We Don’t Like Upsetting Our Kids

Do you sometimes say “yes” to avoid your child’s negative reaction? You’re definitely not alone! None of us wants to upset our kids, and when faced with that option, we tend to second guess our boundaries: Should I keep playing this game even though I’m busy, tired, or not in the mood? This week, Janet explores the reasons we doubt ourselves, particularly when it comes to personal boundaries, how to overcome our hesitancy, and why our kids really need us to.  


Transcript of “We Don’t Like Upsetting Our Kids”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

I love this topic I’m going to get into today because it very much relates to my personal struggles as a parent and the perspective shift that I needed to eventually work on to be able to overcome them and why that mattered. It’s the difficulty that many of us have with setting a boundary that our child resists or gets upset about. With my people-pleasing tendencies, this has been a big one for me. And while I can’t say that I’m completely cured of this, I’ve come a very long way, and I’m going to share how I’ve done that.

First, here’s an exchange with a parent who I very much relate to and appreciate. We had this exchange in Instagram messages, actually. Which I’m unfortunately not always able to respond to, but in this case, the timing worked out for me and I got on the hook. Here’s the first message I got:

Hi, Janet. I hope you’re well. I was wondering if you could help. At parents’ evening, I was told that my daughter (who started school six months ago) is emotionally dysregulated, that she cries over small things such as not being able to finish her work for the next activity or wanting to explain her ideas during focus time when she should be writing.

At home she is not displaying this. We have always let her let out her feelings, and she has become good at doing this. I usually have been calm and held her emotions. I have struggled with boundaries. Not the usual ones, such as lifestyle expectations, crossing the road safely. These are all fine. It’s been the boundary of demand that she puts on me, such as wanting me to play characters for extended amounts of time, so much that I had to say no characters at the dinner table or out of the house. And when she’s tired, she’s been controlling and wanted things a certain way. At times, I’ve adhered to that controlling behavior.

I wrote back:

This reflection you’re doing about boundaries may be the key. Why do you think it is that you cave to her demands? What do you fear about disappointing her in those situations?

And she wrote back:

Thanks, Janet. That’s a great question. Two things which I’ve never put into words before: When I cave into those demands, it’s not always obvious to me. Especially with playing characters, it’s how we entertained ourselves in the pandemic. I might get a sense of irritation, like, She’s asking too much, but I’m not always aware enough to see it for what it is, which is her calling out for a boundary, I guess. I think I’m a people-pleaser and avoid conflict. I think I fear hurting her feelings? I can happily say no to buying her things in a shop, though. Also, I don’t always feel I have the capacity to deal with the fallout when caring for her one-year-old sister.

Funnily enough, today she wanted to play characters before we entered the house. I said, “No, that’s the rule, no characters outside.” She didn’t want to come in, so I gently picked her up and took her inside. That went well. She had a little cry, but it felt like the right decision not to cave in. I think it reassured her. Where I struggle is the alarm bell that tells me that a boundary is needed now. I don’t always hear it, or if I do, I’m good at ignoring it.

So I wrote back:

Well explained! Yes, it sounds like you aren’t accustomed to sticking up for yourself with loved ones if you fear it might upset them and they might reject you. If that rings true, I can totally relate. And I would try to consider this an important step to figure out in your journey, gradually. Maybe consider what it’s like to have someone play with you or do anything that they’re not really into. It’s not a great, clear feeling, right? It’s not satisfying or truly enjoyable.

And she said:

Yes, it’s the rejection. I think I was probably brought up with conditional love, which is why it’s been so refreshing to allow my daughter all her feelings and so helpful to have you out there guiding parents through this different way. But I’ve never reflected about it so specifically like this, Janet. Never been brave enough to have the conversation. When you write about it like this, I can see how healthy it is to try to get those boundaries in because they matter to my daughter and will benefit her more in the long run, and even the short run. Thank you so much for sharing that with me. I think my goals are: Have a sheet up on the wall at home, a script for me to say if she’s being particular and what to look out for. Set a limit for character play. If I know the parameters, it will mean I can implement them. So I’ve set myself homework.

And I said:

Sounds great. And keep in mind that any amount of character play is not your job. It’s not our job to entertain our kids and, as you’ve noticed, it can create a kind of dependency. Also, without us meaning to, our ideas tend to take over our child’s, so they’re not getting the opportunity to freely and thoroughly explore their own imagination. I’m only sharing this to hopefully encourage you to give yourself permission to say a loving no. And you don’t need perfect words, just conviction in yourself as a fair and loving leader who isn’t afraid of your girl. We are teaching kids how to get along with others and how to take care of ourselves and emotional intelligence. When we’re honest about our feelings and say no when we feel no, it’s far from selfish. It’s heroic, truly.

