Q. I have a wonderful relationship with my two daughters, ages 3 and 6. We give each other hugs and kisses and spend plenty of time with each other. I enjoy our relationship but often find myself feeling suffocated by their need for my attention. I try my hardest to set limits, but they often end up climbing on me or my chair or begging me to pick them up. Most of it is instigated by the older of the two, and it becomes a competition for attention. Other than “Mommy needs time too,” how can I convey my own personal limits to them? I often end up yelling because they just won’t listen to my need for personal space and it starts a cycle of happy-annoyed-frustrated that seems to be on a never-ending loop!
A. Thank you for this great note. I talk to many parents about this issue, so rest assured, this is pretty normal.
Something I repeat over and over in my coaching (and my own parenting life) is “soft hearts and strong boundaries.” Our parenting job is to keep our hearts soft toward our children but hold strong and clear boundaries so that the children feel both loved and secure.
You have the “soft heart” down pat. It’s time to pay attention to the boundaries and how you can convey your personal limits in a way that is kind to your children and yourself.
When most parents think of boundaries, we think about rules around things (such as cookies, technology and toys) and routines (morning, bedtime, chores).
But there is also the importance of boundaries when it comes to our parental space.
You have the right to your own space, and by not respecting your space and placing some boundaries around it, you are actually creating more insecurity in the children (as evidenced by their clambering, fighting and competition).
Many mammals have this problem.
I recently happened upon a video from the Jane Goodall Institute about the beautiful chimpanzees and gorillas she has studied and loves so dearly. In the video, you see a mother who is lovingly, but assertively, telling her children, “That is enough.” While the mother is patient and tender with her children, the message is clear: Give me space. To be sure, it is slightly painful to watch, but there are beautiful lessons for us humans here. I strongly encourage all parents to watch these videos, as they place all of our struggles into a larger context.
All children need to take their place in the hierarchal nature of a family. This is not a “know your place, kid” mentality, nor is it “be seen and not heard.” This is a loving and powerful stance that is needed because children do not have the experience, wisdom or maturity to be in charge of the family.
Parents and caregivers must lead, and in the absence of that leadership, the children will become a bit “Lord of the Flies” and take over.
And in your case, quite literally.
What can you do? First, stop expecting the children to respect what you are saying. Stop expecting them to simply stop their behavior without further pushing, competition or drama. Your children are not consciously trying to torture you; they are just trapped in a dynamic and don’t feel that your boundaries are real. So stop the pleading and convincing.
Second, you need to walk away, and you can do this one of two ways: angrily or lovingly.
The angry way sounds like, “I have told you kids to stop doing that 300 times. Now I am locking myself in the bathroom.” The loving way sounds like, “Oh, look! Time for me to clean the sink! I am so glad you guys are following me. . . . Here are some paper towels. You can do the toilet.” The children will either help or run away. It’s a win-win.
The loving way uses more distraction and less lecturing. It’s more about moving the moment along.
And even if you do this beautifully and perfectly (which doesn’t really happen), your children are still going to cry. They are going to throw themselves on the floor. There may be tantrums. Extreme whining. Cries of abandonment and shock. Truly, expect some soap-opera-like behavior, and since you are expecting it, you can get ahead of it. You can use some of the most important parenting tools you have: compassion, kindness and empathy. “I know. It is sad when Mommy gets up. I know you love to climb on her.” Go ahead and agree with all of their big feelings; it is okay. With empathy, you can firmly and lovingly uphold the boundary of your space.
Third, and this might be the most important tip, be sure to give the children affection when they are not begging or fighting for it. Smother them with kisses and hugs and love when they are simply playing. You be in charge of the snuggle time. Does this mean you don’t hug a daughter when she comes for it? Of course not. Do what is right and natural. I am simply pointing you toward leading the dynamic. It will alleviate the anxiety and make you the rightful leader of your family.
Finally, I don’t know about your personal life, but I would like to add a little message of encouragement. Whatever you are doing or have passion for in your life, be sure that there is proper time for it. Working, playing the piano, writing, cooking, art, exercising, reading — you want your daughters to see you living a full life. A life that is not centered on them, surprisingly enough. They should orbit you, not the other way around, and you have the right to have interests and personal space. It is a good example for your children. And while they don’t know why exactly, all children feel relaxed when they see that their parents are vibrant, relaxed and fulfilled.
Kindly take your space back. Make room for their tears. Be an interesting and interested human. Repeat.
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Also at washingtonpost.com Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past columns. Her next chat is scheduled for Feb. 4.