Parenting as a People Pleaser
Sometimes It can be hard to say no to your toddler, especially when you anticipate that they aren’t going to be happy. I’m 100% a people pleaser, I want people to be happy, so it’s definitely been hard for me. In this episode, Jessica VanderWier, Registered Psychotherapist, founder of Our Mama Village, is sharing a deeper understanding of how to appropriately set boundaries with your children, and how to handle it when your toddler gets upset or throws a tantrum because of those boundaries. If you know that you tend to be a people pleaser, this episode is definitely for you.
About Jessica VanderWier, Founder of Our Mama Village
Jessica has a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology, thousands of clinical hours supporting parents and their children, and now uses her expertise to support parents through online courses, personalized coaching, and free resources at Our Mama Village.
You’re listening to Feeding Toddlers Made Easy, and I’m your host, Kacie Barnes, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. Feeding Toddlers Made Easy answers your questions on how to make mealtimes easier, improve nutrition, and tackle picky eating. And we occasionally have special guest episodes like this one, to cover the non-food aspects of parenting that will not only help make mealtimes easier, but overall parenting, in general.
Boundaries 101: What, When, and Why
K: Okay, we’re gonna dive right in and get to the nitty gritty stuff. This is something that I think a lot of parents struggle with because, you know, I talked to my mom friends, I talked to people on Instagram, and this is really hard. So let’s first just talk about- what are boundaries? What does that mean when you’re setting a boundary with your toddler?
J: For sure, it’s such an important topic and it’s really good to clarify. So it’s a toddler’s job to explore the world around them. Anyone who has a toddler will tell you that they like to get into things they shouldn’t, touch things that they shouldn’t- I know I have a toddler and she likes to touch everything, get into every cupboard, try and touch the outlet, try and create big messes. So we know that this is what toddlers do. And though it is really frustrating for us as parents, it is how they make sense of the world around them.
We need to understand that they don’t know yet if their behavior is safe or if it’s unsafe, if it’s right or if it’s wrong. And they learn how to do this through us setting boundaries. The very first thing you want to realize is that boundaries are actually important and loving to set for our kids. I know you said you’re a people pleaser, and when you’re a people pleaser and you set a boundary and your child gets angry at you, it can be really hard to remember that it’s actually the most loving thing that you can do for your child. That’s why I wanted to just state that before we get into it any further.
Types of Boundaries
J: Boundaries can be verbal or physical. It’s important to note that there’s a couple different kinds of boundaries. For example, you might say something like, “I can’t let you hit the cat” to your child. I like that “I can’t let you” or “I won’t let you” is a really firm, clear verbal boundary for toddlers. But your toddler might continue to try and hit the cat. That’s when you might put in a physical boundary, “I’m going to move you over here till you’re safe” or “I’m going to hold your hands until you can be safe and soft with the kitty.” That’s the difference between the verbal or the physical. I usually like to start with the least intrusive boundary which would be a verbal boundary. And then if needed, I’ll come in with that physical boundary- the removal of the toy or holding a toddler’s hands or taking them to a safe place.
K: Okay, that’s really helpful. I actually just went through this yesterday and I’m so grateful that I have these tools now from following you and learning from you because- Emilia is 4 and she just had a total meltdown at the playground, and I just had to go pick her up and go. And you know, they’re pretty strong! She was hitting me and I had to say, “I can’t let you hit me,” and I was able to stay calm because I’ve learned how to do this- but that’s not my initial reaction. Because if someone is hitting you, you don’t like that. But I was able to stay calm and say that, and then I did need to hold her arms down to keep her from hitting me, but it’s definitely a learned skill.
J: Yes, and it takes a lot of practice, like you said. It makes so much sense that we feel like we want to react- when we’re getting hit our nervous system in our body literally goes into our fight or flight response. It’s not a normal thing for us to go about your day and just be hit. It makes sense your body wants to react, it wants to respond. So it does take time to learn how to be that calm and how to set boundaries. But when we can reframe the way we see boundaries- as loving, ‘this is the best thing that I can do for my child in this moment. This is how I can keep them safe and take care of them,’ it can make it a little bit easier.
K: I agree- that’s something that has really helped me is reminding myself that I’m doing this because I love you. I’m doing this because I’m keeping you safe. I’m keeping me safe. I do have to remind myself in the moment that I’m doing what I need to do.
How Boundaries Help our Kids Thrive
K: So what would you say about boundaries besides knowing that they are a good, loving thing for toddlers? Like what are the benefits of being able to set boundaries?
J: Yes, there’s so many benefits to setting boundaries. Boundaries are really how kids make sense of the world around them and stay safe. Through setting boundaries with kids, we’re able to help them learn right from wrong, and we’re also helping them learn what’s safe and what’s unsafe. The research shows us that children benefit from parenting that’s high on warmth, which is your unconditional love. ‘I’ll always love you no matter what.’ Those validating feelings, all of that- that’s so important. But children also benefit from parenting that’s high on boundaries. And that’s that control piece. Children may seem like they want to be in control. I have a little toddler who definitely has a big voice. And she acts like she wants to be in control all the time. But it’s too much responsibility for them, they really need those boundaries. And when we can set boundaries around things that are unsafe, like hitting you, or getting into an outlet, or trying to open a drawer to climb in, and that’s unsafe, we are starting to teach our children, ‘this is safe’, ‘this is unsafe’, ‘this is right’, ‘this is wrong’. And that’s how they start to make connections and make sense of the world around them.
