Setting Limits with Difficult Kids: How to Get Them to Listen

by James Lehman, MSW
Setting Limits with Difficult Kids: How to Get Them to Listen

How many times has this happened to you? You set a limit on behavior, and your kids ask, “Why?” or ignore your limits entirely. Or perhaps it’s a war of inches—your adolescent tests you by coming in a few minutes later past curfew each time he goes out. Then he accuses you of being petty when you enforce the limit with a consequence. No matter the method, it’s infuriating for parents when their kids push against the structure they set. And for some parents, it’s hard to limit their child’s behavior in the first place. How can you set limits effectively and get your kids to listen? James Lehman explains how in this article.

Most kids have a whole monologue going on in their heads that says, "I can do it; it's no big deal; why won't she let me?"

All emotionally healthy kids test limits. It's a normal thing for kids to do as they develop—and in my opinion, it’s actually a good thing for them to do. Problems often emerge when parents don't feel comfortable setting limits in the first place or when kids don’t learn to negotiate for changes in those limits, and act out instead. And kids certainly develop different ways of testing limits that can be inappropriate and unacceptable.

I believe part of the job for parents is to train their kids how to accept limits. But I also think parents need to allow for their children to challenge and test limits in a healthy way. I think that kids should always test limits. Parents often ask me, “Will this ever stop?” And I say, “It shouldn’t. But what should stop is any kind of manipulation or intimidation that your child is using.”

Setting limits is a two-way street. In one way, the harder your child pushes, the more we should be asking, “Is he ready for more responsibility?” and “Am I, as a parent, ready for different limits?” Think of it this way: butterflies have to push their way out of the cocoon; the cocoon is the limit on the butterfly. In the same way, your limits are the cocoon on your child. He’s going to get out someday and grow and move on. But it's good to make sure that he pushes a little and shows that he’s really ready. And you can only tell if he’s ready by how much he struggles or how much maturity he shows. The scary fact is that in order for kids to grow functionally and emotionally, adults have to take risks.

When your child starts to get into the teen years, he will often begin to rebel against limits more forcefully; getting kids to listen is hard because they don’t think they need them. And parents often want their kids to understand their motivation. But I want to be clear here: parents cannot seek validation from their kids. Among other things, the risk of being disappointed is always there. Seek validation from other parents, or in what you read here. Seek validation by being able to change how you parent. But if you seek validation from your kids, it’s a fruitless chase—and you're giving them too much power.

Being a limit setter is not always easy or fun. Some parents rely on it too much, and are overly rigid with rules. They over-utilize limits and don’t develop the teaching and coaching roles of parenting. Instead of being a limit setter, they have taken on the “Punisher” role. And some parents don't use it enough; they just don't know how to draw that line effectively. I understand that; it’s often something you have to feel your way through.

Certainly the “Limit Setter” is one of the roles of effective parenting—along with the Teacher Role and the Coaching Role—that is important to have in your tool kit. I believe these three roles integrated together can help almost anyone be an effective parent.

Here are some specific guidelines I give parents to help them set limits effectively—and stick by them.

Decide Where the Line Is: As a limit setter, your job is to draw the line at the point where things become unsafe or unhealthy. Sometimes you might go with your instincts and do it without thinking about it too much: if your young child is crawling towards the stove, you react by getting him out of harm’s way. As kids develop, parents often employ this kind of “reaction limit setting.” That might work well when your child is young, but as parents of older kids and teens know, it gets much trickier as time goes by.

Often, your young child won't understand the consequences you give him when he crosses the line. In fact, whether your child is three or eighteen, limit setting is one of those things that he probably won’t understand. Instead, he thinks, “Why can't I do what I want? I could handle it if only they’d leave me alone.And if you try to get him to agree with your reasoning, you’re often met with deaf ears. I think if you want your child to accept your limits, you’re asking for too much. Most kids have a whole inner monologue going on in their heads that says, “I can do it; it’s no big deal; why won’t she let me?” As a limit setter, your attitude has to be, “I’m your parent, and my job is to keep you safe and healthy. This is the way it is.” Don’t hesitate to set firm limits in the areas of health and safety.

Plan Ahead: I suggest you think ahead and plan out what kind of limits you want to set. To be the limit setter is to decide what a healthy, safe environment is and then be willing to enforce it. Your first way of enforcing it is through verbal directions and reprimands. If your child has a hard time responding to your direction, one of the things that you can fall back on is a consequence structure.

