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.