Boundaries and the Emotional Power Struggle
K: Okay, that is really helpful information. Now, what are some places where parents struggle to make boundaries?
J: Yes, I think boundaries can be really tricky, especially like you said, if you have some more of those people pleasing tendencies- which we could go into, why we have those tendencies and all of that. That could be a whole other podcast. But when parents struggle with wanting to make their kids happy all the time, boundaries can be super tricky, because often our kids are not happy about the boundaries that we’re setting so it can be really hard to be consistent with them- especially when you have those toddlers that are very good at pushing back. I know even with my toddler, she’s not even talking a lot yet, but she has this really big voice. And sometimes it just feels easier to not have not set the boundary. Let’s say she’s watching Daniel Tiger and I go to turn it off and she has a complete tantrum because she’s so mad. Sometimes it just feels easier- parents are tired and we all have so much on our plate- to not hold the boundary. So I think that’s the trickiest part of boundaries- first, trying to set that boundary between your own feelings and taking on their emotions. And second, parents are often tired, overwhelmed, exhausted, and holding a boundary and the emotions that come with that can feel like a lot.
Consistency is Key
K: Yes. So now what happens if we find ourselves getting into this routine of maybe trying to set a boundary but then they push back and I’m too tired to deal with this. I’m overwhelmed. I can’t handle them being upset. And then I don’t hold the boundary. What happens when you don’t consistently set the boundaries and actually follow through on them?
J: For sure. When possible, being consistent can really help our kids and I think that we do all know this. So I say that with having a lot of grace for yourself. But if we think of behavior as learning, when we can be as consistent as possible setting those boundaries, they start to learn ‘what happens when I do this behavior, my parents set this boundary, and this is the result.’ And so their brain can start to make those connections a lot easier. And you might see a decrease in that challenging behavior a lot more quickly.
When we are inconsistent with our responses, it can become confusing to kids because they learn how to make sense of the world through what happens following their behavior. So if sometimes I turn off Daniel Tiger and they have a tantrum, and then I turn it back on but sometimes I don’t, they might think, ‘okay, I don’t know what’s going to happen if I get really angry at them. So next time, I might get angry, but for longer, and I’m not sure at what point my mom and dad might turn it back on.’ So the more inconsistencies there are, we might see more inconsistencies in behavior. We may see them push you harder for a longer amount of time and they end up a little bit more confused about what our expectations are. So when possible, that’s why we say it is important to try and stay consistent with both boundaries.
K: I notice a big difference between my husband and I; he is much better about being really consistent with the kids than I am. I will give myself the grace to say that I am with them most of the time, so I have to do a lot more of this than he does, but I do notice that when he says “okay, we’re turning off the show now and going upstairs,” they do it nine times out of ten because he I think because he has been so consistent with saying, ‘this is what I expect and I’m going to follow through on it.’ And with me sometimes they’ll be like, ‘oh, okay, I guess five more minutes.’ And that’s hard for me. So, yes, this is something that I totally work on with my therapist, because there’s a lot there.
Managing your Child’s Emotional Response to Boundaries
K: But for someone like me who has a harder time with it, what do we do when we feel like I’m anticipating my toddler being upset about this boundary? Or maybe I don’t think they’re going to get upset, but they still do. I try to set the boundary and then they get upset. What should I do?
J: For sure, I think it’s really important to talk about the after the boundary setting- what happens next. It’s really important to know, just like you said- that children will likely get mad at boundaries. I always say this to my clients when we first start setting boundaries: if you’ve never set boundaries before, if this is a new thing for you, if your children usually are the ones that are in control, your children are probably going to be quite angry when you start to set boundaries. And it’s important to note it’s totally normal and okay.
What I like to do is a few things: first, I like to imagine myself literally giving that emotion back to my toddler. I am also a very empathetic person, it’s very easy for me to take on the emotions of people in the room around me. And when my toddler and my preschooler- I also have a four year old Amelia- when my toddler and preschooler are upset with me, it can be really hard for me not to join in to that and feel like I need to do something different to make them happy.
So I try to acknowledge their feeling. I Imagine literally giving it back to them; it’s really helpful to separate what you’re feeling from their feelings. And then what I remember is my job is to be loving to them. So I can acknowledge their feeling and I can allow it. They’re allowed to be angry. And I’m allowed to continue to hold the boundary. So that’s what I do. I try to hold the boundary and I acknowledge their feelings around it. And I remind myself of the importance of consistency. And I have found in my house that the more consistent I am at setting the boundary, the easier it gets. At first, it’s tough, but the longer I am able to be consistent with it, it does get easier. And so I try to remind myself as well, ‘this will get easier. It’s tough right now, but it’s not forever.’