Consequences and Rewards: Consequences are a way of maintaining limits; rewards are a way of keeping hope going and expectations high. Consequences are also a way of responding when your child tests limits too forcefully. Come up with a menu of rewards and consequences for your child and have it ready to use when you need it. Remember, kids don't test limits because they're kids; they do it because they're human. Human beings always look to the next horizon; it's just part of what makes us who we are.

Teaching Right from Wrong: Don't forget, kids are not little adults, they're kids. They process information very differently. They sense their feet are on the ground, but they don't know right from wrong as clearly as we think they do. And certainly in times of stress— when they're afraid, frustrated or angry—their sense of right and wrong gets lost in the shuffle. It's our job as parents to keep them focused on what's right and what's wrong: what they can and can't do.

Internalizing Good Behavior: Setting limits on your child is a way to help him internalize good behavior. You set limits by telling your child “no” and explaining why once. You tell him what the consequences are going to be if the behavior continues. The next time he does it, you give him the consequence that you laid out. Ideally, he learns to weigh out the cost-benefit ration of following the limits on his own. In that way, you're helping your child set limits on himself.

Don't forget, adults are expected to set limits on themselves all the time. You're expected to set a limit on how you talk to others—you’re not supposed to depend on somebody else to say, “Don't be rude.” That process is called “internalization.” When kids see their parents setting limits, eventually they absorb those limits and use them as their own. Let’s say you tell your child, “Talk nicely to your sister,” but he doesn't listen, so you set a limit. If necessary, you give him a consequence. When he finally starts to talk nicely to his sibling on his own, what has happened is that he’s borrowed your limit; he’s internalized it. In other words, it's inside of him now; he’s taken in this lesson. So kids learn to internalize the limits that we teach them. And if you don't teach limits, what your child internalizes is chaos—and you'll see it in his behavior.

Limits Give Kids Security: It's also important to know that parental limits give kids a sense of security—even if your child is rebelling against them. Think of it this way: limits are the structure. Your house has walls and stairs and a roof, and that's the structure. It keeps your family safe, warm and dry. Limits are like the emotional structure for your kid. Sometimes he's going to pound on that wall or try to walk through it. How you respond to that is critical. I see a lot of parents actually get stuck in a cycle where they want their kids to like them. They're afraid their children won't love them if they set limits. That fear permeates how they act with their children. So they don’t say “no” sternly enough, or often enough. They never want their child to feel uncomfortable, and they bend over backwards so that won’t happen.

Learn to Let Your Child Feel Discomfort: When you set a firm limit on your younger child and he’s upset by it, you have to learn to let him cry. You have to learn to let him go to his room and throw stuffed animals around. Many parents are very uncomfortable with that. I can't tell you how many parents are worried their kids won't love them. I think part of that is because we're in a very negative society nowadays, where teens and kids and young adults talk really rudely to their parents. Parents don't want their kids to treat them that way; they're also afraid their kids are going to hate them. But let me be clear: if you're a good enough parent, your kid will love you as long as he has the capacity to love. Remember, human beings respond to love with love. The fear of, “Is he going to love me or not,” shouldn't motivate parents, although it does.

Will your child love you more if you set limits? Who knows? But the fact is that human beings want to love people who are loving to them. It's part of our nature. And so if you're reasonable, your child will love you. Again, if you set limits in a hateful way, if you're resentful and nasty and cranky all the time, he's not going to want to be around you.

Know How You Present Yourself to Your Child: It's important that you're firm with your child from early on. I also think it’s important to know what you look like when you're being firm; you don’t want to look too scary. Practice in the mirror. Watch how you say things; notice the look on your face.

I give parents a lot of guidelines around this because the bottom line is, if the look on your face is demeaning or harsh, then it won’t teach your child a lesson—it will only hurt his feelings. Remember, kids’ feelings get hurt like everybody else’s. It's important that they perceive the person setting the limits as somebody who's being reasonable and calm. If you're screaming when you set a limit, you’ve waited too long.

Parents should set limits clearly and calmly. You can be as forceful as you want, but your tone and your face should not be mean or resentful. If you feel that way, which I understand is normal, go spend a few quiet minutes alone until you're ready to do speak calmly. And then go back and set the limit.

Over-explaining your rationale to your child is really not the way to go, because then you're training your child to be a lawyer. Just explain why and set the limit. You can say, “That's the way it is.” Don’t let the limits you’ve set turn into a power struggle, and don’t allow your child to think that he can argue you out of what you’ve decided.

Older Kids and Teens: As kids get bigger, their urgency to test limits and get their way becomes more intense and their ability to defy you becomes greater. If you have a five-year-old and you set limits on him, he has no place to go but to his room. If you have a 15-year-old and you set limits on him, he can go to his room and climb out the window—he can defy your limits very easily. It becomes much more of a challenge when kids get older.

