Setting Limits for Your Child
Children need limits for healthy development and thrive when limits are clear. Even though children may not like specific limits, the general impact is an enhanced sense of security for the child. Children feel safer and more secure when they know their parents are firm with limits because they know that their parents are in charge.
Setting limits for your child is also a very important way to help your child develop frustration tolerance and to learn to control his or her emotions.
Basically, setting limits for your child means stating rules, giving instructions or directions to your child to do something or to stop doing something, or saying “no” to something your child is asking for.
- “No hitting your brother; the rule is no hurting others.”
- “The rule is that nobody gets hurt; please play more gently with each other.”
- “Please keep the paint on the paper; the rule is that paint has to stay on the paper and not on the wall.”
Giving instructions or directions to your child to DO something:
- “Please pick up your toys and put them into the toybox before you watch TV.”
- “Please put the dirty dishes into the sink.”
- “Please talk quietly and use your indoor voice.”
- “Brush your teeth now please”
Giving instructions or directions to your child to STOP DOING something:
- “Time to turn off the TV and get ready for bed.”
- “You can play with Michael for 5 more minutes but then you need to stop playing because we have to go home.”
- “Please stop jumping on the couch.”
Saying “no” to something your child is asking for.
- “No you may not have that chocolate bar.”
- “No, you may not have a sleepover with Claire tonight.”
- “No, you may not have more computer time.”
- “No, you cannot leave the table now, we are still eating for 5 more minutes.”
Things to remember when giving directions to your child:
- Make limits clear, direct and specific (not vague and general like “Be nice!” or “Behave yourself” or “Stop that”)
- “No hitting your brother”
- “Please brush your teeth now”
- “Put your pants on now”
- “Put the dirty dishes on the counter please”
- “Please put the toys in the toybox”
- “No, you may not have more computer time.”
- Use a firm, confident, neutral tone of voice instead of yelling or shouting. Stay calm!! Be polite and respectful. Never put your child down, call your child names, swear at your child, use sarcasm, tease or mock your child, or say or do anything that would be hurtful or would frighten your child. Of course, spanking is never appropriate.
- You may need to repeat limits many times; this is frustrating for parents but normal because this is the way that children learn.
- Be brief in your explanations about reasons for your limits. Do not get drawn into arguments or long explanations about the reasons for a rule with your child!!
- “Hitting hurts and that’s not okay to hurt someone.”
- “If we leave the toys out, someone may trip over them and fall and get hurt.”
- “You have to get dressed for school right now. School starts in 15 minutes and if you are not there, you will be late.”
- “If the dirty dishes are left out on the table, then they don’t get put in the dishwasher and then we will run out of clean dishes.”
- “I’m trying to read these papers and I find it really hard to concentrate when there is such a loud noise.”
- “Throwing the ball inside the house is dangerous and it might hurt someone or break something.”
- “We will be having dinner in half an hour and if you have the cookie now, you will be too full to eat your dinner.”
- Children will frequently ask questions, whine, argue, complain, be rude, or have temper tantrums when parents set limits. This is normal. Repeating your limits (like a broken record) can be effective. Also, ignoring whining, arguing, complaints, and rudeness is a good strategy as well.
- Acknowledge your child’s feelings when you set limits
- “You are really disappointed that I said you could not have that cookie right now; you really wanted to have that cookie.”
- “I can see you are really upset that we have to go home now”
- “You really want to watch more TV and are really angry at me for saying no more TV.”
- “I can see you are feeling really angry that your brother knocked over your castle.”
- “You are mad that you have to stop playing now and go brush your teeth.”
- “You’re so excited that you are shouting very loudly.”
- “You are so disappointed you can’t go to the movie that you threw the ball at the wall.”
- You can motivate children to comply with your limits by rewarding their compliance. Sometimes, setting up a behavior chart where children can earn points towards a reward for good behavior can be very helpful.
- “If you and your brother can play for 10 minutes without hitting, then you will both earn a point on your chart.”
- “If you brush your teeth now, then we can have an extra 5 minutes for storytime.”
- “If you can talk quietly instead of shouting, then I would be happy to listen to you.”
- “If you can play without anybody getting hurt, then we can have a treat for snack.”
- Identify acceptable alternatives by giving choices or redirecting your child.
- “You can brush your teeth now, or after you get into your pyjamas.”
- “You can put your pants on yourself, or I can help you put your pants on.”
- “Please put the dirty dishes into the sink; or if you want, you can put the dishes right into the dishwasher”
- “Please talk quietly and use your indoor voice; Or if you want to play outside, you can be loud out there.”
- “No, you may not have a sleepover with Claire tonight; But we can talk about having the sleepover on Friday or Saturday night.”
- “No you cannot have a cookie now. We will put the cookie aside for dessert, or for snack time tomorrow.”
- “No hitting!! Hitting is not allowed; please use your words to ask Jennifer for a turn”
- “No throwing the ball in the house; if you want to throw something you can use this soft foam ball”
- “You may not climb on the counter, but if you want, you can climb on this stool.”