K: That is very helpful as well. Can you talk a little bit more about something that we can say to ourselves to help ourselves with knowing that it’s okay for them to be mad? So that parents can remember that it’s not ruining our relationship if our toddler is mad at us. I think sometimes parents feel like their child should not be upset with them. What do we do if we’re having a hard time with that?
J: For sure. That’s a big thing. And I just want to acknowledge that I see that in a lot of my clients as well- that worry. And there’s so much more going on behind that worry than that exact moment. We’re worried about the relationship that we have with our child. One thing that can be really helpful is reframing the word ‘boundary’ to ‘loving limit’. And I really like that reframe: in my own head, ‘this is a loving limit’. It reminds me that it is loving, that it’s actually a good thing. And I tell myself: all feelings are okay. The best thing that I could do for my child’s right now is allow them to experience whatever magnitude it is of the feeling that they’re having. This will allow me to be able to connect with them on a deeper level. And that allows them to experience the full range of their emotions. And I also like to remind myself that setting loving limits or setting boundaries makes me a good parent who cares for my child, not a bad parent who’s trying to get into arguments with my child- which we can sometimes feel. So those are the things that I find and my clients find helpful. Is there anything that you find helpful when you’re in that moment?
K: I think for me, it’s about reminding myself that my job is not to keep them happy all the time. Because sometimes I start to feel like, you know, that is my job. And I have to remind myself that’s not my job, because I’m not going to be with them 100% of the time for their whole life. And they do need to learn how to experience these emotions and handle it, and what better place than to do it with me where I know that they’re safe? They can learn how to process that. And also knowing it’s not that they’re going to hate me forever, or we’re not going to have a good relationship just because they get upset with something that I said.
J: Exactly. I think I have a post on that, that helping our children deal with disappointment in our presence is such a gift that we can give to them. And yes, the goal of childhood is not to be happy all the time. When a parent can allow their child to be disappointed and help them cope with that, that’s huge. And that’s a skill that will take them through their whole life.
K: Yes, I think a lot of us grew up with the parenting style where we were told, ‘you’re fine, you’re fine, everything’s fine, you’re okay.’ And it’s so different now that we’re really getting the skills, maybe for the first time in our life, to not only help ourselves with that, but help our children to know, ‘it’s okay if you’re not always fine, you can feel upset about something.’
J: Yeah. And so often when we’re saying that to our child, and we’re saying ‘it’s okay to not be fine’, we’re really saying it to ourselves, as well. And so much of parenting is parenting ourselves along with parenting our kids. So it can be a healing process as well to allow your children to experience all these feelings.
K: Is there anything else before we wrap up that you feel is important for parents to know about this, or a message that you want to give to parents?
Give it Time
J: For sure, I think I just want parents to know to give themselves some grace as they learn how to set boundaries. As you said, so many of us did not grow up with that. A lot of us grew up with boundaries being in the form of just ‘go to your room’, you know, kind of, ‘get away from me’- this whole separation based boundaries, or spanking, or other things like that. So learning how to set boundaries in this loving limit style that we talked about today can be so overwhelming at times and feel really, really different from how you were raised. And I know I talked about consistency being important, but I just want parents to know, too: if you’re just starting this out, give yourself some grace. Know that it takes time, it takes practice. It’s a skill for you as well. And it will get easier over time.
More from Our Mama Village
K: If there’s somebody who’s like, ‘this sounds amazing, but I need more help.’ What can they do?
J: Yeah, for sure we have a people pleaser workshop that I think would be really helpful. That’s right in line with everything we talked about today, and it really dives into a lot more about you as a parent, why people are people pleasers, how this happens and how to break out of the cycles and actually find your own strong voice. And then at the end of the people pleaser workshop, we talk a lot about how we can help children find their own strong voice, and how we can do this even when we set boundaries. I really find that that digs into so much that we would love to get into this conversation, but it’s hard to just fit into a podcast.
K: Yes. Well, I’m in. Sign me up. I will link that in the show notes for everybody to check that out. Can you access it anytime?
J: Yes, it was previously recorded, but you’re able to access it anytime now.
K: Okay, awesome. Jess, thank you so much for helping us today.
J: Thanks so much, Kacie. It was so fun to be able to come on and get to chat with you more.
Jessica VanderWier, Our Mama Village, full bio
Jessica VanderWier is a Registered Psychotherapist who helps families understand and respond to their child’s “big feelings” with gentleness and respect. Jessica has a Master’s Degree in Counselling Psychology and has logged thousands of clinical hours supporting parents and their children. Through groups, presentations, and one-on-one clinical sessions Jessica has helped hundreds of parents restore peace to their home.
As the founder of Our Mama Village, Jessica uses her expertise to support parents through online courses, personalized coaching, and free resources. Our Mama Village offers daily parenting guidance to over 450,000 families on their popular Instagram account.
Jessica lives in the Niagara Region with her husband Scott and their two daughters. Whenever she finds the time, Jessica loves to be outside in nature, and is always looking for new quirky hole-in-the-wall restaurants or fun coffee shops with Scott.