If it looks like your child is going to test a limit—or if he already has—sit down with him and talk about it. Say, “I'm wondering why you didn't come home on time. Your curfew is 10 p.m. and you violated it.” If your child says, “Well, that's not fair;10 o’clock is too early,” You can say, “Well, let's do this then. If you can come home on time every day for a month, then we'll talk. We'll sit down and I'll listen to what you think is fair; we'll work something out. But that's the only way to change the limits without consequences around here.”

If your child wants to talk about the limits, then try to hear what he's saying. It might be, “Hey, I have to come home at 10 p.m., all my friends stay out till 12. I don't think it's fair, blah, blah, blah.” Don't defend your position. Just say, “Well, I think 10 p.m. is safe. If you think you can stay safe, then let's try 10:30.” Or say to your child, “How late do you think you should stay out?” And if it’s 12, you can say, “That's great, 12 o’clock would be our goal, then. We're not going to start at 12, but I'm willing to start at 10:30. And let's try that for two weeks and see how you do.” So incrementally, this gives your child a mechanism to test limits and change limits without being defiant.

Parents need to know that their child will love them even if they set limits—and perhaps even more so. If you're not waiting for your child to validate you, then it's okay if he gets angry and frustrated and doesn't like the limits you impose on him. Remember, the place to get validation and forgiveness is not from your child.


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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."


thank you sooooo much for all of your emails i look forward to reading them and never miss any of them... as parents we need all the help we can get and you are the dog whisper of children and parents....thank you thank you thank you!!!!!!!!!!!!

Comment By : cryswigg

Would you consider "blaming" part of intimidation... I know it can be a form of "not taking responsibility"...but, I also "sense" 16 year old is using it as a way to initiate a power struggle. He seems to use it at times when he's angry about a limit set...and as a means of "trying to gain control" by losing control. He also...doesn't seem to have the emotional skills needed to process disappointment.

Comment By : Lynne

thank you, thank you James! i never miss reading your articles and pass it on to my friends and family with children. God bless you forever....

Comment By : madam vi

Thanks for this email. Recently I am facing problems on setting limits on my 10 year old son.He snaps at everything I tell him.But now That I read this article i know the problem is is My screaming. I scream a lot when they do not follow the limits or timelines i have set for him.

Comment By : Ishu

thank you!! I have been applying this type of parenting with my 15 year old son and although it is VERY taxing at times, I have learned to just explain his infraction, re-iterate that that behavior is unacceptable in our house, and repeat the last step, then walk away. I am re-gaining my place as the parent!! It's a slow process but I'm sure it will be worth it!

Comment By : heathervan

* Dear Lynne: Blaming can be used to intimidate. Anything said in a threatening manner is meant to be intimidating. It’s good that you recognize your son’s pattern of ‘trying to gain control by losing control’. You can now help him see this pattern when you implement the problem solving conversation, known as the Alternative Response Process, found in Lesson 6 of the Total Transformation program. Having the ability to manage strong emotions is a skill we all have to learn. You can help him by requiring him to practice those skills. Coach him to calm down—“You look like you’re getting upset. Take some time to calm yourself down.” And problem solve with him on what he can do instead of acting out. His calming skills may include some deep breathing, listening to music, or some jogging. We have many more of James Lehman’s ideas we can share with you. Call us here on the Support Line. We’re here to help.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Thank you so much for thsi wonderful artical on time, I do appriciate your easy writing and at the same time i do wonder what if i have n't came across to these not so complex methods of setting limits and how to held my children accountable for there behaviors i would have been lost and its true i feel validated not from the kids but by forcing the limits...Can't thank your pen and writing enough dear Lehman.

Comment By : Singlemom

My child does not have the option of breaking curfew as we live in the country and he cannot go anywhere without us, however, he is rude and disrespectful regularly when he doesn't get his way. What limits can I set on him as when we take his electronics away he tries to take ours away! Extremely manipulative.

Comment By : voleydouglas

Thank you so much for your support and encouraging words that we are not alone in our stuggles with our teens. I look forward to the montly emails and find hope in them.

