How To Set Limits on Your Child’s Behavior in a Positive and Respectful Way

How To Set Limits on Your Child’s Behavior in a Positive and Respectful Way

Positive Parenting essentials for setting limits on your child’s behavior

The other morning at playgroup, a little boy kept running up to his mom and punching her. It was a light, somewhat playful punch. Repeated over and over again it seemed quite annoying too. All this mom really wanted, was to have a conversation with a friend. You’ve been there right? One of those morning where you just need a friendly chat to brighten your day? Well, this little boy had other plans.

Plans that looked an awful lot like misbehavior. 

Hoping distraction might buy a bit of time the mom said to her little boy:

“Go find a truck.” 

But the little boy PUNCHED his mom instead. 

“What about that kitchen? Want to cook something for me?” she said this time. 


Tug sleeve.


“Hey, bring me that puzzle?” implored the mom, her voice cracking a bit in frustration. 

The little boy walked away and a bit of tension lifted up.  But it was ever so temporary. 

Because the little boy came back 30 seconds later.

The pause in punches had been just long enough for mom to think distraction had worked.

But sure enough that little boy came back with  Punch! Punch! Punch!  

Feelings boiled and Things Escalated Quickly

 “STOP Bugging ME FOR HEAVENS sakes!!!!” yelled out the mom, now clearly frazzled and very annoyed.

Tears, tears and more tears came from the little boy.

Sighs, sighs and more sighs came from mom.

“I just wanted to have a conversation, is that too much to ask for??”

The Missing Piece To Setting Limits on your Child’s Behavior that will Stick

I understood this mom at playgroup. I’ve totally been there. Opting to distract in hopes of getting a short little break. But distraction is usually unclear – especially if we don’t say what we mean.

Using Distractions to Stop Your Child’s Unwanted Behavior Often Backfires

Not saying what you really mean when you need to set a limit leads to struggles.

Overlooking your own boundaries may lead to you getting to a point where you speaking unkindly to your child out of annoyance.  You may end up feeling overwhelmed and angry. 

Failing to be clear with personal boundaries can only lead up to feeling worn out.

If you don’t say what you mean, you invite button pushing. You overlook your needs. And the needs of your child.  You ignore those early signs that boundaries are being crossed and emotions are bubbling up.

It’s just not helpful. And saying what we mean is the simplest, even if not the easiest, way to keep personal boundaries and yelling in check.

Saying what we mean in a kind and clear way is so much more helpful than employing distractions or avoiding setting a limit. Pretending to be ok with something only to blow up sets everyone up to feel badly.  

Setting a limit in a kind and clear, way, and before things get out of hand is really important. In this example from playgroup, the mothers intention was kind.  It didn’t work because it wasn’t clear. Good limits need to be kind AND clear. Distracting and not saying what we really mean is just not hepful. Or respectful.

It’s not that distraction can’t work, but more often than not, distraction is a very short lived solution. Also it isn’t really saying what we mean or need. Distractions without clear limits are an invitation for tantrums and power struggles.

“Go get a puzzle” was actually supposed to mean “I don’t want you to punch me.”

“Check out that kitchen” was code for “I’d like you to go play on your own while I talk to my friend.”

There isn’t anything wrong with wanting some time to talk to a friend. It’s more than OK  to encourage children to play alone.  And when our intention is to actually set a limit, it’s simply best to actually do that. Say what you mean. Use clear limits.

What do clear limits sound like?

  • “It bothers me when you punch my arm. I want you to stop.”
  • I see you need me. I need one more minute to finish up. You can find a toy or wait.”
  • “I see you punching me. I don’t like that. And I want you to stop.” And here you can place a hand kindly over your child’s hand to be even clearer.
  • “We are going to cross the street, I want you to hold my hand.”
  • “It’s brushing teeth time.”
  • “Homework comes before screen time.”
  • “Slime stays in the kitchen”
  • “I will wash anything from the hamper, not what is left on the floor.”
  • “Rocks stay in the garden.”

It’s important to use clear requests so that boundaries don’t get pushed too far.

So that communication is respectful and helpful. So that yelling and repairing doesn’t become the go to dynamic but only the occasional one. So it doesn’t feel like you are bouncing from one button pushing moment to a power struggle, to yelling and repeating this day in and day out.

setting limits behaviors

Of course perfection is not expected or necessary, but stating clear limits by saying what you mean reduces so much stress. Not just for you. It also makes things clearer for your child. Children may challenge your limits. That is ok.  With kind and respectful guidance, your child will learn to face these moments of upset, to weather the storm and to find creative solutions!

