What does “setting limits” really mean? A “limit” refers to a rule that establishes a specific behavior to be unacceptable. “No blowing bubbles in your milk” is an example of a limit. “Setting” a limit refers to a two-step process. Step 1 is communicating the rule to the child. For example, Johnny is blowing bubbles in his milk and his mother doesn’t want him to do this. So mom says, “Johnny, no blowing bubbles in your milk.” Step 2 in limit setting is taking action to enforce the limit. Generally, we call step 2 “giving consequences.” If Johnny stops blowing bubbles in his milk, there is no need for a consequence. However, if he continues, his mother must take action to enforce her limit. For example, she might take his milk away from him.
Effective limit setting is especially important for dealing with challenging boys.
What makes for effective limit setting?
1. State rules clearly.
A clearly stated rule is very specific about what is expected from the child and often includes a specific statement about the consequence of noncompliance. An example of a clearly stated rule is: “Please pick up your toys in the playroom now. Any toys not picked up will be placed in a bag and you will not be able to use them for a week.” Some kids might need an even more specific statement. “Please pick up your pokemon cards in the playroom and put them in your room. Please put your legos back in the lego box. Any pokemon cards and legos not put away in 15 minutes will be put in a bag and you will not be able to use them for a week. I am setting the timer for 15 minutes.” Sometimes it is even important to check to make sure that the child has understood the rule. “Please tell me what I have asked you to do.” If the child has stated the rule correctly you would then follow-up by asking “what will happen if you don’t do ___________ ?”
When rules are not stated clearly, children can be confused about what is being asked of them. Unclear rules can make a child feel anxious. When the child wonders “What is being asked of me?” the child might feel worried whether he or she will get it right. Unclear rules can lead children to test in an effort to discover what the rule actually is. Finally, unclear rules can lead to the child feeling mistrust towards the parent. The child might attempt to follow what he or she understands the rule to be, only to have the parent administer a consequence. Over many of these instances the child learns that the parent cannot be trusted to administer rules in a fair manner.
2. When stating a rule, use as few words as possible.
Effective limit setting generally involves a single, clear statement of the rule followed by a consequence if it the rule is not followed. Extra words in the form of repeating yourself, trying to reason with your child as to why he should want to follow the rule, arguing, making warnings, or giving second chances all encourage children to tune you out when you state a rule. They learn that they don’t have to do what you say when you say it. They learn that you don’t mean what you say. They learn that they can ignore your rule, for at least a short time, while you carry on repeating, warning, reasoning, arguing, etc…
3. When stating a rule, comment only on the unacceptable behavior and avoid making global statements, making comparisons, or commenting on the child’s character.
“Please wait your turn to speak” instead of “You are being rude.”
“Stop hitting now” instead of “Why can’t the two of you ever get along.”
“Clean up your toys before going outside” instead of “Why can’t you be like the Jones’ boys? They always pick up after themselves.”
“We’re not going to talk about this more now” instead of “Why can’t you ever take ‘no’ for an answer?”
4. Use logical consequences.
Logical consequences are consequences that are logically related to the rules that are being enforced. If a child doesn’t put his or her toys away, then a logical consequence is that the child loses the opportunity to play with them for some period of time. If a child doesn’t turn the television down after he or she has been asked, then the TV is turned off. If a child is asked to finish his or her homework before going on a play date, a logical consequence is that the child doesn’t get to go on the play date if the homework isn’t finished. Logical consequences make sense to children and teach lessons about how the world generally works.
Examples of consequences not logically related to the rules to be enforced are: “if you two don’t stop fighting, you will not be able to watch TV tonight,” or “if you don’t pick up your toys you won’t get dessert.” Sometimes it is necessary to use consequences that are not logically connected with the rule that is being enforced. In some instances there is no obvious logical consequence readily available. In some instances the logical consequences available don’t carry enough weight to enforce the rule. However, it is preferable, whenever possible, to connect consequences in a logically meaningful way to the rules being enforced.
5. Use consequences that can be applied immediately.
Effective limit setting requires that your children know that you mean what you say when you ask them to do something. Consequences that immediately follow rule infractions teach that lesson the most clearly. When time passes between a behavior and its consequence, the consequence has less power to influence behavior. This is true for adults as well as children. For example with adults, one of the things that makes losing weight so difficult is that the behavior of eating too much ice cream is not immediately connected to the consequence of stepping on the scale or trying to put on pants that are too tight. We eat the tempting ice cream now and aren’t really effected by the uncomfortable consequences that will come later.
6. Consequences should be proportional to the infraction.
Good consequences are not so lenient so as to be ineffective, nor so severe as to build up resentment in the child. For example, if you use time outs, a widely used rule of thumb is 1 minute per year of age of the child. So a 6 year old gets a 6-minute time out.
7. Do not assert a limit that you are not prepared to enforce.
When you assert a rule (that is, take step 1 in setting a limit) and do not enforce the rule, you are sending the message to your child that rules don’t have to be followed. Being prepared to enforce a limit means that you have the energy and determination to enforce your rule and that you have the consequence you will administer already in mind (whenever possible) before you state the rule.
8. Do not state a consequence that you cannot reasonably implement.
Let’s say you and your family are having dinner at another family’s house and one of your children is misbehaving. In your exasperation might be tempted to say, “Johnny, if you don’t stop jumping on the couch, we’re leaving!” This consequence is too severe (see guideline 6) and it can’t be reasonably implemented because it would end up punishing you, your spouse, your other children and your friends by disrupting the evening’s plans.
9. Implementation of consequences should be followed by a clean slate.
When a child has broken a rule and received a consequence, then he or she deserves to be forgiven and given a fresh start. One of the most difficult things for children is having their parents hold resentment towards or have negative views of them. See my previous blogs about Parental Acceptance, Cultivating Positive Parenting, The Power of Positive Parenting, and Labeling to read more about the importance of not letting negative feelings build up in your relationship with your child.
If you find yourself unable to forgive and move on because your child continues to break the same rules over and over, the problem lies not with your child, but in needing to further improve your limit setting. Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child: Eliminating Conflict by Establishing CLEAR, Firm, and Respectful Boundaries by Robert J. MacKenzie is a clearly written and helpful resource for honing your limit setting skills.
10. Allow time for change.
Effective limit setting has many benefits. Parents feel less frustrated and more accepting of their children when they know they can set and enforce limits when they need to. Children feel less anxious and more trusting when they know their parents are in charge and that their parents will treat them fairly. Effective limit setting also teaches children to be more responsible because they learn that their behaviors are logically and consistently linked to consequences in the world.
Change takes time, however. Allow yourself and your child the room to change. Your child may initially resist your efforts to set more effective limits. It will take time for him or her to adjust to the new limits. You may also find that you make mistakes and have setbacks in your limit setting as move towards being more clear, consistent and firm. Give yourself some slack as you take the time to make these changes.