Our last two blog entries have focused on respecting our children’s emotional experiences—especially when our children are in catastrophic meltdowns or tantrums. This is very difficult to do when our children are experiencing such intense negative emotions, but is so important for their emotional development.

We instinctively want to set limits on the behaviour if our children are acting out by behaving aggressively or otherwise inappropriately. Today’s blog focus is on how to set limits within a developmental framework that respects our children’s emotional experiences.

This is contrary to a behavioural approach where negative emotions are ignored or thwarted and the child is encouraged to ‘move on’ or distracted to another activity. Here, the parent is often rationally trying to reason with the child who is incapable of reasoning while so emotionally distressed, and also usually not developmentally capable of reasoning at such a level.


A key step in limit-setting is attunement. Being attuned to what our child is experiencing means having empathy and patience. It means understanding the motivation behind the undesirable behaviour. Often, the behaviour is not intended as malicious but is the only way the child knows how to communicate their displeasure or unrest.

You might be thinking, “But my child does know a more appropriate way to behave and is choosing not to.” This is not the case, though. Think about it. Are you capable of being on your best behaviour if you are in a moment of emotional dysregulation?

When our buttons are pushed and we lose our temper, we tend to be more volatile and become emotionally dysregulated as adults. For example, if you’ve just had a huge fight with your spouse or parent and the phone rings, you might find it difficult to carry on a calm conversation having just been in the heat of the moment.

For our children who aren’t yet using emotional signalling to self-regulate or co-regulate with another, being able to remember the appropriate way to behave and actually doing it in the moment of an emotional meltdown is completely impossible, developmentally.

The Relationship

When in good relationship with our children, they are more likely to want to listen to us and look to us for help. They need to trust us if we are to expect them to respect our limit-setting. We build this trust by being nurturing and loving, understanding and compassionate every day.

This means letting them express their anger and frustrations regularly, too. The more chances they have to feel comfortable around us with these negative emotions, the easier you will find it to set limits with them.

Dr. Greenspan emphasizes that successful limit-setting “melds warmth and empathy with rock-solid resolve” (Building Healthy Minds, page 353). Similarly, Dr. Gordon Neufeld talks about limit-setting with this in mind as well because he sees the relationship as the primary human need. In his language, the parent must be the ‘agent of futility’ while also being the ‘angel of comfort’.

The work of both experts tells us that it is through our relationship that we have the power to set limits in two ways: by being firm (i.e., having rock-sold resolve or being the agent of futility) and by being loving (i.e., having warmth, empathy, compassion and respect while being an angel of comfort to our distressed children).

Guiding the Child

Firm does not mean scolding. Firm does not mean teaching a lesson. Instead, we want to help and guide the child. We can’t allow our children to hurt us, others, or themselves but our approach to setting limits will be developmental.

Redirecting/Replacing Behaviour

In Building Healthy Minds, Dr. Stanley Greenspan says that if you are eliminating one form of a child’s expression, you must replace it with another. This is consistent with Dr. Gordon Neufeld‘s point that emotions need to be expressed. “Stop it!” won’t suffice. So guiding the child means we will help the child find a way to express the emotion inside that needs to come out.

You will have to determine what is an appropriate ‘replacement’ behaviour for your child based on their developmental capacities and individual differences. The time to work on this is when the child is regulated and content.

If a child likes to throw objects, you can have the child throw objects into a basket. If the child tends to kick, work on kicking a soccer ball while they’re happy. If the child hits, provide a pillow or hanging objects to hit for fun. When the child throws/kicks/hits inappropriately, you can remind them about the appropriate behaviour.

It is more difficult if your child is behaving inappropriately due to sensory overload or pain. You know your child best to know if the child is in an environment that is very dysregulating and a medical professional should be able to help you determine if your child has an underlying medical cause for pain.


Modelling Empathy and Respect

When you are overwhelmed with a distressed child, your child needs to see that you can tolerate him or her and show empathy and respect for what they are going through. We usually want to avoid the child because it is uncomfortable for us, but Dr. Greenspan said this will only isolate the child and make them feel “rejected, vulnerable, angry and frightened”. (Building Healthy Minds, page 356).

