find their way through disappointment to acceptance.

     • Trust. Human beings are extraordinarily resilient. We get that way by living through difficult experiences. Outside of extenuating circumstances, most children are quite capable of adapting when they can’t have what they want. If we scramble to give in to every demand, our kids may come to believe we don’t have faith in their ability to cope when life isn’t offering exactly what they want.

     Support your children when they’re distressed, but trust that with your help and co-regulation, they’ll come out on the other side just fine. 

I hope these ideas encourage you to feel a little braver about setting limits with your kids. If you’d like additional support, please join me for the upcoming Parenting Without Power Struggles Six Week Intensive! We’re offering a $100 discount for a few more days and would love for you to join us!

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