As a mother raising toddler boys, I’ve had lots of reason to explore positive defiance of late. As toddlers we have a wide world to explore, but little in the way of boundaries, meaning that we either learn them from toddlerhood, or we are boundary deficient as teenagers and into adulthood. Toddlers are defiant by nature as the id, ego and super ego continue to form, and the ‘I’ is the only concept that they know. So whilst this balancing act is what causes the many rages experienced by parents who say no to a toddler, it’s also important to emphasise that an adult deficient in these self regulatory mechanisms will be acting out the defiant toddler throughout the life span.
Self-regulation and boundaries
Self-regulation is critical to healthy boundary forming and ranges from emotional regulation right through to control of actions and desires. The limbic system also has a part to play here as in itself it is regulatory by nature. However a limbic system in a child who has been chastised or controlled too vigorously will become deficient or malnourished. The amygdala is the emotions centre of the limbic system and as such is responsible for regulating positive and negative emotions but also fear responses are formed here, as are fight or flight.
So my point here I guess is that if a child does not learn positive defiance, or how to say no in a way that is contextually appropriate, then they may become an adult who is either too compliant, or even someone exhibiting a mental health condition. Conversely Too permissive and they can become a non conformist, so it is definitely about finding a healthy balance which is what authoritative parenting seems to offer.
Forming healthy boundaries
So how do you balance this to try to help the forming of healthy boundaries?
Allowing a child to be able to act out a no at times without consequence, or in other words, not sweating the small stuff, means that they begin to develop a sense of positive self. The child with the most controlling parent can be the child with a deficient amygdala, which is undernourished and shrunken and not working properly.
We mustn’t forget that our sense of ‘I’ will be coming from a place that we know as a parenting stance, and this in turn will be positive or negative but often Unacknowledged. So when we lock horns with a toddler it is our ego vs theirs. I’ve begun to look at whether what they are doing is harmful or dangerous, and if it isn’t Then I just let them do things which might otherwise result in a control situation. One example is bedtime, where my default is to tell them to get into bed, because that’s what my ‘parenting locus of control’ tells me they should do. Then if there is defiance when they continue to play and it ends in a battle it ends in authoritarian parenting. So instead I put them to bed, tuck them in and give them a kiss, and expect that they will get out of bed and play for the next hour as soon as my back is turned. That’s ok, that’s just their locus of control kicking in.
The authoritative parent
An authoritative parent is one where the authority lies with them but the children also have a sense of control, an authoritarian parent however is the ‘do as I say’ model.
In authoritative mode (Baumrind 1966).
I haven’t told them that they must stay in bed, which is where the ‘I’ or authoritarian parenting would have kicked in and I would then have a battle wills with them. As a parenting style it can offer sensitivity, reasoning, boundary setting and most importantly to me emotional responsivity. It also shares some positive features with permissive parenting, a style I personally don’t find helpful when looking at teaching children boundaries and self reliant mechanisms.
This picking of battles in parenting means that the amygdala in a child’s brain doesn’t need to go into shutdown, or have the medulla producing hormones which can become corrosive such as adrenaline in a fight or flight response, Such as a child who is being regularly shouted at may produce.
In recognising the small ways that we can be responsible for healthy boundaries in children we can give them a toolkit that will serve them their whole lives.
Compliance as a social construct will always have its place, which is necessary, however letting children be children and picking your battles for boundary setting allows for a sense of healthy balance between knowing when to say ‘no’ and becoming too compliant.
As a caveat I’m a little rusty on some of the technicalities of this stuff so be kind if it isn’t to the letter!
Here’s to a positive parenting revolution!
About the author: To read more about Caralyn Cox MAPP, please click here.