Setting Limits with Kids: Part 1

By Sandra Kermode, M.Ed., Family Coach


Limits and boundaries are such an intrinsic part of life. There is a limit on how much food we can eat (before we feel sick), on how fast we can drive (before we get a ticket), and generally on what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in our communities.

So if limits are such a natural part of daily life, why do we have such a difficult time setting them with children?

Setting limits with kids can be a totally exhausting process that leaves us feeling upset and guilty. Children know just how to push our buttons and we find ourselves being ruled by emotion, flip-flopping or turning to quick fixes and rewards to appease them. While limits may be a natural part of an orderly society, nobody really prepares you to set limits with kids.

The great news is that we have all been there and we have the power to change. In part one of this two part series, I touch on where we go wrong when we set limits and the first step to setting limits with kids while keeping our cool. In part two of this series, I share my tips and tricks to setting limits in a kind and firm way.

WHAT ARE LIMITS & WHY ARE LIMITS IMPORTANT FOR KIDS

As adults, we experience limits on a daily basis. Limits are sometimes viewed as restrictions (what we can and cannot do) and in some cases they are. Often times though, limits can be viewed as expectations.

Limits are the expectations that have been set by our society, our communities and by ourselves. Expectations are our own personal guidelines for how we want to live our lives and interact with those around us. Expectations are powerful. They can motivate us. When expectations are healthy, reasonable and logical, they push us to grow.

Since limits require self-discipline, we may test them at times. We drive faster than the speed limit hoping not to get caught. We eat excessively (especially around the holidays) hoping not to feel terrible.

But we are adults after all. We know that there are consequences to our actions. And while we test limits from time to time, we still like knowing that they exist, keeping some semblance of law and order. We feel safe knowing there are certain expectations as a society.

Just as we need limits so that we can coexist, children need limits too. Children thrive when they know what is expected of them. Children need limits to feel safe and secure. They behave and listen when there are FAIR AND FIRM limits. When there aren’t any limits (or consistent limits), they don’t know what to expect and so they often act out.

Just as we test limits, children do too. Testing limits is normal. Children are learning what is and isn’t acceptable through their own experiences and logical consequences of their actions.

Makes sense, right?

Then why is it so difficult to set limits and boundaries with children?

WHERE WE GO WRONG WHEN WE SET LIMITS

It’s easy to make mistakes when setting limits, especially when emotions are running high. When we are in “crisis mode,” we find ourselves resorting to some of the below behaviors:

  • We set inconsistent limits and flip-flop using uncertain language and tone of voice.
  • We go to the other extreme and use overly firm language and a harsh tone of voice that is borderline aggressive.
  • We repeat the limit over and over again almost yelling the limit at our kids.
  • We condescend to and shame children with name-calling and sarcasm.
  • We resort to using bribes or fear.

All of these behaviors work against adults in setting limits and eventually backfire.

When you are in crisis mode and reacting emotionally, you’re going to lose the limit setting battle with your child.

So how do you set limits in a healthy way so you don’t even reach crisis mode?

It comes down to understanding your own personal boundaries and limits so that you can then set healthy limits with children.

KNOW YOUR OWN BOUNDARIES AND LIMITS

Have you ever noticed how only certain limits make you lose your cool? In general, setting limits with the kids isn’t difficult, but there are just a handful of situations that ALWAYS end in tantrums, crying and terrible guilt.

This has to do with YOUR personal limits and boundaries.

We all have different personal boundaries and they influence the limits we set with kids! Certain limits and boundaries cause us to react more emotionally than others.

So how do we take emotion out of the equation so we tackle limits head on?

We are going to delve into understanding our personal limits and boundaries better so those hot button items don’t cause us to go into crisis mode. Instead we will be prepared to calmly set the limit.


HOW TO SET LIMITS WITH CHILDREN

The below exercise will help you reflect on your personal limits and boundaries with your kids and create a game plan. Think of the limits that are tested often and get under your skin.

You can do this activity with as many limits that you are having issues with. However, I recommend starting with one limit that you will create a game plan for and implement in your home TODAY.

Have your partner think of limits that are important to him/her and do the activity with you. Share your game plans and decide what you are going to do together.

  1. Setting Limits with Kids | Setting and Establishing Boundaries for Children | Creating Healthy Boundaries for Families
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    What makes you feel stressed, overly tired, angry or uncomfortable with the kids?

  2. Why? What limit/boundary is being tested? Is it a physical boundary, material boundary or emotional boundary?
  3. How do you currently set this limit?
  4. How do you feel after you set this limit and why?
  5. What is a new way to set the limit?

How did you enjoy the activity? Do you have a better idea of what your hot button limits and boundaries are?

The next post includes tips and tricks when setting limits so you feel especially ready to make changes at home with limits you have been struggling to set.


Sandra Kermode | Family Coach | Setting Limits with Kids | Boundaries for ChildrenSandra Kermode is a Family Coach and helps parents and kids feel more purposeful and connected. When kids and parents feel purposeful and connected, your family feels happy & whole. She gives parents real everyday changes they can make with one-on-one guidance, so they can redefine their relationship with their kids in a way that works for the whole family. To see how you can work together and if video coaching is a fit for your family, contact Sandra. For more posts like this and ideas & inspiration “to keep in the sunshine”, sign up for the newsletter.

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  • This is so great! I totally agree you need to set limits and not flip0-flop. Kids are smart and will recognize what they can get away with if you keep flip flopping.. My crisis mode is always bath time…good thing hubby does that most days! Phew!

  • Hi Sarah! You’re spot on! Kids are smart and so intuitive. They know when we are inconsistent and also when we mean business. That’s great you’re aware that bath time can send you into crisis mode. Honestly, that’s half the battle! It’s awesome when we can ask others for help be it our partner, friends or family, so having your hubby own that responsibility is fantastic.

  • yes all things that new parents struggle with, well not only new parents but all parents. All through the game of parenting as parents we will be setting limits. The Limits will change and on what will change but the game will stay the same.