11th December 2018

Why Boundaries Matter

So, back to the supermarket...what do most parents tend do in this moment? They either give in to the child’s demands, pick up their little one, abandon the trolley, and flee the store as quickly as possible…or start crying as well. Fight, flight, or freeze. It sometimes seems those are the only options, right?

But what if you knew you had a more productive option? What if you could keep it together, let your little have their fit, and still get to the check out with all the items you had on your list (and all without your own little meltdown)?

So what is the secret?


The key to staying calm is to refrain from going into “survival mode” and to use the problem solving part of your brain. How? Before you panic, ask yourself these 2 questions.

  1. Does my child have all of his/her needs met?

This includes physical AND emotional needs. It is true that emotional needs are just as important as physical needs. In younger infants, it can be very difficult to distinguish between the two and that is why I typically encourage parents to play it safe, especially as that initial bond is being formed with parent and baby. (In addition to this, some children with unique sensory needs tend to get overstimulated easily. It’s important to take note of this as a possibility. If their crying turns into full on meltdown mode, this could be an indication they may need a change of environment in order to regulate again.)

  1. How will my response to my child’s cry help OR hinder?

A child’s cry is a form of communication and an opportunity to communicate in return. If a child is crying because they need something, then the parent’s prompt attention is crucial. If a child is crying because they want something and have been told “no”, then the parent’s immediate attention could communicate to the child that crying is an effective way to engage in a power struggle with their parent. If the parent, ultimately, gives in, this communicates to the child, “If you cry long enough and hard enough, mum or dad will eventually give in.” 

You see, when your child cries, no matter what age, your response communicates a message to them. Young infants seek safety, security, and the certainty that their NEEDS will be met. This is why they cry. As they move along in development, they begin to explore their environment, test things out, and eventually seek out autonomy and independence. They understand firmly how their needs get met and they begin to test out the same techniques for getting their WANTS met as well. Because crying has always been their best form of communication, they test it out for getting what they want in addition to what they need. For the parent, this is where the lines blur and frustration sets in. And with frustration, comes that “survival mode”, fight, flight, or freeze… none of which are very productive.

Wants versus Needs

As a general rule, most children begin to experiment with crying for a WANT vs a NEED around age 1 and it tends to peak between ages 2.5-3.5 years. This stage in development is all about them learning how much control they have over themselves and their environment. This is their way of feeling safe and secure. They start to test every little boundary and as a result, they begin to develop self-esteem and a self-concept. Children whose parents lovingly maintain firm boundaries develop a better self-concept and higher self-esteem overall. These children are also given an opportunity to learn to regulate their own emotions, a skill that is vital for growing into a confident and mentally healthy adult. Does that mean that every time your child cries for a want, they should be ignored? No. It means that HOW you respond really matters.

So what is the secret to responding to your child’s cry?

Well, if it’s a cry for a NEED, then meeting that need as quickly as possible is what will help your child to feel safe and secure. If it’s a cry for a WANT, keeping those boundaries firm is what will help your child feel safe and secure. Here a few key phrases that can be used to communicate strong boundaries in a loving way when your child is crying, whining, or complaining:

“I know…”

“I’ll talk to you when you’re calm”

“I love you.”

“I see that you’re sad.  Do you need a hug?”

OR simply remaining silent and going about business as usual.



Does this apply to night-time as well? I am a huge advocate of gentle, no cry sleep training methods, but it’s important to note that little ones will sometimes cry at bedtime and in the night, because they simply want to see if they can get your attention. Children typically expect consistency from their parents 24 hours-a-day so if boundaries move in the daytime, they will expect the same at night and vice-versa. Inconsistent enforcement of boundaries is a sure-fire way to guarantee tears.

Does this apply to times of big transition, like a move or new sibling? Yes, however in times of transition many children will NEED extra emotional support so please remember to start with the question: Does my child have all of his/her needs met? (including emotional needs).

Many parents see crying as something that must be stopped immediately, but the truth is crying is a form of communication. And just like with any difficult behaviour, it presents you with an opportunity to respond in a way that can empower your child to develop the skills they need achieve success, knowing they are loved and cared for.


About the Author

Kacie, is a mother and educator who believes in the power of a positive family dynamic. She has over 16 years of experience working with children and parents in her community. She supports families through parent coaching, public speaking, and teaching parenting classes.

Kacie attended MSU Denver and holds a BA in Human Development with a concentration of Early Childhood Education, as well as a Minor in Nutrition. Her education has been further expanded as a REAL Essentials Facilitator through the Center For Relationship Development. Kacie is also a Trained Independent Facilitator of Love & Logic Curricula.  

Her passions include empowering parents and children to achieve their goals and desires, improving parent-child relationships, and assisting families in their overall health through nutritional awareness.

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