Top 3 Reasons Warmth and Limits Matter in Parenting. 

December 2016  

Parenting is wrought with beautiful, serene moments, laughter and merriment, as well as, ahem, let’s call them, “challenging moments.” Parents often seek the support of a child psychologist when they are feeling burned out, overwhelmed, and distraught with ideas of how they are “failing” as a parent. When I reflect on some of the key tenets that I worked on and processed with families in my practice this year, I quickly settle on one constant theme in my sessions with parents: exploring and teaching the critical importance of balancing warmth and understanding with good, old-fashion limits and boundary setting.  

“Sure, sure,” you say; you’ve heard all about warmth, limits. You get it; they matter. But, I believe that a large percentage of the parent-child interactions go sideways because parents are struggling to find a coherent philosophy or vision statement for how to parent. I am suggesting that understanding why balancing the soft and the firm will allow you to make more informed decisions in the moment when the going gets tough. Here are the top 3 reasons warmth and limits matter and form the foundation for a solid parent-child relationship: 

1. Children need to know you love them no matter what. 

I know it goes without saying that you love your children, but I want to emphasize the importance of communicating almost out-of-control, you are the sun-the moon-and-the-stars kind of unconditional love to children. I think that parents often misunderstand how sensitive and fragile children can be when it comes to internalizing their parent’s love. You may think, “Of course, my children know I love them! Duh!” Well, I’m here to tell you that children often, mistakenly, believe that your love is dependent upon their behavior, their accomplishments, and performance. 

Now, this is a difficult one because, as parents, you want to encourage your children to work hard, push forward, and do well. You understand that these traits and characteristics will afford them many opportunities and open doors in life. But, children need to know and understand…in every fiber of their being, that you love them no matter the outcome of the math test on Friday. 

2. Children need you to be in charge. 

They want you to be in charge. Sure, they are likely to balk and complain when you demand that they eat vegetables instead of candy for dinner, and you remember the huge commotion that was enacted when you took away their phone for talking back and ignoring your reminders about chores, but deep down, way, way down, they know that they need someone to take the reigns of this very complicated ride we call, “life.” 

Although children like to fancy themselves as mini-adults, wise and sage thinkers who know what is best for them, they are easily overwhelmed with too much “power.” Children with too much say and influence in their household are prone to high anxiety. In my practice, I see well-intentioned parents struggle in this area all the time. They pile on the love, but they trip over themselves when it comes to being firm, because they identify with their child (“They are sensitive just like me!”), they didn’t have strong examples of positive limit setting in their household growing up, or they just get incredibly squeamish at the sight of their children in discomfort over a denied wish. But, boundaries and structure are exactly what they need to comfortably manage the stresses of their everyday life. 

3. Children need their parents to be aligned. 

Finally, I find that parents often struggle to define a “united front” when it comes to balancing warmth with a firm limit setting. Typically, one parent might be the “good cop” while the other parent falls into the “bad cop” routine. Although these clichés are cute and clever, they can be damaging to each parent’s relationship with their child, and almost even more importantly, for parents in their relationship with their partner. And, please don’t EVER disagree with each other IN FRONT of your child. Children are seemingly hard-wired to be weakness-sniffing bloodhounds. If they sense that there is a break in the parenting alliance, they lose some confidence in the stability of the whole system…and uncertainty and anxiety take hold. Save your disagreements for a conversation behind closed doors! 

So, there you have it. 

The top three tips for forging a solid and stable relationship with your child and instilling stability and reassuring comfort into your child’s life. It certainly isn’t easy, but my hope and wish are that with a little bit of simple clarity as to what your parenting values and philosophy is, you will be able to navigate the complicated and emotion-filled moments of the day in a more thoughtful and reasoned manner. Happy parenting! 


By Laura C. Kauffman, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist
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