Parenting Lessons: Loving ways to set limits

Understanding Our Fear of Limits
In addition to obvious reasons, such as fear that our children won't love us anymore, there is a more subtle level of "why" we as parents have trouble setting limits. A good place to start looking for these deeper whys is in the past, to the interactions you had as a child or teenager with your parents or anyone else who was intimately involved in your upbringing. We can't avoid the influence of the people who raised us in the way we parent our kids—for better or worse.

Each of us carries idealized images of good parents and bad parents inside of us, what I call our "inner parent." They influence our feelings and can have enormous power. When we remember the good version (the mother who always got up to cook us a hot breakfast, or the father who patiently helped us with our homework), we may try to live up to these visions—to emulate and please them. And so, in many instances, our good inner parents inspire us to be good parents. But our good inner parents can also influence us to be overly generous or overprotective—in general, over indulgent with our children. Trying to please a good inner parent can blind us to our children's real needs for limits.

Ironically, we can also indulge our children because we want to avoid any resemblance to our bad inner parent. If we had a mother or father who was never involved, we may vow to be as involved as possible in our children's lives, bending over backwards to fulfill their needs while we neglect our own. Thus, it's important to be able to distinguish between when we are parenting our kids and when we are reparenting ourselves as children. Fortunately, it is possible to remodel these inner parents, or, at least, to reduce their power over us. Just getting to know them, by simply being conscious of them, we diminish their influence.

Know Your Inner Parent
Take a moment to visit your inner parents on their home turf, inside your head. Start with the good inner parent. Begin by thinking about an experience with your mother that brings back positive feelings. (If you can't think of one, don't worry—you're not alone. Instead, pick another relative—your father or grandparent, for instance.) Try to remember as many details about the experience as you can. It makes no different whether your mom (or other relative) is as saintly as you remember her. What's important is that you believe she was. For an introduction to your bad inner parent, simply do the opposite of the first exercise. Recall a painful or traumatic experience with one of your parents, an incident in which you felt furious, abandoned or betrayed. As uncomfortable as this experience may be, try to remember that it is a necessary step toward changing your parenting style for the better.

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