Limit Setting with Children

We’ve all been there. We’re shopping in the grocery store or roaming the aisles of Target and we hear it.  Child whining, or maybe having a full blown tantrum.  The parent, usually mom, is trying to calm him so she can finish her shopping.  She’s trying to be firm and not give in to his demand for a new toy, but he is wearing her down, probably embarrassing her.  Will she give in just to quiet him?  Would you? Have you?  Most of us have at one time or another.  But when we do, we make it harder for ourselves and the child next time.

If you have children or work with children, you know the importance of setting appropriate limits.  Limits provide children and adolescents with security as well as an opportunity to learn self-control and responsibility. For years I have coached parents in using this limit setting technique.  I used it with my own kids when they were young, and it’s what I use with children in my office.  If it is used consistently it is highly effective.  It takes practice and you should be prepared for children to test you to see if you are serious, but stay consistent and usually you will see results!

3 Steps A.C.T.

  1. Acknowledge the child’s feelings, wishes, and wants.  Verbalizing that you understand the child’s feelings often helps decrease the intensity of the feelings.  For example, ” I understand that you want…” OR ” I hear you feel strongly about…” OR “You really want…”
  2. Communicate the Limit.  Give clear specific limits.  For example, “But we are not having candy this close to supper time.” OR “We’re not buying a toy today.”
  3. Target an acceptable alternative.  For example, “We are not having candy this close to supper time.  You may have an apple if you’d like.”

Patience is key. Stay calm.  You may have to go through the sequence 2-3 times (or more at the beginning) before the child understands that you are not giving in.  If after the limit is set, the child breaks the limit, then the ultimate choice is given.  This step must be carefully stated so the child clearly understands he/she has a choice and that whatever happens will be the result of his/her choice.  For example, “If you choose to throw that toy again then you choose not to play with it anymore today.”  OR ” If  you choose to hit your friend again then you choose to have her go home.”  Then follow through.  No debates or lengthy explanations.  At this point, it is important that apologies, tears, tantrums do not undo the choice the child has made.

Good luck!  Give it a try and let me know how it works for you.

ACT Limit setting technique is from:

Landreth, G. (1991).  Play therapy: The Art of the Relationship. Bristol, PA: Accelerated Development.

About Gretchen Derda (Woosley), MSW, LCSW

I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in a private psychotherapy practice where I specialize in work with families and children. My focus is to help families improve their functioning so that each member of the family can reach their full potential, becoming the persons they were meant to be.
This entry was posted in adolescent mental health, child mental health, parenting, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Limit Setting with Children

  1. catie says:

    ACT!!! i can remember that! {maybe even when i’m being publicly mortified}

  2. Emily says:

    You wrote this so well Gretchen. I hope parents with young children are reading, but I know you can apply this to older children too!

    • Gretchen D. Woosley, MSW, LCSW says:

      Thank you, Em. It can absolutely be used with older kids too. The “A” is especially important with older kids who want to make sure that you are hearing their reasoning about the issue. Sometimes making that part bigger with older kids diffuses a lot of their frustration.

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