I Accept The Mess: What Setting Limits Looks Like

Crying, tantrums, whining, hitting, yelling – it’s all hard.  I’ve worked to accept all these feelings from my children, and yet, it’s still messy.   That’s the way it’s supposed to be – unpredictable, uncomfortable, inconvenient, and definitely messy. My 3 ½-year-old daughter is going through the push and pull of independence. She’s blossoming at preschool, and so she seeks security at home. This morning we had a “messy morning.” This morning we had it all-testing, crying, yelling, hitting. Eventually I lost my patience.

tobbo / Pixabay

tobbo / Pixabay

I have always told my kids that it is OK to cry.  I tell them that tears are like magic, washing away the mad and the sad and the bad, and that when the tears stop, you feel better. This morning, though, I was put to the test.  My daughter’s “upset” looks nothing like my son’s did.  When she is upset, she doesn’t storm and yell and hit, and it doesn’t pass quickly.  Her crying lasts a long time, sometimes up to an hour.  And while I accept the crying, I have come to realize that I don’t have to be there and hold her through it from beginning to end every time.  I don’t have to obligate myself to that, especially when I literally can not.  She can work through it on her own sometimes and through that process she learns that she can handle hard feelings on her own and that they do pass.  I don’t always have an hour to spare, and sometimes my senses can’t take it. I can help her by acknowledging her emotions, but I don’t have to be her figurative and sometimes literal crutch. She is a more than competent child and she will be OK.


This morning we were ready for breakfast, but my daughter wouldn’t eat.  When we were finished with breakfast, it was time to get dressed, but she wouldn’t. I let it be.  When she started yelling at her older brother, he called her mean and she started to cry.  She wanted me to sit with her, but I couldn’t—it was time to go to school.  She was hungry, in her pajamas, and very upset. She  told me she hated me and that she should be able to eat in the car.  She wanted to get dressed, but it was too late.  I acknowledged her feelings and said kindly, “I know you want to get dressed.  I’m sorry, but we are out of time.  You’ll have to get dressed after we take your brother to school.”  She went into hysterics, grabbing my leg, sobbing as I tried to load up the car. “I’m sorry it’s so hard for you today.  I can’t let you grab my legs.  Can you walk to the car seat or should I help you in?” She continued to hold onto my leg, so I picked her up and said, “I know. You aren’t ready.  I’ll have to help you this time.”  She writhed in the car seat as I struggled to get the top buckle done. She pulled her knees up so I couldn’t buckle the bottom.  I stayed calm and in control while I got her safely buckled. I told her that I would go get her brother and be right back.  I went inside and my son said, “MOM! Why is Anna mean to me all the days?!  I didn’t do ANYTHING!”  I sighed and said, “I know. Her brain is growing fast right now, so it’s hard for her to stay calm. It’s a 3-year-old’s job to be upset a lot.”  To which he retorts, “Well, it is TERRIBLE when Anna’s brain grows!”


In the car, I acknowledged the bad morning. “I know nothing went your way this morning. You wanted to eat and you couldn’t, and you wanted to get dressed and you couldn’t. It was hard.” She nodded and continued crying. I started the car. She wanted me to reach back and hold her hand while she cried.  “It’s not safe for me to hold your hand while I’m driving, I can’t.” She cried some more and she hated me some more.  We pulled onto the highway; she was still crying. There was  a lot of traffic. My daughter was now screaming.  A car swerved into my lane.  Her brother hit her on the head. She shrieked and cried.  I shrieked and cried. There was too much going on and I’d lost my calm center. “BE QUIET, I CAN’T CONCENTRATE! I CANNOT TAKE IT ANYMORE!”  My son yelled back “THAT IS NOT OK MOM!  SHE IS JUST CRYING! DON’T YELL LIKE THAT!” Humbled by the reflection of my own teachings, I breathe and say, “You’re right, I’m sorry.”

It was a long, loud car ride and I’d reached the end of my nervous system’s capacity. Yet he was right.  After a few minutes, I caught my son’s face, contorted with rage, in the rear-view mirror, “I’m very angry at you.  You made everything worse. You know that, right?”  I answered, “Yes, yes I do.”  We finished out the last ten minutes of the drive in relative silence, the solace of a wailing 3-year-old in the background.