Limits set with kindness and respect also help children accept and understand boundaries.

If a limit is truly important, then it’s best to set it, in a timely, kind and clear way.

The missing piece to setting respectful limits is often forgetting to say what you really mean when you need to say it.

So, do you say what you mean when it comes to setting limits? Can you think of a time when instead of saying what you meant, you distracted, avoided or waited too long to set a limit? I’d love to hear what your experience is with setting limits or anything that you struggle with when it comes to limits, button pushing and power struggles. Tell me in comments, or come chat with me in our Parenting Q&A group on facebook. 


Peace & Be Well,


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Ariadne is a happy and busy mama to three children. She practices peaceful, playful, responsive parenting and is passionate about all things parenting and chocolate. Ariadne has a Masters in Psychology and is a certified Positive Discipline Parenting Educator. She lives on top of a beautiful mountain with her family, and one cuddly dog.

11 Responses to How To Set Limits on Your Child’s Behavior in a Positive and Respectful Way

  1. “If you don’t say what you mean, you invite button pushing.”
    I love this… it seems really basic to ask for what we need but while basic, it’s not the first thing I think of! Thanks for this wonderful reminder.

  2. I can really relate to & apply the suggestions of this article. Thank you.
    An area that I struggle with is when my child doesn’t listen, this is not in the way we usually think of it-we have those moments too. I’m speaking to the times when we are informing our 3.5 yo child what is to happen ( even things she wants or likes) and all we get back is a defiant ‘no!’ Screaming, fussing & power struggle.
    For example: ‘we need to change into play clothes , so we can play outside’
    Child responds with ‘no’ and runs into another room.
    I respond with ‘ if you don’t change clothes we can’t go outside.’
    Child responds ‘ no, I want to go outside’
    It’s like she only hears part of what I say & when it is not what she wants to hear she screams her objections

  3. Hi Cheryl,
    At 3.5 years children love, love, love to have the last word! And good sense of control. It’s part of the process of learning inter-dependence. Saying No is often the fastest way they figure out how to let us know the want more autonomy, choice and a healthy sense of power. The good news is that we can change our requests just a smidge to give them more of what they need, without taking away our important role as guides. For example, I wonder what happens if ‘we need to change into play clothes , so we can play outside’ turns into and kind & clear statement: “It’s time to play outside. You can get dressed in your room, or bring your clothes to my room.” (offers a choice, without taking away the original intent) and what happens when ‘ if you don’t change clothes we can’t go outside.’ becomes “WHEN you are dressed, THEN we will go outside.” (This is a kind and clear explanation, without shifting into negatives that tend to invite tears and power struggles) Another helpful step is to make sure there is plenty of time to transition from one step to the next, so if she is playing or eating before its dressing time – slow down, connect “Uhm…I see you are playing, can I join you…or how is your cat doing….etc..” Join into their world…then invite them to transition. I hope that helps!

  4. Hi! Love what you wrote. My son is almost 9 and we butt head often because he doesn’t listen. 4 times asking and still not done. We both get then frustrated at each other! He at me for asking so many times and me at him for not doing it. It’s really frustrating. Any tips in some communication suggestions for transitions at that age? Thanks!!

  5. As a mother of five and mostly parenting alone, it is very difficult to find time to spend one on one with each child. I like to go to my room for quiet time. I also enjoy when the children watch a movie with me in my room, however, there are times that I really need quite time. These moments are very hard to find a clear way to get them to respect my boundary without an issue.. any suggestions are appreciated.

  6. Katie,
    I would suggest starting small and building up the time. Set the children up with activities they can busy themselves with, spend time together first, then let them know you will stepping away for a moment and be back. Start with five minutes and build it up to ten, making sure all the children are in spaces that are safe and appropriate. It may be met with reisistance, and that is ok. You can let them know you realize they want to be with you and still tell them you will be back. With practice it tends to get easier and part of the routine. Some children like to have a timer so they can track the time when mom will be back – others don’t care for it. Might work for you? Also, is there something that worries you or bothers you about taking time for yourself? If your values and needs are clear to you, it becomes easier to set a bundary in a calm and clear way. Another suggestion is to see if you might find a mother’s helper in your neighbourhood, a tween or tween that can play with the children while you take a short break. It’s a great inexpensive alternative to child care.

  7. This is great advice and is right in line with the teachings of How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and How to Listen so Kids Will Talk, an amazing book!

  8. Excellent tips here! The more often we connect with our children and establish mutual respect, the more easily we can expect and receive positive results from them. Our nonprofit offers lessons in kindness and tips for family volunteering which work to encourage a family bonding.

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