Setting Limits with Kids, Positively
One of the hardest parts of parenting is providing guidance when things are not going well. Obviously. When things are going well it’s easy to ride the high of being a parent and loving on your children. It’s enjoyable and reinforces all of the many reasons for having a family. Discipline, consequences, setting limits, boundaries, and expectations are not likely one of the reasons. It’s tough and the behaviors that require the limits are even tougher. They can wear on you so much that when it comes to setting the limit, your emotional brain has already been triggered or exhausted and all you want to do is scream.
Limits must be set in order for children to learn how to function in the world. They crave limits…even teenagers. Truly. Limits provide a sense of control and understanding. Without limits, kids get confused with the behaviors expected of them. It’s important to have some “go tos”. I’m going to share my favorite go to for setting limits in a positive way.
Garry Landreth is and will always be one of my heroes. He is a well known author, play therapist, professor, researcher, and scholar. He KNOWS kids. He knows how to interact with them, how to nurture their needs, how to build the best therapeutic relationships with kids, and he knows how to set limits. Which is actually a really important way to interact with kids, nurture their needs, and build wonderful relationships. I take my favorite limit setting tool from Dr. Landreth’s good work and it goes like this.
Positive Limit Setting This is a simple way to set limits with children in a more therapeutic manner. You can remember it by thinking of the letters A.C.T.
A = Acknowledge the child’s feeling
C = Communicate the limit
T = Target an alternative
Acknowledging the Feeling. One of the most important pieces of limit setting that caregivers often forget is validating children’s feelings. When children need a limit, they are almost always having a feeling and the feeling most often gets lost in the discipline. But the feeling is key. Think about in your own life, maybe when discussing a problem with a friend or your partner and the conversation goes right to the solution and your feeling never gets heard. This doesn’t feel good. You may even wonder, were they even listening to me? The same goes for kids. If they are struggling with a behavior it is linked with a feeling or experience that needs to be heard and not ignored. They are “going through” something and need their emotions supported, even when the behavior is not desirable. This technique is excellent for young children, but can be used in adjusted language for older kids too. Even teenagers need their feelings heard when they are acting out. Recognizing your child’s emotion by giving it a name and some nurturance will also increase your child’s emotional intelligence, an incredibly valuable skill. And if it’s not so much a feeling, it might just be acknowledging what your child is experiencing by saying, “Looks like you…” or “I can tell you really want to…”. This is still sending the message to your child that you care about what THEY are experiencing.
Communicate the limit. Don’t forget to clearly state the limit, helping your child identify the behavior that isn’t okay. Even if you think they know it, state it anyways. They need to hear you say it plus it gives you an opportunity to clearly state exactly what you want that limit to be. In their mind, there may be exceptions, variance, etc. therefore you want to clearly state YOUR limit.
Target an Alternative. Giving an alternative behavior or action is really helpful too. Kids need so much guidance from us. In as sense, we are acting as their more developed brains for them. They only have access to the small part of their brain that has been developed. Their brain continues to develop throughout childhood, adolescence, and even until they are young adults. The part of the brain that is still developing is the part that helps people think critically, problem solve, and make good decisions. Therefore, when dealing with feelings and behaviors, it’s way more challenging for children to manage than for adults who have fully developed brains. Children are able to have the strong feelings and impulses but just don’t quite know what to do with them. We are here for them helping them understand behaviorally what goes and what doesn’t go. And they likely NEED an alternate behavior or action to express themselves and their feelings that is appropriate and yet still gets the feeling out.
Here are a few examples to help get you started using positive limit setting:
A “You are feeling excited and silly playing with your toys!”
C “But toys are not for throwing.”
T “You can throw the ball outside or you can slide your toys on the floor.”
A “I can see you are feeling mad right now.”
C “But people are not for hitting.”
T “You may hit your pillow or use your words to tell your brother why you are angry.”
A “I know you are sad today.”
C “But you have to finish your homework.”
T “You can work at the kitchen table or on the desk in the den.”
A “Looks like you really want a cookie. You must be hungry and I know you love cookies.”
C “Cookies are for after dinner.”
T “You can have a carrot stick or help me set the table for dinner.”
Just like any new tool, any new language, it takes practice. You have to get used to shifting your language while speaking calmly. Approaching your child with lots of love and kindness when you say these words is key. And at the same time the words need to be easy to understand and clear.
I have a background in child development and work with parents and caregivers of kids of all ages to build lasting positive relationships with their children. If you are a parent or caregiver who would like additional support and coaching, please contact me here. I offer free 15 minute consultations where I’ll try to get an idea of what you are dealing with and how I can help. We will get a good sense of each other and can decide if I’m the best fit for you. Together we will make a plan for the next steps.