When we got back in the car after dropping off her brother, she cried all the way to preschool.  We put her clothes on in the car and walked into school, where she happily trotted off to her friends and said, “Bye bye Mama, I love you!”  I hung my head and let out a laugh of mixed emotions.

That is what a messy morning looks like.  It’s hard and it’s ugly.  It’s also amazing –  if you can reflect and appreciate that you give your children the space to do just what they needed to do.   It’s the limits that we set that enable our children to come running back to us with confidence or to let us go with ease. These messy mornings lay the groundwork for all of the good ones.

I could have fed her breakfast in the car. I could have been late dropping off her brother.  But if I had done those things, then every morning would be hard. They wouldn’t learn that I won’t let them do things they shouldn’t. They wouldn’t understand that I am an equal member of the family, that I can’t fulfill every demand and still be worthy of respect. They wouldn’t learn that my love for them does not diminish my own person-hood and my own needs. They wouldn’t get to learn that every emotion has a beginning, a middle, and an end, as Magda Gerber said. They wouldn’t learn that I am human and that I love them, no matter what.

I accept this mess.

For more on accepting big feelings and setting limits you might like these quite a bit:

Babies Crying- A Parent’s ‘Bad Day’ Survival Secret

Why “Choosing Your Battles” May Not Be An Effective Parenting Strategy

10 thoughts on “I Accept The Mess: What Setting Limits Looks Like

  1. It’s really something isn’t it?! I still don’t get how my 3yo happily goes to bed without lunch after I calmly set the limit of no more food, or how he happily eats his food when there’s a little more time after getting ready for bed quickly, even though he didn’t touch a bite of it for 45 minutes at dinner time when he was all out of sorts pver some other conflict. I keep expecting an all-out meltdown, and I’m so surprised when I don’t get it, because ewhay he really needed was my confidence. Obviously there are still some hour-long, epic meltdowns, but it’s because that’s what he needed that day. Thanks for the encouragement to keep at it!

  2. Great article. It’s comforting to see that this happens to other people, could easily be a day in my own home.

  3. I just wanted to say thank yo for this post. My sister sent me the link to it. I only recently (maybe the past year or so) discovered RIE and haven’t been the most successful student. My mornings (and evenings) have been very messy lately with my preschooler. This gives me hope and helps me to recollect and remember how to respond better. My sister sent this to me because she knows I’ve lost my cool quite a bit lately.. Thanks again!!

  4. Crying cause I relate. I particularly love the last 3 paragraphs (meaning 2 paragraphs and last sentence!) Thanks.

  5. When we do not have time, it is hard to focus on listening to children’s feelings. Creating emotional safety, holding space for them to process big feelings requires time, space, intention and time again.
    It is always good practice but not easy to do (it’s easy to say and point out) to look at the bigger picture, chase the why (not ask the kid, why are you crying) the child is so deeply upset. Is it the stress of a new school year? Is she tired and overwhelmed? Are there hidden stressors in her life? Does she have unmet needs?
    What I would suggest for this particular instance is NOT acknowledging the bad morning in the car at all. Just move on. it’s ineffective given the circumstances and it accomplishes nothing. I know as moms we feel guilty.
    You can do that later. Whatever teaching learning a parent is intending to do. That’s important. It is not about the breakfast or getting dressed. Those pretexts for much deeper needs or issues the child has. I would also suggest doing some mindfulness teaching with your child not in those messy moments but in general. There are wonderful resources out there now.

    • Thanks for the reply. It sounds like you think I might not know the “why” for my child or what her unmet needs might have been, I did – as I wrote in the article she was sad about some other stuff at school and just needed a good cry. I actually do prefer to acknowledge and listen to what my child is going through. What I love about active listening helps regulate an emotionally flooded child by helping to de-flood the brain. It also helps create self awareness. In acknowledging and active listening to her it was quite effective for us because she felt seen and understood. If the goal is to stop the crying, then no, it was not effective, but that was not my goal. It absolutely was not about breakfast or getting dressed and it was not hard to listen to her feelings until I almost got hit by a car and needed to concentrate extra hard! I felt no guilt what so ever, but thanks for the vote of sympathy, I know lots of parents do. Here are a couple of my favorite links on the topic. I’m guessing you’ve probably seen them already since you also teach parenting classes.

  6. But what do you do if you can’t physically “help” your child into their car seat? My son is 4.5 yrs but I can no longer strap him in if he is fighting against it. He is too strong now.

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