02/24/2012 02:51 pm ET Updated Apr 25, 2012

Is Your Child a Limit Tester? Three Essential Steps for Closing Your Loopholes

The morning of School Picture Day, my nine-year old neighbor shocked her mother by picking out her own outfit (a mutual favorite), doing her own hair (bangs pulled back away from the eyes) and even selecting shoes that matched (a bonus, even though the school portrait wouldn't account for this rarity.) On her way out to the bus, she called to her mom, "Is it okay if I bring a little lip gloss for the picture?"

Sometimes in our parenting lives, we look back on certain moments that seemed so innocent -- so perfect even -- and realize that ignorance truly is bliss.

When the school portrait proofs were sent home one week later, my Mama-friend could still hear the lip-gloss request in the back of her head, though all she could see in the photo proofs were the brightest (I never knew red could be a neon color) and biggest (I'm talking nose to chin) set of painted lips you have never seen in your entire life.

"Do you love it?" the child asked earnestly, but with just a hint of an angry smile on her now lipgloss-free lips.

My Mama-friend was wordless. You know how it feels when you have one thousand exasperated, angry, hurtful, mean, frustrated, astonished, baffled, wtf thoughts running through your mind all at once and you just can't spit them out fast enough, so you manage to wisely muzzle yourself entirely? That's where she was for many long, awkward moments, until she came out with a meek, "Do you?"

As she relayed the story to me, what struck me most was her calm. She had been down the "limit testing" road with this daughter many a time, she explained, and what she had learned from their endless conflict cycles was that by spewing forth her racing, angry thoughts about daughter's intentional defiance of the family's "no make-up" rule, she would just get in a frustrating and relationship-damaging war of words. She could see it all coming, she explained, and it would sound something like this:

Mom: What were you thinking putting on that awful red lipstick? You know you are not allowed to bring lipstick to school. Did you even look in the mirror before the picture? It's all over your face, for goodness sakes! The picture is ruined!

Daughter: But Mom, I asked you if I could bring it to school and you said "Yes."

Mom: I don't even know what you are talking about! I would never agree to lipstick. You know you are not allowed to wear make-up.

Daughter: It's not make-up. It's lip gloss. I asked you as I was leaving for the bus if I could bring lip gloss to school and you said "Yes." Ask Katie -- she heard you say it too.

Mom: You're twisting my words. You know the rule and you snuck the make-up out of the house. We can never send this picture to our relatives and it definitely can't be in the yearbook. We'll have to schedule a re-take and you'll be the one to pay for it, young lady. I can't believe you'd be so sneaky. How can I trust you?

You said I could bring lip gloss and now you're taking it back and trying to make me pay for a new picture, just because you don't like the way I look. You never approve of anything I do!

Door slams. Conversation over. Relationship wounded.

Fortunately, my Mama-friend chose not to step foot into that no-win conflict. She had been through the same-cycle-different-disagreement too many times before and had learned the hard way that an explosive reaction on her part was not a productive response to the situation. Yet, she wasn't sure how to effectively engage her daughter in a conversation about the difference between "lip gloss" (permitted) and "lipstick" (strictly forbidden) or the bigger issue which centered on her daughter's testing of limits.

Do you have a child who tends to violate the spirit of your family's rules? How do you respond when your little one uses the letter of the law to defend his defiance? The "Reality Rub" is an intervention used by parents and professionals trained in the skills of Life Space Crisis Intervention, a six-step process that helps kids turn conflict situations into learning opportunities. The Reality Rub is one of LSCI's six distinct intervention processes and is recommended for use with kids who manipulate reality to test limits.

The goal of the Reality Rub is to help kids re-organize their thinking and clarify reality by discussing their blurred, distorted, or self-serving perceptions of an incident (Long, Wood & Fecser, 2001). Kids who chronically test the limits of their parents' rules and look for loopholes in their teachers' classroom management styles are most apt to benefit from this approach that prioritizes these processes:

Avoiding Conflict Cycles

A limit-testing child takes a measure of pleasure in watching an adult's frustration unfold as a result of their thinly veiled justifications of defiant behavior (e.g. What? You said I could bring lip gloss. Lip gloss is not make-up!). When an adult is able to keep hostile feelings under control and refrain from expressing the thousand little thoughts brewing internally, he avoids getting caught up in an unwinnable conflict cycle. What's more, he keeps the door open for ongoing, relationship-building conversation.

Building a Timeline

When young people are encouraged to recount and reflect on the sequence of events that led up to the conflict, they are best able to understand and acknowledge alternate versions of reality (e.g. You said I could bring lip gloss. Turns out, you were thinking that my lip gloss was clear, like Vaseline, when really I had red lipstick in mind when I asked. Our versions of reality were different.) Use open-ended questions to encourage kids to explore different realities. Questions like, "Have you thought about..." and "Could it be that..." are good discussion starters.

Maintaining Focus on the Pattern

Even with a productive discussion of alternate realities, children often cling to their original perceptions and justifications of behavior out of habit, fear of punishment, or the need to be right. The goal of a Reality Rub is not to make a child admit his version of reality was wrong, but rather to help him acknowledge that:

1. Alternate realities exist
2. Their manipulation of reality contributed to a problem situation

When a parent can keep the child focused on the self-destructive pattern of manipulating reality to suit personal desires, rather than getting distracted by the infuriating behavior and persistent rationalizations, both parent and child benefit.

As parents, we have the power to make a situation worse or better--a relationship damaged or improved. When adults recognize limit-testing behavior as a self-destructive pattern, they are able to more quickly disengage from destructive conflict cycles and respond instead in ways that build insight in children and foster positive relationships.

Signe Whitson is a licensed social worker and Master Trainer for the LSCI Institute. She presents nationwide on topics such as helping kids handle bullying, developing assertive anger expression skills, and parenting kids through conflict and crisis. Check out her most recent book, Friendship & Other Weapons: Group Activities to Help Girls Aged 5-11 to Cope with Bullying. "Like" her on Facebook and Follow her on Twitter @SigneWhitson.