And she wrote back:

Oh, that’s interesting. The character play is very much led by her. It’s almost in the realm of drama therapy, where I feel that her fears and feelings come out. However I agree that a sort of dependency is occurring and it hadn’t occurred to me that this type of play wasn’t really what she needed. In the past couple of days, I’ve already been saying no more and it feels good. I’m working towards reducing it down to once a day—which might sound a lot, still, it’s progress for us. I’ve just been reading your article How Our Boundaries Free Children to Play, Create, and Explore, and it’s sort of blown my mind a little bit. My daughter also enjoys the laptop. She’s not on it every day, but what will she be freed up to do if I say no to characters and no, sometimes, to laptop? It’ll be nice to see what’s inside of her, not just what she does when she’s stuck.

And I’ll just add that that article she refers to, How Our Boundaries Free Children to Play, Create, and Explore, that’s actually a transcript from another podcast episode. And it is about how these boundaries that we can perceive as negative in some way are actually so freeing for our children.

So then I wrote back to her and asked if I could please use this exchange in a podcast. And several days later she wrote back and said:

Yes, of course, especially if it can help other parents or carers who’ve been stuck in a similar cycle. Two days ago I said no characters, and we did none all day, and there wasn’t the major fallout I’d imagined. She was tearful and cross a couple of times and tried to encourage me in, but I explained that it was too much for her to be in control and that I’m her mummy. So she can just relax and play now.

It has been like the scales have fallen from my eyes. My daughter looks different to me somehow. I think because the power balance has shifted, she seems younger and calmer. I was told that she was often tearful at school and I saw her being particular at home, wanting things a certain way. It was giving me concerns. My daughter is five, and I was worried that I’d messed things up and it was too late, that the path was set. I knew something wasn’t right, but I didn’t have a clue about what needed to change. It took some reflection with your support and the courage and understanding to make the change. It’s a hard thing for me to accept that I was the problem, as I see my errors as a rejection as opposed to being part and parcel of being a human.

Boundaries are so clear to me when they’re physical things like brushing teeth, it’s not okay to hit, cross the road safely, but this boundary was an emotional one and I just couldn’t see it. I can’t thank you enough. The impact of our conversation will last long into the future, and this girl has a more confident mummy now, and she can go back to being little again. Thank you.

Wow, thank you to this mummy and she really articulates her whole process so beautifully. I can’t say how much I appreciate this.

I want to touch a little more on what gets in our way. Often it’s old feelings, worries, fears that we’ll get rejected if we assert ourselves too much. Maybe we felt that significant others’ feelings were our fault and that our behavior—meaning us, in the way a child thinks of that. When we scold a child for being bad, they take this as that they are bad. So as the child, we might believe that we’re making people feel a certain way, and that’s scary and guilt-inducing, and we have to be careful, right? Whenever we’re stuck and concerned and it feels like maybe there’s a cycle that’s continuing that we don’t know how to stop, looking into our feelings around boundaries is often the key.

And here’s another parent who wrote a comment on a post that I put up on Instagram about being stern and how setting boundaries with confidence is not the same as sternness. Sternness doesn’t really project confidence. It’s overkill. If we think about the feelings behind when we’re stern, we’re usually not feeling on top of it but under it. So we force it a bit. And that’s why it doesn’t work as well as really projecting confidence as a leader. Children are sensing what we’re feeling, that we’re not comfortable. So I put up a post about that and this wonderful parent who often comments on my posts, and I love that, she wrote:

This is something I’ve been having to work on. And in most situations, it honestly feels uncomfortable to me to set boundaries. I overthink the perfect words and then get so confused about what to say or do whenever I know my child is stuck and needs my help.

And I replied:

Great that you’re getting to this. “It honestly feels uncomfortable to me to set boundaries.” That’s the key right there—exploring why you are so uncomfortable, what you’re afraid will happen, what you might lose by upsetting your child and sticking up for yourself. Figuring that out and making peace with it is the answer. Realizing that our children need us to walk through those fears for them. This is far from selfish. I would dig deep on this with yourself, ideally with a counselor or therapist. Because the words we say matter very, very little. It’s all about how we feel when setting and holding the boundary. When we are stern, it usually means we’re uncomfortable or unsure of ourselves and trying to compensate. That’s why it doesn’t work as well.

This parent, as I said, often leaves comments and they are very focused on words. So I felt like this was such a gift that she’s gotten to this place of recognizing that really she could say any perfect word in the world and her child would still sense her discomfort, because it’s there.

Of course, none of us want to upset our children. We never want to upset them, right? But here’s what helped me, focusing on these things that I do want and that most of us do want.

One, we do want to teach them about self-care and boundaries in relationships. This is the most profound way that they learn that: through their relationship with us and our self-care and boundaries. So it’s not just respecting their personal boundaries that teaches them that, not handing them over to the adult who wishes to hug them, but it’s ours also that instill this.

Two, we do want them to succeed with peers and other adults, to be liked. Because they know how to respect and not overstep other people’s boundaries. We’re teaching them that.

