Setting Limits for Children

Tina Sedersten, MSW, School Liaison/CAPH Therapist

Q:   When I tell my child no, I often find myself eventually giving in and letting her have her way, even when I know it's only going to make it harder the next time I tell her no.  But we end up arguing, and I begin to question my own judgement.  How can I be better about enforcing the rules, and in terms of setting limits, how much is too much?  

A:    In a world that is becoming more complicated and dangerous, it’s increasingly important to set limits with your children. Limit setting is an important responsibility of parents as a part of childrearing. Children are faced with difficult decisions on a daily basis and without the proper foundation of self-restraint they may not be able of make appropriate choices when necessary. Limits teach children proper restraint in social and individual activities and provide children with necessary structure and security to assist in healthy development. Setting limits also provide children with guidance before they have an opportunity to get into trouble, thus making them more successful with everyday life.

Here are a few points to consider when setting limits with your child.

1). Limits should be age-appropriate.

A child’s age and developmental level needs to be considered when setting limits.

All children have a need for independence and individualization; however, they also need structure, security and parental involvement. For example, 2-year-old toddlers have a strong need to explore their environment but they also need limits to ensure safety within that environment. Furthermore, teenagers have a developmental need for individualization; however, teenagers are shown to be more successful with parental involvement in difficult decision making.

2). Positive and negative consequences for not abiding by limits should be well known by the parent and the child.

Limits should be discussed and set prior to the situation. Even though it’s impossible to plan for all situations, everyday situations also have limits. Expectations placed upon a child should be clear and consequences should be reasonable and natural. For instance, a teenager who comes home 30 minutes late for curfew may need to come in 30 minutes earlier the following night. A child who is misbehaving while playing with a particular toy may need to have that toy removed from them for the remainder of the day.

3). It is helpful to set limits together with your child.

Naturally, limits that ensure a child’s safety, the safety of others, and the safety of ones environment should not be negotiable. For other situations, if you take the time to set limits with your child they will be more invested in the rules and expectations and more likely to abide by them.

4). Be consistent.

Children respond in a positive manner in an environment in which they know what to expect and what is excepted of them. A child will be more respectful towards rules and more willing to abide by them if the rules are clear and consistent. Limits should only be changed if they are negotiated ahead of time. Case in point, say your child’s curfew is set for 8:00 p.m. but there is a school activity they wish to attend that doesn’t end until 8:30 p.m. You may be ok with your child attending the activity until it is over if they come directly home afterwards. Situations like this may have negotiable limits if there is a safe environment with appropriate supervision and the child’s behavior warrants this level of parental trust.

5). Enforce limits and consequences in a calm manner.

When children break rules, it is easy for caregivers to become upset. When caregivers set forth limits or consequence when they are upset, the consequences or limits may be unreasonable due to heightened emotions. Limits and consequences that are set when emotions are high are generally withdrawn once the caregiver is calm. Withdrawing a consequence or suddenly changing a limit confuses children and damages much needed consistency.

6). Mean what you say.

Once a limit is set, it is imperative to stick to it. If limits and consequences are withdrawn without reason of prior negotiation, children will continuously challenge them and attempt to manipulate their caregiver into changing the limits. Manipulation may come in the form of begging, whining, arguing, lying, temper tantrums, etc. All attempts to manipulate consequences or limits must be ignored to ensure that the child understands that you mean what you say.

7). Don’t argue with your child.

There is no need to argue a consequence or limit with your child. Even though it is beneficial to have your child’s input on limits and consequences, as the caregiver, you have the final say. It is easy to become wrapped up in a power struggle with a child. Children quickly become masters of this game. Always remember that there is no need for a power struggle with children. You are the caregiver and you set the limits and consequences. If and when your child becomes argumentative, refuse to argue with them and continue to enforce the consequence and/or limit. Eventually, the child will realize that arguing gets them nowhere and they will begin to accept their limits and consequences with less resistance.