In one family I (Dr. Townsend) know, seven-year-old Taylor was going through a titanic power struggle with his mother. Sometimes, she wondered if setting boundaries with kids was actually possible. Taylor fought any "do" or "don't" she said. Finally, his mom went to his bedroom to talk to him. As she opened the door, a cup perched on the top of the door tipped over, covering her from head to toe with milk.
Any parent would have blown up at her child. Instead, Taylor's mom said, her face dripping with milk, "Son, this is really serious. I'm going to have to take some time to figure out what will be happening to you. I'll let you know."
The next few hours were excruciating for Taylor as he waited in limbo. By that time, the mom had called her husband and worked out a plan. The plan included restrictions on Taylor's time—such as no TV, limited outdoor time, and limited friend time—and consequences—such as shampooing the carpet and learning how to use a washing machine to clean Mom's clothes.
To avoid feeling like the bad guy, Taylor joked with his dad that evening about the incident, saying, "Dad, wasn't that kind of funny?"
His dad responded with a straight face, "No, it was really mean, son. You went too far with your anger. It was hard on your mom."
"But I saw it on a TV show, and it was a good trick."
"Taylor," his dad said firmly but not harshly, "I really don't want to talk about any part of this behavior being funny. It just wasn't."
A few hours later, the boy's mother overheard Taylor saying to his little sister, "No, Kelly, don't laugh! The milk trick wasn't funny. It hurts people."
Taylor's boundary with Kelly was far different from the one he had with Mom. It was love based and deliberate. Through some tough consequences with Mom and some verbal boundaries about reality with Dad, Taylor was metabolizing his own boundaries and becoming more empathic. He was developing a concern for the feelings of others.
Children will sometimes go through a "good as gold" season after a temper tantrum. They will do unasked-for favors for others or obey without a lot of resistance. If you have withdrawn from or attacked the child, this season may be an attempt to regain connection with you. But if you are maintaining your attachment to your child, this behavior may occur because your child has met your limit, feels less out of control and fearful of his own impulses, and feels safe. This leads to a sense of gratitude and warmth toward his family.
Children who live in protest mode are still dependent on other people. Like a pinball, they bounce from parents to siblings to friends, complaining about their poor treatment at the hands of others. Their feelings and actions are motivated by what others do or don't do to them. Children with healthy boundaries, however, aren't driven by the control of others. Their view of life, the decisions they make, and responses to their environment are dictated by their own internal values and realities.
You can help your child attain this important aspect of mature boundaries. When he is throwing a temper tantrum or acting in "protest mode," remember to validate his feelings yet still hold to your limit or consequence. Then say, "You know, the more you fight me, the less time you have for things you like to do. Then it will be time for bed. I'm willing to stop the argument if you are, then you can go play. What do you think?"
If the child isn't ready to stop, he thinks you don't mean what you say. Don't give in, and don't keep arguing. Stick to your guns. Eventually, he should realize that as long as he is giving up all this time reacting to you, you are in control of his precious time. Having to go to bed with less playtime will help him understand the principle of time management and making the most of every opportunity.
Your child needs to know that in protesting, he has only identified the problem, not solved it. A tantrum doesn't solve anything. He needs to use these feelings to motivate him to action, to address the issue at hand. He should think about his responses and choose the best one available.
From a loving, firm position, you can help your child mature his reactive boundaries into love-and-reality-based proactive boundaries, helping him take control of his life, character, and morality.