Parents often seek out books, classes or support in parenting because they have difficulty setting limits effectively for their children. Complaints such as, “Nothing we do works,” “I put him in time-out and he just doesn’t care,” or “We have tried everything, but little Johnny still won’t listen” are made by tired and frustrated parents time and time again. Healthy limits help children feel secure, safe and loved, while still allowing a child to explore, grow and experiment with life on their own terms. Limit setting teaches children how to negotiate the world in a respectful and responsible way. And limit setting helps households run more smoothly. Of course, it’s a no-brainer: we all want to set these wonderfully helpful limits for our children. And, with the plethora of resources out there explaining just how to set limits, it seems like it should be a snap.
Google the keywords “setting limits with children” and you can easily learn that limits should be reasonable for the child’s age, they should promote safety, they should be consistent, they should be enforced in loving and positive ways. We learn that we should be calm and firm. We learn that the child should understand the limit and the consequence clearly. And, if we do all that, it should work, right?
But, so often it doesn’t.
So what is going on? Is it that our kids are somehow immune to the touted benefit of limit setting? Is it that we have exceptionally difficult children or that something is wrong with them? Are our children going to forever run the household?
The good news is that it is probably none of these things. Rather, I wonder if the biggest barriers that keep us from setting and enforcing limits have less to do with the children and more to do with everything that leads up to the limit setting in the first place. If you think about it, many of the limits we set are born out of frustrating situations. Even on our best days, we can find ourselves reacting quickly without thinking through what we are saying to our children, why we are saying it or what it will mean in the long run. For example, the mother of a preschooler finds herself saying, “If you choose not to clean up your mess, you are going to have to go to bed early.” The child tests these limits and the mother is left to either put the child to bed at 5 pm or let the limit slide. Nobody wins. I have noticed a few main themes that seem to interfere with our ability to successfully set and maintain limits:
1) The limits are not reasonable or meaningful: Rather than viewing limits as methods of getting our children to behave, it is important to view limits as tools to help children develop their own sense of self-control and independence within a safe space. In order for this to happen, the limit has to be meaningful, understandable and reasonable for the child. Telling a child that she will have to go to bed if she doesn’t clean up her mess doesn’t teach her how to internalize the skill of picking up after herself. The two things don’t really go together and it doesn’t make sense. For the child, it just feels like the parent threatening something (that they probably won’t follow through on).
2) We set limits that we (the parents) can’t live with: “If you can’t sit still in your seat, we are going to have to leave the restaurant.” What parent hasn’t heard herself saying something, knowing full well that we are not prepared to actually follow through. Setting limits that we aren’t going to follow through on sends our child an important message, and not one we probably want them to get! This is often true when we use limit setting as a threat to motivate behavior through fear, rather than as a tool to help children make decisions for themselves. The other day, at the end of my proverbial rope, I found myself saying, “If you can’t help pick up the toys, we aren’t going to have toys in our home any more.” My child laughed at me. He actually laughed. He knew I wouldn’t follow through with such an unreasonable threat. He was right, and the message I sent was worse.
3) We set limits that don’t enhance the developmental milestones our children are negotiating: Stress at transition times, like getting out the door in the morning, results in limit setting and testing on a daily basis. What exactly does “get yourself ready” mean? Is it reasonable to expect a toddler to make his bed perfectly every morning? Probably not. But, is it reasonable that he try? Can an 8-year-old use an alarm clock to wake up on her own? Can a 15-year-old get himself to school on time? If we set limits that are plainly beyond our children’s capabilities, we are doomed to failure.
4) We aren’t clear about what goal we are trying to reach, and, along the way, our goal changes: When we react in haste, we often make rash decisions and set limits that are misguided. Often this is because we don’t really know what we are trying to achieve. Dinner-time struggles are a perfect example of this. One night it is, “Eat all your dinner or no desert.” The next night it’s, “You can’t leave the table until you eat all your vegetables.” And later in the week it is, “You don’t have to eat, but you have to sit here with the family.” Eating and meal-time issues create angst and drama for so many families. But often the limit isn’t clear because the goal isn’t clear. Do we want the child to eat all the food served to them at every meal? Do we want them to eat a variety of foods? Do we want them to participate in the social aspect of meals? Do we want them to consume more calories, more iron, more vitamins, etc? When we aren’t clear about what it is we are trying to teach our child, then our goals, and thus our limits, continually change. How is the child supposed to become clear on the expectations when we aren’t clear ourselves?
5) We can’t tolerate the child’s emotion: This might just be the biggest reason that we don’t follow through on the limits we set. We hate to see our children in pain. We hate to see them cry and we hate to have them angry at us. We also hate tantrums, outbursts and tornadoes ripping through our houses. But children need to be able to express their emotions and we need to be able to tolerate that emotion. Crying, stomping, yelling and otherwise emoting provides children with a powerful stress reliever. Limits are not always pleasant and emotional reaction to them is normal. Unfortunately, watching or tolerating their reaction is not always fun and we can be quick to keep the peace (for them and ourselves) by backing down on our limit.
So what can we do as parents to avoid some of these pitfalls and avoid setting limits that are destined to fail? It may seem cliché, but it may boil down to breathing. Slowing it down. Interacting with our child, rather than reacting to their behavior. Specifically, I recommend five key things to remember:
1) Think through limits beforehand: With a few exceptions of extreme danger (running into traffic, for example) there is usually no reason that we have to react immediately to any situation. We can take a few deep breaths to calm ourselves. Check in with our own emotional reactions. See the situation through the child’s point of view. Ask the child what they think is going on and what they need. Consider developmental skills or milestones. Parenting is not a race, it happens over many years, not seconds. Think the situation through. Usually limit setting is something that we do repeatedly over time until the child incorporates the skill or value into their own sense of self. It’s rarely a one time, one shot event. We have time.
2) Reflect: Ask yourself questions like, What has worked in the past with my child? What do I know about my child? What do I know about myself or my family that may be at play here?
3) Talk through a plan with a partner or support person: Get feedback. Make a plan and talk about ways you can support each other in sticking with the limit.
4) Define the goal, expectations and limits clearly: Once you actually know the goal you are working towards, it will be easier to communicate that with your child. “I want you to eat or else” becomes “I trust you to know when you are hungry or not, but in our family, once you leave the table, the meal is over for you.” The goal, expectation and limit are clear. The child has choices and the parent knows what they have to do to follow through.
5) Tolerate and support their emotion: We have to know that setting limits will upset our children. They may get angry and they will probably express it. That’s good. We can be empathetic to their misery. “I get really frustrated when I can’t do something I want to do also. I know how you feel. I’m available for support if you need it, but the limit remains.” By doing this we teach them that we mean what we say, that the limit is important, but that we also value and acknowledge that it is hard for them. Feelings are real and they are tricky. By supporting them through this, we not only help them to negotiate the limit, but we help them become more emotionally competent as well. What an opportunity!
Happy Limit Setting!