Parents sometimes have concerns about setting limits with children. Before I go into what to do and what not to do when setting limits with children, I want to share two pieces of information about children that can guide us in setting boundaries and limits with our children.

  • The first piece of information that can guide us is this: Children thrive when there is a balance of nurture and structure. Children need both emotional connectedness (warmth) and protective boundaries. We can set limits from a nurturing place that honors both parent and child. I call these warm boundaries.
    • In the extreme, nurture without structure is a hallmark of permissive parenting. This leads to overindulgence in children. Raised without structure, children may also struggle with motivation and emotional regulation and have a hard time following through on the goals they want to achieve because they haven’t internalized healthy boundaries and limit-setting systems. Before they can internalize them, they need to experience them in a safe mutually respectful relationship.
    • In the extreme, structure without nurture is a sign of authoritarian parenting (different from authoritative, which is healthier). This requires rigid responsiveness on the part of the child. That responsiveness is usually obtained through my-way-or-the-highway parenting tools such as overt force, coercion, and shame. Children raised this way may have lower self-esteem, struggle with thinking independently, and confuse rebellion for empowerment.
  • The second piece of information that can guide us is that trust is built through reliability and consistency over time. Children who trust their parents to love and protect them tend to be responsive to their parent’s limit setting and requests.

Considering the above information, it is essential to remember that perfection is both unachievable and undesirable. There will be times when the most important thing we can do to communicate “I love you” (nurture) and “I value you and therefore will protect you” (structure) is to let go of the usual boundary (be inconsistent).  A recent example of this came after a son spilled his second smoothie of the night. The first one ended up all over the kitchen due to a blender incident. The second one was spilled all over his bedroom rug. I looked at his sunken silhouette and knew that he had reached a point of physical and emotional exhaustion in his wrestling season. He had a big tournament the next day. Rather than hold to the usual structure that he cleans up his messes, I said, “I’ll get your dad to clean this up. I will get started on another smoothie. Do you want a hug?” He not only accepted the hug, he melted into my arms. He received just the nurturing he needed after a day that started with weightlifting at 6:30 am and ended with wrestling practice at 6:15 pm. He still had homework to do.

With the information above in mind and available to guide us in moving forward with our unique children in each unique circumstance, I will share Garry Landreth’s A.C.T. model for setting limits. Landreth is a leader in child-centered play therapy.

 A.C.T. Model for Limit Setting

  1. Acknowledge the Feeling
  2. Communicate the Limit
  3. Target Acceptable Alternatives

Example One: Let’s see what this might look like in response to a 4-year-old child who just hit his sister when he got angry.

Example Two: In response to a teenager directing colorful language at their parent, let’s see what this might look like.

Acknowledge the Feeling

Example One Response: I can see that you are feeling mad right now. 

Example Two: I can hear that you are angry at me and lashing out.

Communicate the Limit

Example One: People are not for hitting. 

Example Two: It’s not OK to call me names.

Target Acceptable Alternatives

Example One: You may choose to hit your bed, or sit with me to calm down

Example Two: You can tell me about your anger using appropriate language, or perhaps you want to take a break to calm down. 

What About Consequences?

Suppose your child does not respond to the limit. Then, it is time to remind them that choosing to misbehave is paired with a natural consequence. Ideally, you have already determined these at a family meeting and posted them in a place that is easy to see, like a refrigerator. A key word here is choosing. We want to reinforce the idea that children have the power to choose.

Be Curious, Not Furious:

Let each moment be a new moment. Be curious about how it will unfold. Don’t be furious about how it is going or how you expect it to go. Another key word is believe. We want to believe, every time, that our children can make mutually beneficial choices. Our curious approach helps make space for that.

What Not to Do:

  • Do not set consequences you will not follow up on. Again, we don’t need to be perfect, but reliability and consistency pay off here.
  • Do not ask a child, “How would you feel if I did that to you?” This requires too many leaps for a child. Focus instead on simply helping name the child’s feelings. With the right foundation, children will naturally grow their capacity for empathy, but that often comes much later and not when they are having big feelings.
  • Don’t shame a child. In essence, don’t negatively judge a child for who they are based on what they do. Assert and hold true for them that their worth and value are separate from their behavior.
  • Don’t yell. This one can be hard. Often, as parents, when our children misbehave, we feel mad. However, yelling is an acting-out behavior. It’s really important that if we find ourselves often angry, we look at what we can do to better care for ourselves and tend directly to our wants and needs.
  • Don’t seek to control. When we are scared, we seekcontrol  over situations/others to feel safe again. This is a substitute for emotional regulation. With emotional regulation, we might notice our fear and tune in to the scary story we tell ourselves. “If this child doesn’t learn to listen, then everyone will judge me as a horrible parent.” These scary stories may direct us to some personal therapy that we can do.
  • Don’t hold yourself to a perfect standard. As a parent, I have done every one of the things on this list. Don’t beat yourself up. When we slip into old patterns that we want to break, acknowledge the feeling (sound familiar?), and name the behavior that we want to change. Then, apologize. Apologizing to children communicates that they matter and that it is OK to mess up. Learning to make things right is also an important life lesson for our children. We have the opportunity to model that for them too. Beyond that, when we admit and apologize for our faults, we permit our children to do the same.

The Cost of Compliance:

One final comment about limit setting is this: Consider the purpose of the limits. Is it compliance? The cost of compliance is relatively high. Perhaps, it was a cost that we needed to pay as children. Sometimes, the parents running the show are the ones in our heads–the echoes of voices from our own childhoods. It doesn’t have to be that way anymore. If that is your case, consider seeking support to do things differently.

Ultimately, the purpose of limit setting is to offer an environment with a balance of nurture and structure so that our children’s unique strengths and personalities flourish in our homes. Too often, when we seek compliance, the cost is the expression of their uniqueness. And trust me when I say that we need your child’s uniqueness in this world. Your child needs them too.

All the qualities that make my son a great wrestler and an excellent student academically stem from his thoughtfully challenging, spirited childhood that had me wondering on more than one occasion, “Is there something wrong with him?” “What am I doing wrong here?” Rather than kiss me when he was really young, he came in for a headbutt. That was a painful way to meet, but his nervous system craved it. It took years of meeting him at the boundaries and slowly helping him develop into a teen who is a force on the wrestling mat and knows when to come to his parents and ask for the hugs and silent support he needs on his toughest days.



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