Setting Limits: Helping our Children Feel Whole Again

Mary Esther Malloy
6 min readNov 23, 2021
One of the moms in the Setting Limits with Toddlers group

When our children melt down in response to a limit, something has them out of sorts. Something has left them stressed and they can no longer think. “The kindest thing you can do for (them),” writes Patty Wipfler, “is to stop the misbehavior and listen… filling (your child) with your quiet confidence that she’ll recover.” Patty Wipfler is the author of Listen, and founder of Hand in Hand Parenting. Her work has inspired how I’ve parented and the parenting groups I facilitate.

When my Setting Limits with Toddlers group first met, we talked, laughed and cried about what it takes to listen with compassion to the gale force winds of toddler upset, especially when the storm is kicked off by what seems to us a perfectly reasonable limit: bedtime for an exhausted two-year-old, a jacket that must be worn on a freezing day, dinner before dessert.

At that first meeting, we considered why the effort to stay connected and listen with warm authority to our beloved little whirling dervishes (fighting the pull to distract, lecture, bribe, feed or punish them back into “good” behavior) is so worth it.

“Listening to your child’s upset doesn’t mean approving of her feelings,” Wipfler writes, “it’s your way of bathing her in your caring during her toughest moments.” This reminds parent and child alike, say Wipfler, that feelings of hurt and upset will heal when someone listens and cares and “opens a gateway to better times and happier children.”

For our second meeting, we thought more about the processes by which people — big and small — move through stressful experiences. We opened with a question I put to the group: In your own childhood, who acted as a buffer for you, helping you with stressful situations? A friend, sibling, parent, grandparent, aunt, teacher, coach… We touched on the difference between a child handling a stressful situation in isolation, or with support.

We then thought about stress, ours and our children’s.

Stanford Neuroscientist Robert Sepulsky tells us that our nervous system is built for “three minutes of screaming terror” on the savannah, a fierce fight or frantic flight from the leopard that would make dinner of us. After these three minutes of abject terror, if we haven’t been eaten by the leopard, Sepulsky says our nervous system, now having discharged the cortisol and other stress hormones that just saved our lives, is designed to drop down to “rest and digest.” We get back to nibbling the local greenery. (See Nova piece of Sepulsky’s work).

The challenge for modern humans of course is that surging cortisol can become a chronic state. We run this same stress system (primed for a mad dash to safety or full-on battle for survival) in a body that after feeling threatened by a boss’s put-down must sit for hours in a cubicle, get itself home on a painfully slow-running subway (no matter if it we are already late for the sitter), and then come home to bills, dishes, and a child whose own nervous system might be all too primed to begin discharging its own pent up tension the minute we say as cheerily as we can, “Okay. Bedtime!”

Research abounds with evidence of what chronically high cortisol levels are doing to our bodies: wrecking them with chronic inflammation, disordered moods, lack of focus, elevated blood sugar and heart rate. Nothing good! Fortunately, there are many ways for us to lower cortisol: exercise, meditation, nutrition, and sleep have all been shown to be effective.

So, dear busy parents, get thee to the gym! Or take long walks with the babes in carriers or strollers, meditate as you put your kids to sleep, cut out the processed food, and shut off the screens at dark so you’ve got a good shot at a decent night’s rest.

But here are three more things to think about that might help you and your family thrive.

  • Tears
  • Laughter
  • Anything that produces oxytocin

When it comes to our children, remember that when we firmly and lovingly set a limit and a child moves from resistance to tears and then raging and storming, this child is telling us that they now feel safe enough to off-load some pretty bad feelings that have temporarily left them feeling and acting miserably. It might look like straight up “bad behavior,” but they are trying as hard as they can to work themselves back to their better selves. Faced with such huge emotions, it is tempting to promise Ice cream if they can pull it together or put them in time out to teach them a lesson, but a good cry in your arms (or a good rage with your patient attention) will do something much deeper: help your child heal from whatever stressors are leaving them off-kilter. Research shows that tears can contain cortisol. When our children have a good emotional cry with the upset buffered by adult support, they are draining this poison from their bodies and helping them to feel whole again. Who doesn’t feel better after a good cry?

Or a good laugh, for that matter?

Laughter, too, does a brilliant job lowering cortisol levels and is another great way children can get through some built up bad feelings. When it’s time for the next limit, if you can reach past your exhaustion and go goofball and if your goofiest moves elicit laughter, work it! Then, let your child make you laugh. Yup. It takes time. But a good belly laugh will help everyone have a better day. (For more, see Listen Chapters on Setting Limits and Playlistening). One of my personal highlights from the workshop was Anisah’s story of her efforts to diffuse the nightly teeth brushing standoff with her son. Her strategy? She channels Carol Burnett. And lucky for us, she couldn’t help but launch into the routine. While her son apparently doesn’t always find it funny, we sure did. Cortisol levels in the room were plummeting, to judge by the guffaws.


And then there’s Oxytocin. Oxytocin is described as the “love,” “social connection,” or “trust” hormone and it literally mops up cortisol as it moves through the blood stream. Anything that enhances oxytocin is doing us moderns a favor.

Oxytocin boosts are immeasurably good for your children: give your toddler a bear hug, rub her back with your hand skin-on-skin, look her in the eye and smile, make sure she has time around other kids, let her snuggle in bed with you. For a whooper of an oxytocin hit, breastfeed your toddler — this is a major way babies and toddlers (and their mothers) regulate cortisol. And, then, when the storm of toddler emotion breaks, stay close! Let your toddler know that you are there. Do your best to stay connected. This will build resilience as your children learn to move through those big, ugly feelings, secure in their attachment to you.

This is not easy because toddlers can push every button we’ve got. Right?!?!

But here is an interesting question that we took up in our workshop. How did these buttons get set in the first place, uniquely for each of us? Presumably, we weren’t born with them. And if we learned them, perhaps we can unlearn them and parent with greater equanimity. Research is showing that the new parenthood is one of life’s special periods of heightened neuroplasticity. Extraordinary changes are happening in the new-parent brain. And positive social experiences that coat the brain in oxytocin can help the brain re-set… for the better. Social connection for parents matters!

In order to support positive changes in our own brains’ button re-wiring department, we closed our workshop with a go-around. We each considered the possibility that the times when we are anything less than flexible and relaxed in the face of our children’s big feelings might offer clues to places where we ourselves didn’t get to work through our own big emotions as young people.

It was a moving go-around. As we wrapped for the night, Heidi, laughing and crying at the same time, echoed my own sentiments: It feels so good to cry!

Mary Esther Malloy, MA, is the owner of Mindful Birth NY and the mom of three children. A doula and birth educator for over 16 years, Mary Esther has run groups for parents since her first child was born in 2002.



Mary Esther Malloy

Writer. Activist. Mother. Doing what she can to interrupt the inter-generational passage of pain. Owner of