Setting Effective Limits

Laura Markham's picture

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Setting limits is one of the most important skills of parenting. Limits keep our children safe and healthy and socialize them so they can function in society. But there's another important reason for setting limits: if we do it right, our kids will internalize the ability to set limits for themselves, which is otherwise known as self-discipline.

Limits are an important part of emotional growth. Only by that encounter with a limit do kids learn what is appropriate, what is acceptable, what is possible.

"But I hate setting limits. It's the worst part of being a parent!"

Some parents, the ones I might call permissive, tell me they hate setting limits, particularly when their children are toddlers and respond with great frustration. They hate the idea of causing their child more grief, they don't want to incite a tantrum, and they certainly don't want their child to be angry at them. Over time, though, they often see that their children do not develop the ability to tolerate frustration or to manage themselves. These children are often referred to by others as "spoiled."

Giving kids more and more say over their lives as they gain maturity is desirable, but we would not let a toddler make all his own decisions, and I would argue that most fourteen year olds are not ready to, either. Studies show that kids raised too permissively become "difficult" -- unable to manage themselves, inconsiderate of others, and unable to form mutually satisfying relationships. Although rejecting the authoritarian role is a good thing, rejecting the role of a parent is not. All parents have a critical responsibility to teach and guide their young.

"I count to three and they jump. No raising a brat for me!"

Other parents boast that they have no problem in setting limits, and are proud of their child's quick obedience to their directives. But while harsh limits -- any limit backed up by your power and larger size -- may temporarily control behavior, they don't help a child learn to self-regulate. Authoritarian parenting actually gyps kids out of the opportunity to internalize self-discipline, good judgment and the ability to think for themselves. Instead, harsh limits trigger resistance and rebellion. Kids who've been raised in an authoritarian manner are more likely to go along with their peers, to become bullies or victims, to have difficulty managing their anger, and to become adults who are more prone to depression.

There is a middle ground that works. Research shows that children develop optimally when we set limits as necessary, but do so with empathy. Kids need appropriate limits, but it's how you do it that counts. Setting limits with empathy means that you:

  • Start with a strong, supportive connection with your child so he knows you're on his side. All discipline begins with a good relationship so your child wants to please you.

  • See it from his point of view and offer genuine empathy that he can feel, while setting the limit. If you can provide an emotional "holding environment," while also reinforcing a firm limit, the child has the freedom to rail against the limit, to cry and grieve about it, and finally to accept it and move on. That means when he cries that he has to leave the playground, you empathize, but you still leave the playground.

  • Only set the limits you really need to set, so that his life is more about connection and discovery than about limits and frustration. Saying No too often undermines your relationship. And moods in infancy and toddlerhood cause permanent changes in brain chemistry that influence moods throughout life, so you don't want to overload your little one with frustration.

"But how do I decide which limits are really necessary?"

If you think about it, you already know the answer to this. Safety -- for himself and others -- is non-negotiable. All other rules will change over time. He will have to learn to clean up his own messes, for instance, and not to interrupt you mid-sentence, but if you're seeing things from his perspective, you will know what he is ready to handle. You will also see what he needs -- for instance, a good night's sleep -- and be prepared to enforce him getting those things.

Limits are an inescapable part of a child's life. But if she confronts limits that seem arbitrary or harsh on the part of her parents, she rebels. If there is too much frustration, she can't overcome it constructively.

Firm limits accompanied by empathy allow our children to experience their full reactions to the limit and come out on the other side. She learns that she can tolerate her rage and misery and feel better afterwards. In this we see the beginning of optimism -- things will get better -- as she considers other courses of action. "I have to leave the playground now but we'll come back tomorrow and I'll start with the swings so I get to swing longer."

She also learns that she can't always get her way, but she gets something better: someone who loves and accepts the full range of who she is, including her anger and sadness. This becomes the core of unshakeable positive self-esteem and stable internal happiness.

Dr. Laura Markham