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Positive Parenting: Setting Limits with your Child

Written by: Maddie McGarrah, M.Ed.
Positive Parenting: Setting Limits with your Child

Whether your child or children express it or not, rules and limits are good for them. Children thrive off consistency, and a great way to help provide consistency to your child is when you are setting limits for them. If you have not heard the term setting limits, it is essentially enforcing a rule for your child but using different language. Setting limits is all about providing a healthy boundary for your child and puts the focus on their behavior not who they are as a person. A very helpful method when it comes to setting limits is called ACT Limit Setting. This was developed by Dr. Gary Landreth, the founder of child-centered play therapy. The method is very simple. A stands for Acknowledge the Feeling, C stands for Communicate the Limit, and T stands for Target an Alternative.

The first step is acknowledging what your child may be feeling. For example, if they are trying to hit you or their sibling, they are feeling angry or upset and you can communicate that by saying, “I see you are feeling angry and are wanting to hit something”. This helps your child feel heard and seen.  Next, is communicating the limit (or rule). Following along with the same example, you can communicate the limit of your child not hitting by saying, “Your sibling is not for hitting”. It is important to put it in the language that focuses on the behavior rather than your child, i.e., instead of saying “Don’t hit your sibling!”. Lastly, give your child acceptable alternatives such as, “You can choose to hit a pillow or color how you are feeling”. This then helps give your child acceptable ways of expressing their emotions. It is important when communicating limits to your child to remain as calm but firm and consistent as possible. This models to your child an appropriate way to act when feeling frustrated and that you are not reacting to their negative behavior. Finally, it is important to be consistent in limit-setting and stick to your word.

If after you give them alternatives and they do not listen provide an immediate consequence that is appropriate to the situation. This can also be given as a choice so that it teaches your child responsibility. For example, the consequence could be if they were playing with an iPad when they choose to hit their sibling, the consequence would be to take away the iPad for the next 30 minutes. The language would then be, “You can choose to hit a pillow instead and keep the iPad, or you can choose to hit your sibling and lose the iPad for 30 minutes”. It is important to not give a second chance after giving this choice to show your child that you will remain true to your word and that they are responsible for their actions. It may take time for your child to get used to this new way of discipline, but with consistency and remaining calm, this should help eliminate unwanted behaviors from your child.