Is Your Child a Limit-Tester? How to Avoid No-Win Conflict Cycles

Do you have a child who follows the letter of the law, but violates its spirit entirely? How do you respond when your little one defends her defiance with thinly-veiled justifications and argues with the cleverness of a courtroom attorney?
12/20/2012 12:40 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

Tina was asked by her mother to lead her two younger siblings to the bathroom in a crowded restaurant. As the oldest child in her family, the 10-year-old was accustomed to helping out with her little sisters, though she sometimes resented the extra responsibility. Initially, Tina waited for her sisters to get up from the table, but as they started walking, she set a pace that neither sibling could match. In their efforts to keep up, one sister tripped over a chair and the other ended up in the back of the restaurant, unsure of her family's whereabouts. Having never turned around to check, Tina was surprised when she reached the bathroom and realized her sisters were not with her. She waited for them at the door.

Her mother was furious. After gathering the kids and helping them in the bathroom, she pulled Tina aside and informed her daughter that she would have to eat the rest of her dinner in silence, not be allowed to have dessert and go to bed as soon as the family returned home. Tina looked at her mother with a mixture of confusion and indignation and said, "What did I do? I was walking the girls to the bathroom, just like you asked! How is it my fault that Kelly fell and Katie wandered off? You're so unfair. You just want me to miss out on everything. You hate me!"

Do you have a child who follows the letter of the law, but violates its spirit entirely? How do you respond when your little one defends her defiance with thinly-veiled justifications and argues with the cleverness of a courtroom attorney? Does her insistence on testing limits push you to the point of exploding and saying things that damage your relationship?

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 turn crisis situations into learning opportunities for kids with chronic patterns of self-defeating behavior. The Reality Rub is recommended for use with kids like Tina who manipulate reality to test limits.

The goal of the Reality Rub is to help kids reorganize 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 are experts at exploiting language loopholes are most apt to benefit from this approach that teaches parents to:

1. Avoid Getting Caught in a Conflict Cycle

Children who chronically test limits do so as a way of gaining power in a situation and wielding control of an adult's reaction. The limit-testing child gets a kick out of frustrating authority figures through their thinly-veiled justifications of defiant behavior (e.g. What? I was walking the girls to the bathroom, just like you asked! I can't help it if Katie and Kelly can't keep up). When an adult is able to keep hostile feelings under control and refrain from being baited into a conflict, she avoids getting caught up in an unwinnable conflict cycle. What's more, she keeps the door open for ongoing, relationship-building conversation.

2. Build a Timeline

When young people are encouraged to recount and reflect on the sequence of events that led up to a conflict, they are best able to understand and acknowledge alternate versions of reality. The trick is to engage kids through open-ended questions rather than to put them on the defensive through accusations and threats. Questions like, "Have you thought about..." and "Could it be that..." are often effective discussion starters to encourage kids to explore differences in perception and personal realities.

By giving Tina the opportunity to tell her side of the story, her mother gains insight into Tina's unique pattern of logic and perception. Even more importantly, by hearing Tina out, the mother gives her daughter the relationship-building gift of feeling heard and understood. Once she has been listened to, Tina is far more likely to be willing to consider her mother's perception of the situation. An effective Timeline conversation could result in Tina acknowledging:

You told me to lead the girls to the bathroom. I did that. The trouble was, I led them at my pace, which ended up being too fast. Our definitions of "leading the girls" was different and this caused a problem.

3. Maintain a 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 conversation is not to make a child admit his version of reality was wrong, but rather to help her understand that:

1. Alternative versions of realities co-exist; you're "right" AND I'm "right" at the same time.

2. Insistence on a single perception of reality creates no-win conflict.

When an adult avoids getting distracted by a child's infuriating and adamant justifications of their point of view, both parties benefit from new perspectives and fresh insights.

Parents have the power to make a situation with a child worse or better. Although long days, trying afternoons and basic human nature sometimes tempts parents to take a child's bait and get into personalized and punishing wars of words, this direction rarely contributes to positive relationships or effective learning experiences for either family member. Rather, when adults are able to recognize limit-testing behavior as a self-destructive pattern, they are able to more quickly disengage from destructive conflict cycles and respond in ways that build insight in children and foster positive relationships.

For more information on Life Space Crisis Intervention Skills for Parents, please email the author at