Do your kids make you feel like an ogre when you set limits? Does the word “no” kick off whining, yelling and protests? How many times have you heard your nine-year-old say something like: “That’s not fair! Brandon’s mom lets him watch Sons of Anarchy!” Or does this sound familiar: “Jessica’s dad lets her stay out ‘til 10 on school nights! Why can’t you?”
Kids need limits, and count on parents to set them in order to keep them safe and help them grow. Setting limits is an act of love.
It can be hard to know sometimes if the limits you set are reasonable or not, especially when your kids are howling that “everyone else is allowed to do it!” On top of that, how do you know that the limits you set even work? Whether you are just beginning to set limits, or are adjusting your limits to match your child’s unique needs and developmental changes, here are some tips to make setting limits, and feeling confident about those limits, easier.
- Start from your values. Be clear about the values you want to instill in your family. If eating dinner together at home is important, make that an expectation. If treating people fairly is essential, make sure your limits support that. Knowing that your limits are based on your values helps during those times when your child pushes back and says you’re the worst parent in the world. You’ll find it easier to resist giving in to that argument.
- Communicate the limits. Try saying to your child something like, “Things are going to change, and you can expect that dad and I will deal with your behavior differently.” Or, “Now that you’re older, we need to have some rules about going to parties.” Then let your child know the limits and the consequences for either following or not following the rules. Be clear and specific. This is not a one-time event, but rather a process that will likely take repeated refresher discussions along the way.
- Monitor how your child responds. What did your child do? Not immediately, because change is a process and takes time, but over time. Are you able to observe some improvement in behavior, even if it’s slight? For instance, you set curfew for your teen, and at first he didn’t seem to care. But when you started to take the car keys away, he began to come home closer and closer to the curfew. Now he is routinely coming in on time.For younger kids, it may be helpful to have a chart or calendar where behaviors are recorded. Kids often like to participate in this activity, especially if they get to put the sticker on the chart for behaving correctly. For older kids, charting behavior helps them get a better perspective on their ability to change over time. Even if they had a terrible day yesterday, they can see that they’ve been doing so much better during the past few weeks, and so there’s hope for continued success.
- Be matter-of-fact. Try not to personalize the misbehavior. If your child starts to feel the power to “hurt” you with his misbehavior, this can easily lead to manipulative behavior. Instead, focus on the behavior and your child’s need to change. Help them understand that the misbehavior is hurtful to them and worth changing. If you are angry, wait to talk with your child until your anger has cooled. You can say, “I’m not ready to talk with you right now. I’ll talk with you when I am. Just wait”.
- Be prepared. Do you sometimes just react to your child’s misbehavior, handing down whatever punishment happens to come to mind? Instead, try sitting down and calmly thinking about what behavior you are trying to target. Then you can think more clearly about what consequence would be most effective in promoting change. Develop a list of meaningful consequences in a quiet moment. You know your kids best, what they hold near and dear. Consequences are most impactful when your child really cares either about avoiding the loss of something (computer time, going to her friends overnight, the car, the concert) or about gaining something (time with dad, a hiking trip with friends, an overnight, the car, a concert).Remember, it’s important for both parents to share any plan that is developed and be on the same page, or at least be willing to support each other in the process.
- Consequences need time limits. You need to set limits and impose consequences that allow your child to grow and change. Part of this is setting limits with appropriate timeframes. Younger kids have a very different sense of time than adults. A weeklong consequence for a six-year-old may feel never-ending to her, where your 10-year-old can more easily feel like there’s some light at the end of the tunnel. If you ground your teen for the rest of his life, (while you may definitely feel that way at the time) he will immediately know that you are setting a limit you can’t hold him to.For some kids, it’s helpful to set limits in small increments so they can experience success. “If you are able to make it through this evening without fighting with your brother, you will earn back 20 minutes of computer time tomorrow night.” Having do-able steps is especially important for kids with moderate to severe behavior problems as they can often experience failure and feelings of defeat.
- Monitor yourself. Watch that you’re not falling into old patterns of screaming and yelling or ignoring misbehavior. It’s difficult for us, too, as parents to change. Keep at it.
- Start limit setting early. It’s much harder to begin setting limits for the first time when your child is a teenager whose “job” it is to push back on limits, especially those set by parents. But remember, you can start any time.
- Change doesn’t happen overnight. When things don’t seem to be working, try looking for the little changes you can observe in your own behavior—even if they aren’t yet impacting your child. Did you make a plan and stick with it? Did you make a decision and hold firm? Were you able to tell your child what you expected of him without screaming and yelling? If you did any of these things, you are making progress.There may be relapses by you or your child. You may get “lazy” about follow-through; or your child who was doing so well playing at recess gets into a fight. Keep small set-backs in perspective, and try thinking one day at a time. It may also be time to review your limits and consequences and see if they need adjusting.
- Don’t look for validation from your child. If you’re looking for validation from your kids, you’re giving them too much power. Their job is not to be your friend, or to thank you for setting limits to help them control their behavior. Part of being a parent is setting limits, teaching better behaviors, and coaching your children as they begin to use those improved behaviors. This is a hard job, and at times you can feel pretty alone. Talk to other parents who you trust. Discuss the problems with your partner, and support each other in the changes. Talk with a teacher or guidance counselor who understands your child and some of the unique challenges he or she presents.
Parents often feel that by setting limits, they will lose their child’s love. Just the opposite is true. Kids need limits, and count on parents to set those for them to keep them safe and help them grow. Setting limits is an act of love.
As you start setting and holding your children to more consistent limits, you might feel that you are being overly strict. Aiming for consistency may also feel rigid to parents who are used to a looser household. Remember that limit-setting is just one part of effective parenting and needs to be paired with teaching and coaching. Children aren’t going to change their behavior simply due to limits. Kids also need parents to teach better problem-solving skills and to coach them as they try out the new skills and behaviors. They may never say thank you, but setting limits is one of the best gifts you can give your child.
About Janet Lehman, MSW
Janet Lehman, MSW, has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years. A veteran social worker, she specializes in child behavior issues — ranging from anger management and oppositional defiance to more serious criminal behavior in teens. In addition, Janet gained a personal understanding of child learning and behavior challenges from her son, who struggled with learning disabilities in school. She is co-creator of The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide To Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™.