Listening while Setting a Limit is counter to how we were raised, but those old ways just don’t seem to be working.
I had about had it with not being able to go to the bathroom alone. My normally independent and self-directed almost six-year-old daughter was going through a fearful stage where she would literally scream if she discovered she was alone in a room, even if she could hear you right in the next one.
If she had to go to the bathroom, she wanted you to come with her. If she needed a toy from upstairs, she would insist she could not possibly get it without adult company. I was sorry she was scared, but I wanted to find a way to encourage her back into living her life without her Mommy-as-security-blanket.
So one Sunday my husband and I spent the whole day with my daughter. We took her out for the day with some of her friends and then the three of us had a quiet dinner together at home. When we were cleaning up the kitchen after our dinner, I asked my daughter to run upstairs and get the breakfast tray she had left at the foot of my bed that morning. She refused, saying she was too frightened.
I took a deep breath. It had been a really good day. I thought maybe it was time for us both to face this fear head on. Setting limits isn’t my favorite part of parenting. I’m not always certain about when to nurture and when to foster independence, what is an appropriate challenge and what is asking too much of my child.
I bent down and looked at my daughter. Then, softly but with certainty, I told her that I knew she could do it and that I would stand downstairs, where I could see her go down the hall because there’s a balcony. I reminded her that she was safe. She began to cry and rant that she couldn’t get the breakfast tray and she would not get the tray.
I was in a good place after a nice day together with my daughter and her stepdad, so I decided to hold the limit and let the feelings come. I touched her shoulder and softly told her I could see that she was afraid but that I knew she could do it and I would watch from downstairs. She insisted she would die of fright. I told her that I could see she was so scared it felt like she might die, but that she could do it. We went back and forth like that for 45 minutes, which built into shaking and crying and at one point she even screamed for “Help!” over and over. I don’t know where it came from but there was certainly a big pile of terror packed into that little girl.
But she eventually did it! When she finally made it down the hall and got the breakfast tray, she threw the tray as hard as she could down the stairs, still crying heartily. I gave it back to her. She threw it two or three more times before carrying it down into the kitchen. Downstairs she let me hold her while she cried the rest of the available fears out. “You did it,” I reminded her.
Then she sat up, got herself a glass of milk and said, “I’m going to watch a show before bed.” Her stepdad and I stared at one another a bit shaken from all the emotion. But she just walked off, into another room, all by herself, without a backwards glance!
I felt so glad she could trust me with that big chunk of terror. If I had rushed in to rescue her, comfort her, tell her I would go with her to get the tray, she wouldn’t have been able to let the feelings out and all that nasty stuff would still be stuck inside her festering. This way is loud, shaky and messy, and I know I’m not helping her perfectly, but at least I know that we can both survive whatever it is she may need to feel and still be able to move forward with both our lives.