This reluctance to set limits and claim time for herself, as well as the ensuing negotiations and constant infringements on the time she has set aside, can be one of the most fundamental causes of an older mother’s short fuse. “Mommy, are you mad at me? Are you okay?” four-year-old Allison asks Rae, her 44-year-old mother who has withdrawn behind closed doors for five minutes of recharging. “I don’t want her to think I’m angry, so I let her come in, and then we do whatever she wants to do,” Rae told me. “I’ve never said, ‘No, you can’t come in. I need to be by myself now.’ It’s getting harder and harder for me to take any time alone now. She can talk me into anything.”
Your child will test your limits, and it’s developmentally appropriate for them to do so. But we are doing them a great disservice if we give them the impression that they never have to learn how to manage the disappointment of not always getting their wishes granted. While we may be afraid that setting limits jeopardizes the relationship, in fact, kids feel loved and thrive with the security and safety this kind of structure provides. Clear-cut, well-established limits also provide the means by which we can meet our own needs without having to resort to erratic, unpredictable behavior. When the time is right and the emotional waters in the household are calm, sit down with your family and establish the fact that there are going to be times of the day or night when mommy takes time for herself. Instead of a child thinking that she must have done something wrong for mommy to go away behind a closed door, he or she can begin seeing this as normal, predictable behavior. Life begins to feel safe again for a child who may have been frightened by mom’s shifting moods. By normalizing the need to take time away, children come to expect that mommy will not always be available and that it’s not their fault. One creative mother I know utilized an “Off-Limits, Quiet Time” sign on her door, which she and her eight-year-old daughter made together. It was so appealing to her daughter that she asked if she could have one for her room too.