"By setting limits for children, you help them learn self-regulation and prepare the brain for more complex executive-function demands as they grow," said Dr. Rita Eichenstein, pediatric neuropsychologist in Los Angeles who works with families, blogs and is working on a book called "Resetting Normal: the Emotional Journey of Parents with Atypical Kids."
Drawing a line
Consistency and consensus among the adults in a child's life produce calm, care and comfort, said Dr. Daniel Bober, assistant clinical professor at Yale. Kids need routines and structures, especially when young. That doesn't mean you can't bend, for example, when you're on vacation, "as long as there's a warm and genuine caretaker who is generally consistent."
Parents may behave differently in different settings, Bober said. A child can cry to get a pack of gum at the store and perhaps win because it embarrasses an adult. At home, it wouldn't fly. Don't do it, he said. "No means no and has to mean no all the time. It's easier to withhold power from a child than to give it and then try to take it back."
Praise is often more powerful as a behavior modification than punishment, he said. Instead of feeding into negative behaviors, praise the positive where possible.
Parents often take a backwards approach, focusing on a child's behavior instead of their own, said Neil McNerney, family counselor and author of "Homework: A Parent's Guide to Helping Out Without Freaking Out." He tells them to focus on their own behavior when setting boundaries and keep it consistent. "Often, parents don't see a kid change and they give up. If, instead, a parent says, 'this is what I am going to do every single time,' the likelihood of giving up is less."
Some flexibility is important, "but not a lot of flexibility. People who have issues with consistency tend to be the more compassionate types. Drill sergeant types don't struggle with that. Kids need to know that when X occurs, Y is going to happen. That's the way life works."
Adults have to take into account differences in kids. Some are hardwired to thrive with routine that makes others anxious. Set boundaries and general rules, he said, but know your kids and make adjustments.
Children don't automatically understand why "me first" is not how the world works, Eichenstein said. "The goal of boundaries is to prevent 'me first' thinking, to nurture empathy and regard for others and to promote highly productive, goal-oriented behavior."
"Kids learn by what their parents do. If you want your child to stand up for herself, not get sucked into peer pressure, then he or she needs to see how you set your own boundaries and follow through," said Julia Simens, parenting expert and author of "Emotional Resilience for the Expat Child."
It is easier to set big boundaries, such as not going to people's homes without permission, because they are so significant and perhaps dangerous, said David Simonsen, psychologist and family therapist in Olympia, Wash. Smaller ones, like asking before having a sugar cereal, don't seem like a big deal. "The problem is, when you give up on small boundaries, your kids will push you on bigger boundaries. Being consistent in parenting is one of the most important things a parent can do.
"Teaching consistent lessons over and over can train a child in an effective, positive way so they can face challenges more effectively," he said.
Age matters. How much independence a child gets depends on how old he or she is. "As they get older, give more and more with the expectation that they can handle the consequences for their choices," said Cook. One of his own struggles, he noted, is figuring out how much autonomy to give his recent high school graduate, who still lives at home.
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