Monthly Archives: May, 2013

Limit Setting with Children by Anne G. Oliphant, Psy.D.

Limit setting can be challenging for parents. One reason is that the ways our parents disciplined us affect the ways we set limits with our own children. In his book, Fatherneed, Kyle Pruett, MD, encourages us to think about what we are doing as we interact with our own children: Are we “modeling, overcoming, repairing, emulating” our parents or a combination of these?

Sometimes parents have difficulty setting limits because they confuse limit setting with punishment. They think of limit setting as something parents do after their child’s behavior is out of control, instead of something we should be doing in a positive way throughout the day, to guide our children’s behavior.

Some things to remember:

Loving parents set limits!

Limit setting and discipline are taught.

Children crave boundaries, despite their protests when we set limits.

Limit setting should not be mean or humiliating.

Here are six ways to set limits throughout the day before your child’s behavior gets out of hand:

1.  Control the Environment–Choose age-appropriate activities and time-frames, provide healthful meals and snacks, and be sure everyone is getting enough sleep.

2.  Use the “Set for Success” throughout the day to cue your children in as to what is expected in each situation–Children love order, predictability, and routines.

Cue your child in–in a positive, pleasant way–to the positive behaviors you expect in a particular situation.

3.  Respect transitions–Young children have more difficulty than adults in handling transitions from one activity to another. Allow children plenty of time to move from one activity to another. It takes a lot of    energy for a child to stop one activity and start another one, and it takes much more time to transition than most parents realize, so allow extra time for transitions.

4.  Use contingent limit setting, using “first…then.”  First we will put away our toys, and then we can go to the park.

5.  Use “natural consequences” or “modified natural consequences” in teaching limit setting. Sometimes natural consequences are too harsh. (Are you really going to let your child go to school on a cold day without his coat, just because he forgot it?)  On the other hand, toys left out after clean up time could be put away for a few days as a “modified natural consequence.”

6.  Follow Dr. Jody Kussin’s recommendation to “Catch Them Being Good!” When you see your children doing what they should be doing, TELL them that you notice, and praise their appropriate behavior in specific terms. This kind of praise tells your children that you recognize and appreciate their efforts. Not only does “catching them being good” reinforce their positive behaviors, thus making it more likely that those positive behaviors will occur more often, “catching them being good” also adds emotional warmth to the interactions in your home.


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