Written by: Dr. Rick Manista, Psy.D
We are always asked, “what makes children more successful in school?” “How do I raise a healthy child?” “How do we help children emotionally and socially?” The answer research shows us might be a surprise. Children need limits.
Part of the process of growing up is understanding boundaries between yourself and others around you. Children struggle to understand boundaries because their brains are not fully developed. If there is not clear structure and limits, children can become anxious and have a hard time regulating themselves. This can later turn into mental health problems. Setting limits is a common struggle among parents. Here are some tips for setting limits:
The Crisis Prevention Institute (2019) emphasizes that limits need to be enforceable. When we are setting limits or giving a consequence, we are often angry and can make empty threats like “You will never have tv ever again”. Since this is unrealistic and not unforeseeable, children know it will never happen! We want to make sure that any consequences we set, we can carry out.
One of the reasons for limit setting is to teach that our actions will have a cause and effect. Children then learn that if they control themselves, they can influence the world around them. One simple way to do this is with natural consequences. These are negative consequences that the action would create. For example, if a child made a huge mess, the natural consequence would be for them to clean the mess. If the child refuses to wear a jacket, the natural consequence may be that they become cold. These are teachable moments that help children understand how they impact the world around them.
Less is more
A common mistake with limit setting is that adults do too much talking! We often lecture children on what they should be doing. Children cannot focus for a long period of time. After about ten words, they stop listening. Being as concise as possible helps this. One recommendation is using statements like “When/then” and “If/Then”. “When you do your homework, then you get video game time”. “If you eat your vegetables, then you get ice cream”. This helps us be concise when delivering limits.
When you are giving a limit, you are going to be angry! This can make children more stressed and reactive. Kathy Gordon from “Hand in Hand Parenting” recommends being as silly and playful with limits as you can be. A “Mary Poppins” tone often works well with children. One strategy is the “new rule”. When children start misbehaving and not see a limit we missed, act like you are playing a game and announce “new rule”. Children who are interested in sports respond particularly well to this.
Another mistake adults tend to make is to lecture and yell at children when they are in the middle of a tantrum. Siegel and Bryson (2012) studied brain scans and found that when children are having a tantrum, their fight or flight mode is activated. When parents set limits during this time, children did not remember them. But when parents debriefed with them after they calmed down, children remembered the limit! The brain scans showed that debriefing after a meltdown helps build neural synapses in the brain, which means they will have long term learning. Always debrief and set limits when children are available to learn and listen.
Cause and effect
Children with an Autism Spectrum Diagnosis often have a harder time with limits because the concept of cause and effect is too abstract for them. Winner (2007) created a strategy called Social Behavior Mapping. This explains to children that if they do “expected behaviors”, others around them will feel comfortable and give them positive reinforcement. Such as, if we do our expected behaviors in school, the teacher will give us good grades. When we do “unexpected behaviors”, others feel uncomfortable and may not give us what we want. For example, if we are unexpected in class, the teacher may not give us a good grade. Winner has visuals and “think sheets” for students to fill out to reinforce this idea. The more structure and limits we can give our children, the better they can understand boundaries.
2019 CPI Instructors' Conference in Scottsdale, AZ July 14 - 19, 2019. (n.d.). Retrieved from.
Gordon, K. (n.d.). 4 types of limits that children need. Retrieved March 26, 2019, from https://
Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2012). The whole-brain child. London: Constable & Robinson.
Winner, M. G. (2007). Social behavior mapping: Connecting behavior, emotions and
consequences across the day. San Jose, CA: Think Social Pub.
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Dr. Liz Matheis
Dr Liz Matheis and her team specialize in assisting children and their families with Anxiety, Autism, AD/HD, Learning Disabilities and Behavioral Struggles