Comment By : Debbie

* Dear ‘voleydouglas’: Many parents struggle to get their kids to stop being rude and disrespectful. In the Total Transformation program, James Lehman recommends to ignore bad ‘attitude’ so you’re not allowing the child’s attitude to be an effective way of ‘getting to you’. When your child is rude or disrespectful, make a limit setting statement, such as, “It’s not okay to speak to me that way”, then turn around and walk away. One of James’ great teachings is, “Pick your battles and the one’s you pick you better win.” Set reasonable house rules and expectations for your child and if he breaks the rules, give a consequence that you can enforce. Call us here at the Support Line. We can be really helpful with suggestions on how to give effective consequences. Let us hear from you.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

wow this is my 15 year old son. and soooo me! i know i look so mean when talking to him sometimes. its hard because its been so much for so long and your frustrated. i really have to learn to stay calm and put a nicer look on my face. my son smokes alot of pot. its hard for me to get past anything else because i always relate it back to the pot because its sooo disappointing for me to know hes out there smoking pot. i will keep tring. i am a member of the support line and its been helpful. thanks

Comment By : stillhope

* Dear ‘stillhope’: We’re so glad to hear that calling into the Support Line has been helpful for you. I’m sure you’ve learned that you are not alone in struggling with managing your emotions when you’re talking to your child. It’s hard to keep your remarks short and to the point in those moments. Don’t hesitate to allow yourself some time alone to ‘switch gears’ before you interact with your son. You’re right to think that pot use can affect everything your son does or thinks. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that “the short-term effects of marijuana use include euphoria, distorted perceptions, memory impairment, and difficulty thinking and solving problems.” Frequent users can also start to lose interest in how they look and how they’re doing at school. Plus, using pot puts kids in contact with people who are users and sellers of other drugs. Consider getting some support for yourself around this issue. It’s extremely difficult to watch your child use drugs. Church groups, therapy or Al-Anon are good resources. (To learn more about Al-Anon, call 1-888-425-2666 or go online to One of the best web sites for parents of kids who use drugs is The site has lots of information about substance use, as well as info on how to talk about this with your child—such as their on-line booklet, “Time to Act: What to do if your child is drinking or using drugs.” We wish you the very best as you work through this difficult time. Keep calling the Support Line for encouragement and more ideas on how to use the techniques in the Total Transformation Program. We’re here to help.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

This article is wonderful, but, I feel like my son is past learning from these basic parenting skills. He has severe Add along with severe Odd. Even though we enforce the rules as best that we can, it's hard to teach a child to change if he doesn't think logically. My son feels that he never does anything wrong and his problems in life are his parent's fault. He has already been down the road of cigarettes, pot and sex. Chronic lies have made me neurotic. I rarely trust him.

Comment By : tired mom

I' m so glad to see these comments and essays. It helps me to see that I have to be the adult and not allow my childhood issues to cloud my judgement and parenting. He does need firm limits and also needs to know I will allow him to hate me for a while. Being a parent is not a popularity contest; it is a responsibility assigned to me when my son was born.

Comment By : dude\'s mom

This article goes hand and hand with the transformation book. The book goes into different techniques and parenting styles to use when your child is stepping over the limits. I used the curfew example with my 15 year old son. He would come in past the time. I get frustrated and ground him for weeks. Then he gets off punishment (mainly because he has irritated me and harassed me the whole time about the punishment)not because he deserved to be off punishment. While on punishment he would create all these other inappropriate behaviors wearing me down so that I will let up, making the punishment a nightmare for the whole family. I would let up and then we do it all over again with the staying out past the curfew. In the book I figured out my mistake. I figured 1. That I was making the consequences too long. 2. I was putting all of his issues and inappropriate behaviors into one punishment, justifying why the punishment is so long. 3. That my long punishment was not keeping my child's eye on the prize. It took me a while to catch on to this technique but the important part I was consistent with the punishment and I made the punishment solely for the inappropriate behavior. He learned that 7 oclock is the time to be in the house. Not 7:30, not 7:15 not 7:01... Its become a game now. He will come in sometimes at 6:55 and say MOM I MADE IT... I would just simply tell him good, or give him the thumbs up or say that's what I call a responsible kid. But he is aware of that limit. When he gets older we may talk about a later time that is appropriate for his age.

Comment By : bb jones

I think one thing that helps me keep a pleasant look on my face is knowing that sometimes they are going to break the rules. We have already discussed the fact that there will be consequences and when he finally comes in after curfew, neither of us is surprised. If I'm angry, I'll tell him we'll discuss his consequences tomorrow, thus letting him know that I'm not ignoring it, just postponing. In attacking him when he comes in, we've gotten burned before. I now, always, ask WHY he was late because more than once it was for a great reason and we avoided a lot of ugliness by asking first. Girlfriend having a meltdown, someone got sick and he drove them home etc. Sometimes the rule is the most important thing and sometimes it's not. I give him a pass if he's late because he's showing excellent character. He has not abused this leniency, so far.

Comment By : momof3

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