Dr. Greenspan suggested that having more daily Floortime sessions will provide your child with more opportunities to connect with you and problem-solve. By increasing the amount of quality time you spend with your child in Floortime, you improve the child’s connection with you and you are showing empathy to your child.

Similarly, Dr. Neufeld says we want to provide more contact and closeness to the child who is the most difficult in our eyes because it is through the connection that our children develop and learn. The ‘good behaviour’ naturally comes with development and maturation, he says.

In your Floortime sessions where you respect your child’s emotional motivations and interests, you will work on emotional signalling through gestures, facial expressions, affect and other non-verbal ways of communicating so your child will learn to follow your cues.


Collect Before You Direct

For limit-setting outside of catastrophic emotional meltdowns, a very important point is not only that it be done in the context of a good relationship, but that we must keep in mind the functional emotional developmental capacities.

That is, we want to have shared attention, engagement, and a back-and-forth interaction. Similarly, Dr. Neufeld talks about ‘collecting’ the child which means getting ‘the eyes, the nod, and the smile’ prior to trying to give any directions or expect the child to respond or pay attention to you.

When our child is engaged with us, they will now be more attuned to our non-verbal communication that will act as cues to appropriate behaviour. If we are instead just barking out direction without the child’s attention, the child will not learn to use the emotional signalling necessary to move along developmentally.

Recognizing How to Help

In Building Healthy Minds, Dr. Greenspan recognizes that children can be upset for many different reasons and we must tailor how we help based on these reasons. For instance, if a child is very tired, we help by settling the child down through co-regulation. Use whatever helps soothe your child rather than get caught up in the protest and upset.

On the other hand, if a child is frustrated because something they are trying to do is too difficult and it’s not working, we can empathize. Dr. Greenspan points out that even a child throwing down a shoe in frustration “is still an advanced communication involving gestures” (page 358) so we need to respect that.

When a child is frustrated and wants your help, Dr. Greenspan suggests that you act as a ‘consultant’ rather than doing everything for the child. Ask how you can help and then proceed to help how the child desires you to. You can also give step-by-step direction patiently so the child sees that you are patient, empathetic, and willing to help.

The Use of Sanctions

Both Dr. Greenspan and Dr. Neufeld have talked about the dangers of using time-outs. For Dr. Greenspan, isolating a child is detrimental because our children require interactions with others to develop and might not understand that it is a sanction, thus it will not improve the problem.

For Dr. Neufeld, time-outs provide more frustration since our pre-eminent need is our connection with those we are closest to. The practice of time-outs will backfire because it will push our child’s face into separation which is alarming to all children.

Dr. Greenspan also points out that if limit-setting is cold or mechanical it will contradict what you want to model, which is empathy and respect. Meanwhile, Dr. Neufeld states that if you use what the child enjoys against them, you will break down the trust which will damage the relationship.

Instead, Dr. Neufeld says, you can use structure and rituals to impose behaviour. Such rituals as daily mealtime or bedtime will show children what is expected and predictable. By controlling the situation, rather than the child, you can anticipate many ‘bumps’ before they happen and take the responsibility to avoid aggravating situations.

When We Feel Unable to Set Limits

In Building Healthy Minds, Dr. Greenspan also discusses overprotective parents who find it difficult to set limits with their children because they do not like seeing their children upset. Here, he recommends self-reflection to determine where the guilt and discomfort stem from.

Meanwhile, by offering more Floortime sessions with your child, you can continue to work on the connection while learning what type of limits work for your child that you are comfortable with. Dr. Greenspan says some children might respond to a simple stern look, for instance, while others might need more concrete motivations.

Hear Dr. Stanley Greenspan talk about setting limits, part 1

Hear Dr. Stanley Greenspan talk about setting limits, part 2

Hear Dr. Stanley Greenspan talk about setting limits, part 3

Using Floortime to supplement discipline is a way to help your child develop and mature with empathy and respect for others. A strategy to help ensure you are implementing a good Floortime session is to use self-reflection about your interactions. Next time, we will discuss this strategy with psychologist Dr. Andrea Davis in great detail and provide a tool for you to use in implementing this practice yourself.

Until next time… here’s to affecting autism through playful interactions!

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