A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents on Setting Limits

A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents on Setting Limits

- in Ages & Stages, Parenting

A group of us parents were chatting the other day, and a friend was lamenting about her need to set screen limits for her daughter. A collective sigh went through the group, as everyone could relate. Setting — and HOLDING— limits as parents is essential. Limits help kids feel safe, because boundaries give them a sense of security and predictability which, in turn, can make parenting easier. We all know this, of course, but that doesn’t make it easy to do. In fact, it’s a challenge for most of us for a variety of reasons, but truly, if we follow a few guidelines, it can be done.

Some of us may be wondering, “How important is setting limits anyway?” Fair question. When you think about it, don’t we all function better with structure and guardrails? I know I do! When our kids are little, our job as parents is to provide and model structure in terms of sleep, meals, work and play, so they can learn to internalize it. We’re also teaching and modeling how to balance needs versus wants and the natural disappointment and frustration that comes when we discover we can’t just do whatever we want whenever we want. The sooner our children learn this, the better off they are.

So let’s get started. Here’s my step-by-step guide to setting and maintaining limits.

  1. Define the larger goal toward which you’re working. Why do you want to set a limit? What behavior are you trying to decrease? What behavior are you trying to increase?
  2. Check to see if your limit actually fits that goal. For example, will taking your child’s phone away serve your goal of becoming more independent with breakfast?
  3. Make sure you can hold the limit, because you don’t want to set a limit you can’t hold. If your limit is no screens after 8 p.m., but you know you’re either not home, not available, or not able to make sure that happens consistently, don’t set it.
  4. Develop a plan for how you’ll manage your child’s distress. This is key, because you can expect behavior to get worse before it gets better. We call that a behavior burst. If you know this going in, you can figure out how you’ll ride out their behavior, allowing you to stay level-headed, calm, and as neutral as possible.
  5. When your child comes down from their wave of emotional distress, that’s the time to lavish them with attention. Put the attention on behavior you want to grow, not behavior you want to stop. Celebrate their good job!
  6. Be consistent. This is so important, because the most effective way to strengthen an existing behavior is to intermittently reinforce it, or be inconsistent with limits. Let’s use our screen time limit as an example. If you stick to the one-hour limit for four nights in a row, but on that fifth night, you give in, your efforts will have backfired. If their whining and nagging wore you down, they just learned that they simply need to whine and nag long enough to get what they want (and not what they need). And the next time you try to stick to one hour? You can expect more nagging and whining. This is where being on the same page as your partner is so important, too. If your child knows one parent will give in, you can bet they’ll use that to their advantage.

Also, setting a limit in the heat of the moment can put you in a tough spot. We want to be calm and rational so we are proactive, not reactive. Otherwise, we might set a limit that doesn’t achieve our desired goal, or we might not be able to hold it, rendering it useless. The more usesless limits we set, the faster kids start to ignore what we say and set, because they know we won’t follow through. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve talked with a child (from 5 years old and older) who has told me “my parents set a lot of limits; they just don’t enforce them.” (And my older two children remind me every time I don’t hold a limit with their younger sister!)

While not always easy, setting limits has many benefits. Children not only learn good habits and balance, but they also start to learn how to manage their emotions. These are opportunities to reinforce that feelings are normal and temporary. As adults, we know that frustration will pass, but as children, intense emotions can be quite scary. Depending on your child’s age, these feelings may also be brand new, so discussing them removes some of the fear and creates a safe, nurturing environment. (To help illustrate your point, a wave or storm metaphor can help remind children that their feelings may be intense, but they pass.)

Remember that it’s never too early to set some limits. We just want to ensure that they’re appropriate for the age. While screen time may not be a problem for your toddler, falling asleep by themselves might be.

If you feel there are other reasons why setting limits may be hard for you, let’s connect. For instance, sometimes the anxiety of it all overwhelms us. I can help guide you based on your own personal situation. If you’d like to talk, contact me.

About the author

Joanna Hardis, LISW, is a cognitive behavioral therapist in Shaker Heights, Ohio, focused on helping parents with the hardest job on earth. A mother of three herself, Joanna combines years of everyday parenting experience with professional training in the areas of anxiety; changing family dynamics, such as divorce; and obsessive-compulsive and eating disorders all in an effort to support, coach and empower parents of behaviorally challenging kids (which is pretty much all of them, right?). Joanna earned her undergraduate degree at Cornell University in New York and a master’s degree from Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University.

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