Three, we do want to avoid unwittingly adultifying our kids. Giving them unsettling responsibility and power over us, making them responsible for choices that are really ours to make. So I don’t mean this to the extent of adultifying a child that’s seriously harmful or abusive. That happens, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about our children deserving the freedom and the messy emotional fluidity of childhood. And when we’re tentative around that, their feelings, and maybe afraid of them, it interferes with that. As that first parent shared about her daughter, she said, “My daughter looks different to me somehow. I think because the power balance has shifted, she seems younger and calmer.” That’s big, right? And don’t we all want that for our children? The way to get there isn’t always what we think. It’s doing this hard thing. Standing up for ourselves, being personally honest with them. And not loving it when they’re upset, but not fearing that either. Facing that music.

Four, we do want a free and clear, honest relationship, rather than one where there’s resentment or annoyance on our end. That means sticking up for ourselves, not giving into demands that we aren’t really into.

Five, we do want emotional health and resiliency for our kids. They need to vent these emotional roller coasters they’re often riding, particularly in the early years and in adolescence. Getting upset about our reasonable, honest boundaries is the organic, therapeutic way children do that. And they learn that the feelings are normal and healthy and that they pass and then they feel better. And that starts with us knowing that and showing them that, because that’s what we believe. And these feelings are not really about their need for us to play characters or do that specific thing. It’s a bigger theme that they’re expressing. Reminding ourselves of that is how we’ll be able to do this.

And knowing that this is a priceless message that we can give our kids that will help them function in their world. They’ll know that they won’t always get things their way and that they can be disappointed for a time, but soon they’re going to feel better. And they can live with it. It’s not a scary, strange, overwhelming situation for them. It’s life. Sometimes things go my way, sometimes they don’t. And I can handle both. I prefer them going my way, but I’m not tied to that, because I know I can make it through the other situation as well.

And the last point, we do want the profound bonding effects of welcoming our children to share uncomfortable emotions. You’ve heard me talk about that a lot, and many of you have experienced it and you’ve shared that with me. The safety we can provide another person by accepting and allowing them to feel however they do, even if we are the cause of their disappointment or their anger.

So for all those reasons—and there’s six there, and there’s probably more if I think about it—we might be encouraged to work on processing our own discomfort. Which can indeed be a lifelong, continuous process. But any step we can make towards that will make the day-to-day of our job as parents easier and set every relationship in our life in a more positive, authentic, trusting direction. We’re worthy.

And now I thought it might be helpful to share what’s actually a follow-up question that I received in regard to a podcast I did a few weeks ago, Coping With Your Child’s Possessiveness. Because this also relates to the idea of upsetting our children by setting limits. And sometimes it can cause us to be tentative, which doesn’t help our child as much as when we can proceed with confidence. Knowing that yes, they may get upset, but that can be a natural—and even I would say a healthy—reaction to our boundaries.

Here’s the message. It was on Facebook, actually, where I posted Coping With Your Child’s Possessiveness. And the parent said:

The day after listening to this podcast, my three-year-old got very upset about his new baby brother wearing the same diapers that he wears. My husband picked them out without thinking. He tried pulling it off of him. So I tried to remember what you said and replied, “Oh man, I know that’s so hard seeing him wear the same diapers. I can’t let you take those off him, though,” while as gently as I could trying to release his grip. I hope that was the right way of going about that.

I also know you said it’s okay to allow them to take a few toys, but if it seems they’re stuck to kindly stop them. However, what if it’s a teething item in the baby’s hand and they shout, “I want that! It’s mine!”?

And here’s what I responded:

Yes to this, well done!

Where she says, “‘Oh man, I know that’s so hard seeing him wear the same diapers. I can’t let you take those off of him, though,’ while as gently as I could trying to release his grip.”

I added:

You can be firm, though. With that wonderful empathizing you’re doing, removing his hand as easily as possible will come off as love and care. Too gentle can come off as tentative, which won’t be as helpful to him. And regarding the teether, no, I wouldn’t allow him to take that away from the baby. So do the same: acknowledge and firmly, kindly block or remove the teether from your older child’s hand.

So yes, sometimes we can feel, Aah, I want to do this so carefully, and that projects our own discomfort in a way, or our lack of conviction in what we’re doing. And it kind of prolongs the interaction for our child, instead of doing the kind thing and just taking it out of their hand. And again, that idea of empathizing is what makes this a loving interaction rather than an overly strict, harsh interaction.

For more about boundaries and our children’s feelings and responses, for more encouragement, more examples, more demonstrations, please take a look at my No Bad Kids Master Course, because I’m able to offer some video demonstrations, some of them are with children. Many people have told me that this has been a game-changer for them, so have a look. And my books (No Bad Kids and Elevating Child Care) of course are available on Amazon. We’ll put the links in the liner notes and in the transcript of this podcast. Thank you to these parents for allowing me to share their comments and our exchanges.

And please know: every one of us, we can do this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

More From Janet

Books & Recommendations