- “No painting on the table. Paint belongs on the paper; here is some paper you can paint on”
- Remember to always reinforce your child positively when he or she follows your directions and complies with what you have asked by smiling at your child, making eye contact with her, hugging or patting him, or saying something like:
- “I like how you are using your indoor voice”
- “Good for you for using your words instead of hitting”
- “Thanks, I really like it when you listened to me and followed my directions when I asked you to put on your pants”
- “Good job listening and following directions”
- Count the number of limits you set for your child in a day and see if you can reduce the number of limits to those that are only the most necessary. Sometimes parents can overwhelm their children with too many limits. Children (and adults too!) don’t like to be told what to do or not to do constantly.
What Happens When Limits or Rules Are Broken or Instructions or Directions Are Not Followed by Children?
A consequence is something parents decide on ahead of time to carry out IF their child refuses to obey a limit or rule or comply with an instruction.
- Examples of Consequences (Consequences do not need to be harsh to be effective!):
- time-out (1 minute for each year of child’s age); this strategy is best for children ages 3 to 5 years; other strategies listed below are best for children ages 5 and up
- go to feeling-better place; a place to go to calm down; child goes there and can come out after calming down
- loss of privileges, for example losing 15 – 30 minutes of TV/computer time for that day, not being allowed dessert, loss of part of allowance, loss of points on behaviour chart
- loss of toy or item not being used properly, for example paints put away for the day if child paints on wall, toy car taken away for the rest of the day if it is being thrown, bike locked up for several days if not put away in garage
- restriction of fun activity, for example, not being allowed to go to sleepover, must end play time now, must leave playground, will not go on special outing to swimming pool or park
- having to do an extra chore not normally required, for example, cleaning the sink, sweeping the garage for 15 minutes, cleaning the pots after dinner
- Giving a Warning About a Consequence: It is important to warn your child ahead of time that you will carry out the consequence if he does not obey you, for example (ideas for consequences are given in brackets):
- “The rule is no hitting; if you hit your brother again, (you will have to go to timeout for 5 minutes, you will need to go to your Feeling Better Place to calm down, you will lose your computer time today)
- “Please pick up your toys and put them into the toybox, or (I will turn off the TV, you will not be allowed to watch your TV show).”
- “Paint needs to stay on the paper and not on the wall. If you choose to get paint on the wall again, then (I will have to put the paints away for today.)”
- “Please brush your teeth now, otherwise (I will have to brush your teeth for you, there will be no bedtime story, you will lose a point on your chart.)”
- “Please get your pants on right now; we have to leave in 5 minutes and if you don’t have your pants on by then (you will have to leave dressed in your pyjamas, I will put your pants on for you.)”
- “Please put the dirty dishes into the sink, otherwise (you will lose a point on your star chart, you will not have a clean bowl for dinner).
- “Please talk to me quietly; if you keep screaming at me (we will have to leave, I will not listen to what you are telling me, you will lose a point on your chart.)”
- “No throwing the ball inside; if you keep throwing the ball, (I will take the ball away for today, you will have to go outside to play, you will have to go for timeout).”
- “The rule is that nobody gets hurt; if you are unable to play more gently with each other then (you will each have to play in separate places, you will have to end your playtime together, you will both lose a point on your chart, you will both not be able to watch TV tonight.)”
- Enforcing the Consequence: If you give a warning about a consequence, and if your child continues to break the limit or not obey your instructions, then you must carry out the consequence without any further warnings or chances.
- “You hit again, so now (you have to go to timeout, you have to go to your Feeling Better Place to calm down, you have lost your computer time for today.)”
- “I see the toys are not in the toybox, so (I am going to turn off the TV, you will not be allowed to watch your TV show tonight).”
- “Remember I told you if you chose to get paint on the wall, (I would put the paints away for today?) Since you chose to get paint on the wall the wall again, (I will put the paints away for today.)”
- “You haven’t brushed your teeth, so (I will have to brush your teeth for you, there will be no bedtime story, you will lose a point on your chart.)”
- “You haven’t got your pants on yet and it’s time to go, so (you will have to leave dressed in your pyjamas, I will put your pants on for you.)”
- “Your dirty dishes are not in the sink, so (you will lose a point on your star chart, you will not have a clean bowl for dinner).
- “Since you keep screaming at me, (we are leaving now, I am not listening to you, you will lose a point on your chart.)”
- “You are still throwing the ball inside, so (I will take the ball away for today, you will have to go outside to play, you will have to go for timeout).”
- “You weren’t able to play more gently and someone got hurt, so (you will each have to play in separate places, you will have to end your playtime together, you will both lose a point on your chart, you will both not be able to watch TV tonight.)”
Be prepared for resistance from your child in the form of crying, screaming, yelling, swearing, rude comments, etc. This is normal. It is important for you to remain calm at this point and do not react to your child. Remember to not take this resistance personally! Do not engage in anything further with your child at this point other than ensuring the consequence is carried out (this might need to be done at a later time if the consequence was to lose a TV show or computer time later in the day.)
Do not engage in any discussion with your child at this point about the reason for the rule, about negotiation of a lighter consequence, or anything else! Ignore complaints and questions at this point. The time for discussion is several hours after the incident or even the next day when you both are more stable emotionally and able to discuss what went wrong and how things could go better in the future.
Copyright Kathy Eugster, 2012. All Rights Reserved.
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