Setting Limits

Young children must find their own space and place – physically and emotionally – in their homes and in the world. To do this, they need clear limits. Limits are guidelines for what is okay and not okay to do in a given environment. Limits are like the guard rails that keep a child safe, and when a child inevitably heads off-track now and then, effective limit-setting brings them back to safety. Limits can be as simple—and important!—as: 

“I can’t let you pull the cat’s tail.”

“The show is over, and it’s time to turn off the TV.”

Children need parents to hold firm. They feel safer when parents set clear limits. 

Children don’t know how to ask for limits. They often don’t understand how much they want them, and think that they would be happier if their parents gave in.

Do limits create discomfort and frustration? Absolutely. But frustration tolerance is critical to a child’s development and well-being. And as Mr. Rogers reminds us, life can be scary when we don’t set limits for a child:

“It can be very frightening for a child not to have limits. Not only can the world outside be frightening, but the world inside, the world of feelings, can also be scary when you’re not sure you can manage those feelings by yourself.”   – Fred (“Mr.”) Rogers

Healthy limit-setting teaches children:

  1. The difference between feelings, words, and actions. (I can say, “I hate my brother,” but I can’t hit my brother; better yet, I can learn to say, “I’m so mad at my brother” and ask for help with my mad feelings.)
  2. The capacity to inhibit impulses and regulate their behavior.
  3. Trust that the adults who care for them will keep them safe and can be counted on.

What IS (and isn’t) healthy limit-setting? 

Healthy limit-setting IS: 

  • Conveying clear expectations for a child’s behavior in a simple, concrete, and non-judgmental way. 
  • Supporting and validating a child’s feelings. (And to do that we need to attune to our child to know what their feelings are in the moment!)
  • Providing safe ways for a child to express their feelings without hurting others, themselves, or their environment. (I can say, “I want to play with Bianca!” but I can’t push her if she says no.)
  • Taking into account the temperament and developmental level of the child, along with their current feelings, wishes, and intentions. (For example: as much as we may value family mealtime, we may be unrealistic about our expectations if we expect a very young child to sit still at the table while older family members talk for 20 minutes, especially if they tend to be active or very tired at that time of day.)
  • Setting limits before we lose our temper and lash out at our child. (Limits are guard rails for us, too!). When we set limits calmly, there’s a far better chance our child can hear us in the moment. 

Healthy limit-setting IS NOT:

  • Punishment. Punishment is often for the adult’s sake, imposed in a moment when we are feeling frustrated, powerless, and worried about the child’s behavior. We may feel we need to “teach them a lesson.” Instead, we can trust that by communicating firm and appropriate limits calmly and firmly, our child will learn—not just appropriate behavior, but also effective regulation of their emotions. 
  • Inconsistent. Research shows that children need us to follow through on what we say we’re going to do, whether it’s setting aside time to do a special activity one-on-one with our child, or keeping a limit. 
  • A one-way street. No child—or adult—likes to be ordered around. Children are more likely to cooperate with limits when they feel seen and heard. Gina’s father may not be able to let her stay longer at the playground, but as he sets the limit, “It’s time to go home now” he can also acknowledge her feelings. “It’s hard to leave when you’re still having so much fun!” And we also want our child to develop their own capacity to set limits and make boundaries for themselves. That means practicing respectful, two-way communication.

Why this approach? 

Neuroscientific research confirms that children can make better decisions and regulate their emotions when they feel connected to their parent or caregiver. Keeping our language simple enables an upset child, whose higher brain functions are limited by their intense emotions, to process and respond appropriately to what we’re saying.

When we get frustrated:

It can be very difficult to stay calm when we are setting limits, especially when our child’s behavior is out of control or even causes harm. We may feel triggered. For some parents a child’s off-track behavior can trigger painful memories of their own childhood and the harsh punishment they received. In these moments, we can practice the very self-regulation skills we want to nurture in our child. 

Milena and her 19-month-old son Tommy have had a busy afternoon. Milena has noticed herself getting irritated and tense, and when he splashes water all over her (again), she snaps “I don’t like that!” 

She catches herself and tells Tommy, “I don’t like to be splashed, but I also don’t like how I said that to you. I’m sorry. I think I may be tired. Let’s lie down and rest a moment and I’ll take some deep breaths.”

This is also an example of modeling self-regulation, another vital tool in supporting our child’s ability to adapt to their environment. 

Tips for setting limits effectively:

Be pro-active:

  • Plan ahead for situations that are likely to result in problems. 
  • Consider the goodness of fit of activities and environments for your child
  • Discuss limits with your child before they go off track.
  • Model self-regulation with your own feelings.

When it’s time to set a limit in the moment:

  • Come in close to them, rather than yelling across a room.
  • Get down to their level—don’t tower over them.
  • Listen to them and observe their non-verbal cues to understand what’s happening for them. What feelings might be fueling their behavior, and even underneath what they’re telling you (if they have the words)?
  • Offer eye contact and gentle touch that provides connection while also ensuring safety if their behavior could cause harm.
  • Speak in simple, clear language.
  • Hold the limit while also acknowledging their feelings.
  • Stay with them as they find their way to regulating their emotional response to the situation, and to your limit. Think “time in” rather than “time out.” 

What you can do to work with your child’s unique temperament: 

  • Give a child’s natural disposition room to flourish. 
  • Identify your child’s strengths so that you can support them to succeed in tasks and relationships. 
  • Find ways that match the child’s temperament to enable your child to accomplish tasks with greater ease.   
  • Create routines and rituals that create predictability and connection.
  • Avoid blaming yourself or your child for having the temperaments that you do.
  • Acknowledge, understand and address mismatches of temperament to avoid re-occurring battles.
  • Anticipate issues before they occur, such as situations that will frustrate or challenge the child.
  • Set clear limits and boundaries calmly, lovingly, consistently and firmly. 
  • Acknowledge that frustration, waiting and hearing “no” can be hard.
  • Help your child express his feelings, desires, and preferences. 
  • Regulate your own emotions and repair with your child when “mix-ups” occur.

What happens when, inevitably, things don’t go so smoothly? In even the healthiest parent-child relationships, there will be moments of mismatch, “mix-ups,” or what psychologists call rupture. The inevitable moments of rupture between ourselves and our child can be especially difficult, but the good news is repair is possible—and developmentally important, too.

Next: Repairing Your Connection

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