When we first become parents, it’s easy to savor the joy of those early years. Yes, there are challenges, but the satisfaction of seeing your child grow and learn is heady. Then, when our children become toddlers, the realization sets in that parenting involves setting limits. No longer can we allow our children to do whatever they want. For their safety and our sanity, limits on their behavior become a large part of our parenting duties. Soon after, we also realize that most children really dislike limits. Thus, it ushers in a new phase of parenting in which the limit-setting/limit-resisting dynamic becomes a big part of our daily lives.

Limit-setting can be one of the more challenging aspects of parenting. However, it doesn’t have to be a daily push-pull with your child that is filled with conflict. Learning how to effectively set limits that help your child feel empowered, not dominated, can make this aspect of parenting much easier and more fruitful.

Why are Limits Necessary for Children?

One of our core responsibilities as parents is to help our children feel safe and secure. We largely do this in the ways you might expect ⏤ by being warm and responsive to their needs, listening to their feelings, and ensuring their physical safety. Another, perhaps less obvious way we do this is by setting limits on their behavior. Although it may sound counterintuitive that limits help children feel safe and secure, they really do provide this need

If children were allowed to do whatever they pleased, they would soon feel out of control, uncertain about their safety and unsure of their decisions. Research backs up this idea. Permissive parenting ⏤ that is, parenting that provides few or no limits for children ⏤ has consistently been linked to poor developmental outcomes in children. Children who experience permissive parenting are more likely to have behavior problems and perform poorly in school.

The Keys to Setting Limits Effectively

Setting limits with children is crucial to parenting well. Although children really need (and subconsciously want) limits, they often protest (sometimes loudly) at our attempts to set them. As a parent, it’s easy to “give in” when our children protest limits set by us. No one enjoys having their child be unhappy, especially when the target of their unhappiness is you. The first step in setting limits effectively, is to come to terms with your own emotions about limit-setting. Research reveals this concept to be a helpful one. One study found that mothers who had a greater capacity for “mentalizing” tended to be more attuned to their children’s emotional cues. Scholars suggest that this “mentalization” process helps parents monitor and regulate their emotional responses to their children. In other words, this self-reflective posture means that parents don’t become as distressed when their children protest their limit-setting. Thus, coming to terms with one’s own emotions likely helps parents set and keep firm limits with children.

Another key aspect of effective limit setting relates to how the limits are portrayed to the child. Children, like all humans, do not like feeling controlled or dominated by others. Thus, if limits are communicated to children in a “top-down” method in which they feel they have no input, they will be more likely to protest the limit. If, however, the limit is put forth in such a way that it seems like a choice to the child, it will likely be accepted more readily. For example, if your child is banging a toy on the floor, you could say, “Quit banging that toy on the floor or I’ll take it away.” This more controlling method of communicating the limit is likely to result in a negative response from the child. If, however, you express the same limit with a phrase like this, “You can continue to bang the toy on the floor and I’ll have to put it away (so it doesn’t break) or you can stop banging it and keep playing with it. You decide.” This choice-based way of communicating the limit focuses on the child’s power to control the  situation. This type of limit setting is likely to receive a more positive response from the child.

Tips for children

One often-confused aspect of limit-setting with children has to do with the distinction between limits on behavior versus limits on emotions. It’s easy to see why this happens. For example, if your children are upset because you told them they couldn’t have candy before dinner, they may begin to express their feelings by throwing things, throwing tantrums, or even hitting. It’s easy to confuse the emotion (anger) with the behavior (throwing). However, one crucial feature of effective limit-setting is ensuring the child knows that all emotions (even the difficult ones) are okay but that not all behaviors are acceptable.

Sometimes we inadvertently try to set limits on children’s emotions by saying things like, “go to your room until you stop crying” or “stop throwing a fit or you’ll lose dessert.” Attempting to set limits on children’s emotions is not only usually ineffective, but it also sends a message to children that some emotions are unacceptable or “naughty.” The message that limit-setting is intended to set is the idea that, while emotions come and go, some behavior is acceptable and some is not. This is an effective limit-setting strategy because, over time, it encourages children to learn healthier ways to regulate and manage their emotions that don’t involve acting out. Therefore, in our limit-setting with children, it’s helpful to distinguish between the emotion and the behavior. Phrases like, “it’s okay to be sad, but it’s not okay to hit in our family” help communicate this distinction. 

This distinction between behavioral and psychological control is an important one. Research shows that while parents’ efforts to limit children’s behavior are linked to psychological well-being, efforts to control children’s emotions (i.e. psychological control) is linked to negative outcomes like behavioral problems (i.e. externalizing problems) and depressive symptoms (i.e. internalizing problems).  

Although limit-setting can be challenging, it doesn’t have to be the conflict-filled drama that parents dread. By understanding the importance of limits and being aware of your own emotions, limit-setting can be more clear-cut. With clear limits in place, children feel secure and are empowered to make smarter decisions.

The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development, to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.

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