Inside: Five questions to help you set limits instead of using punishment when your child misbehaves.
“I have tried using warnings, time outs and taking my son’s toys away when he acts out, hits his sister and just overall doesn’t listen to me but it doesn’t work. I hear a lot about setting limits but I am not sure what that actually means or how to do it right.” ~Amanda
Setting limits is part of positive parenting and a necessary step to help your child understand what is safe and acceptable behavior.
Limits and clear boundaries help the whole family live better together. Try to remember that if your child is acting out, or behaving in an unsafe way, you have an opportunity to step in and provide your child with safety and guidance.
Different from punishment or consequences, setting limits means you are actively stepping in and helping your child make a necessary change to a behavior that is unhelpful or unwanted.
Hitting, biting and kicking for example are all behaviors that show up when a child is overwhelmed and locked into fear. Setting a limit on such unhelpful behaviors brings your child back to safety.
Setting limits keeps expectations clear and also teaches your child that they can count on you.
Limits set with kindness build trust and encourage cooperation.
While some behaviors are clearly unsafe and you may know that you need to stop them, at other times you may be unsure if a limit is necessary or not. These five questions can help you set limits with confidence.
Five Questions for Setting Limits on Unhelpful Behavior
1. How important is it to set a limit on the current behavior?
Limits should be set to keep expectations clear and everyone safe. If you are choosing to hold a limit to show you are in charge or just to show you have parental power you may want to pause for a moment. On the other hand, if there is a genuine need for a the limit to be in place, set it kindly and firmly.
2. What can my child learn, if I hold this limit, even if they dislike it?
Are you letting a limit slide to prevent a power struggle, tantrum or public meltdown? When setting limits, it is important to learn to trust your child to move through their disappointment and learn to trust your guidance. Don’t skip setting a limit just to avoid tears. (See more on that here)
3. If I don’t hold this limit, can I (the parent) live with the resulting consequences?
If you intend to set a limit for safety reasons and chose to let it go you must accept the risk your child is facing.
Here is an example: Let’s say your child is resisting bed time. Since you don’t have energy to “deal” you let it go and don’t help your child get to sleep. Can you live with the resulting consequence of a very tired, cranky child? Are your buttons going to feel pushed? Many parents will get overwhelmed and resent the situation and resort to yelling.
Setting a limit and helping your child go to sleep may be the safest and kindest course of action for the whole family.
4. When I set limits, do my actions and words send the same message?
Reflect for a moment on how you are setting limits. Just saying “NO” and “Don’t” from across a room may not be very effective. Setting limits often means being physically present to help your child understand your expectations.
Here is an example: When setting a limit on hitting, you might say “I will not let you hit.” Now it is important to be physically present, in a calm yet confident way that keeps your child from being able to hit again.
5. Are my values clear when setting limits?
Setting a limit is a practice best based on your own family dynamic, values, safety and needs.
Your non-negotiable limits might be different from other families. This is perfectly alright.
Here is an example: In my family, my toddlers were allowed to wear rain boots on a sunny day. For us, this was a “no biggie.” For my friend, this was not acceptable as she wanted her children to have “proper footwear for the weather”.
When you set limits, remember that you are protecting your child, reinforcing your family values, balancing needs and also actively building trust with your child.
One last thing about setting limits with your child
Sometimes children cry, protest or otherwise express how upset they feel about the limit you are setting. Know that this is normal and that healthy, growing children test limits as a way to learn. Following through on setting your limits is just as important as setting them in the first place.
If you struggle to set limits with kindness or find it difficult to set limits without being punitive you might like to learn more in our Positive Parenting First Five Years class. Discover the keys to setting limits that stick, how to use emotion coaching essentials and smart ways to balance kind and firm limits so your child feels capable and confident.
Peace & Be Well,
Setting Limits with Young Children by Hand in Hand Parenting
12 Alternatives to Time Out: Connected Discipline Tools for Raising Cooperative Children Book by Positive Parenting Connection Founder, Ariadne Brill
How to Peacefully Teach and Set Clear Limits, Boundaries and Consequences with Your Child by Andy of Tru Parenting
Setting Limits with Love by Genevieve Simperingham Peaceful Parenting Institute