Limit Setting 101

Anyone who works with children must sometimes set limits. But many also struggle with this task. In this post, we discuss what limits are, why they're important, and how to set effective limits. 

By Momentous Institute | Jan 03, 2023
Limit Setting 02

Parents, teachers, anyone who works with children must sometimes set limits. But many also struggle with this task. How do you set firm limits while still being kind and supportive? What’s the line between appropriate limit setting and helicoptering? And what about the difference between limits and being laissez-faire?

To help us dive into this topic, we sat down with Diane Boehm, LPC, RPT, our Momentous School Mental Health Professional.

We discuss:

What limits are

Why it is important to set limits

How to set effective limits

 

Let’s jump in!

On what limits are

A limit is a boundary – often a verbal boundary – that is designed to create emotional, physical and/or relational safety for ourselves and others. So, for example, limits can be things like stopping a toddler from running into the street, setting a curfew for a teen, or deciding for yourself how you are going to let someone talk to you or treat you.

Some limits will be non-negotiable, like enforcing that a child wears a seatbelt, and others may need to be adjusted or agreed upon, like setting expectations for a child’s first cell phone. Limits provide the opportunity to function within a parameter that feels safe and comfortable, and allows others to feel the same way.

On why limits are important

I always think of the quote from author and researcher Brené Brown who says, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” All of us function best when we know clearly what is expected of us, what we can and cannot do, and how we should behave and act.

Limit setting with children – at home, at school, or in any other setting, helps them understand their clear boundaries that they must stay within. Doing so helps them know exactly what is expected of them and what will happen if they step out of those boundaries. This approach to limit setting helps prepare our children for the short-term and for the long-term as they learn to navigate the real world.

I think limit setting with children is sort of a lost art. Setting limits can feel uncomfortable. I’ve heard adults share that setting limits feels like it goes against a more social emotional approach to teaching or parenting. But I would argue that limit setting is a social emotional approach. It helps kids understand their social relationships and develops their emotional capacity.

Types of limits

I like to think of limits in a few categories. There are physical limits. These are the ones we use to make sure kids are physically safe. This might include safety precautions (seat belts, helmets, etc.) but also how we interact with others (hitting or other physical interactions).

There are behavioral limits. These include how we expect children to behave in different settings, how they participate in class, on the playground, at the dinner table, how they respond when someone asks them a question, what they do when they get frustrated, and so on.

Then there are relational limits. These have to do with how they interact with others (beyond the physical mentioned previously). How kids greet others, what do they do when they disagree with someone, and how they interact with peers, adults, family members, etc.

All these various types of limits help keep us and others safe, help us learn how to coexist with people who we may or may not like. They help protect us and be firm and kind with others.

Examples

A few examples might include:

Our hands are not for hitting.

Staying in your seat while the class goes to music is not an option.

The language you are using is not kind and we do not use those words here.

On when to set limits

Knowing when to set limits is tricky and requires us to pay attention. On one hand, we don’t want to be so rigid that there are limits around everything, leaving no room for creativity. On the other hand, we don’t want to be so laissez-faire that kids have no limits at all and don’t have a clear understanding of what is allowed and what is not. The right answer is somewhere in the middle… and it depends.

I’ll give an example. We have a wonderful teacher here at Momentous School who wanted to try something new in their classroom this year. The goal was to have the morning be a little more pick-and-choose, to counter the pretty structured schedule that students had for most of their time at school. The teacher set up a loose structure that allowed students to choose what to work on for a block of time at the start of the day. What the teacher discovered is that the students really struggled with ambiguity and needed more structure. This isn’t necessarily true of every group of kids – in fact, next year, the teacher might be able to pull this off with success depending on the students entering the class. But this particular group had a hard time, and the teacher had to go back and add more limits. The teacher ended up shortening the amount of time and putting clearer boundaries around what students could do during this time, and it ended up being very successful.

I share that to say, limits are dependent on the child(ren) in front of you, the environment, and many other factors. And they often have to be adapted with time.

On what to consider when setting limits

I think the most important piece is to figure out why you’re setting the limit. So, let’s say you’re setting a limit around what time your teen’s curfew should be. Why does it matter that they’re home at a certain time? Is it about making sure they are off the road before a certain time? Is it so that they’re home before you go to sleep? Is it about their need for sleep? Setting a curfew just to set one doesn’t necessarily make sense (and your kid will probably tell you that!) but if you think about the why first, you’re likely to set a limit that achieves your goal.

For younger kids, an example might be around mealtime. In my family, sitting together for dinner is important to us. So, when I ask my kid to stay at the table, even if they don’t feel like eating or don’t like what is being served, I know that limit I’ve set (stay at the table until dinner is over) is based on the idea that we’re all together. That keeps me from making the limit about something else, like for example, making my child eat a certain portion of their meal. This particular limit is about being together so whether they eat doesn’t need to be part of it.

After understanding the why behind the limit, you can start to set clear limits.

A model for limit setting

I like Garry Landreth’s acronym: ACT.

A: acknowledge the child’s feeling

C: Communicate the limit

T: Target the choice/alternatives

Let’s break that down with a few examples.

A child in a Pre-K classroom refuses to get in line. The teacher says, “I see you’re feeling frustrated, but it is time to get in line and go to music. You can choose to walk by yourself in line or walk with me.” Acknowledge the child’s feeling: “I see you’re feeling frustrated.” Communicate the limit: “It is time to get in line.” Target the choice: “You can walk by yourself or with me. Which one do you choose?”

A teenager wants to go to a party at the house of a friend their parents haven’t met, and the parents don’t feel comfortable with it. The parent says, “I know you’re really upset with me, and you are worried you will be left out. I can’t let you go to this party tonight. We can do something fun together or you can hang out with a friend we do know. A: “I know you’re upset”, C: “You can’t go to the party”, T: “You can choose…”

And of course, there are times when limits are just quick. A kid talking during instruction or interrupting someone can just be handled with a simple, “I know you have something to share, but right now, I am speaking.”

On kids pushing back

When an adult sets a limit, a child may not like it, and may even challenge it. This goes back to understanding the why behind the limit. If a parent sets a 9:00 curfew and a child says, “All my friends have a midnight curfew,” it might be time to compromise. Remembering the why can help an adult decide what they’re willing to give, and what firm line they’re going to hold. If the parent wants the child home before they go to bed to make sure they make it back safely, they can say, “I hear what you’re saying. I like to be in bed by 10:30 and if you’re coming home after that, I won’t be able to make sure you’re home safely. How about we try a 10:00 curfew and see how that goes?”

And sometimes you can’t negotiate. If safety or even logistics get in the way, compromise may not be possible. This is when it’s important to communicate the why behind the limit, and then hold the line even if a child is upset about it.  

On kind limits

At the end of the day, we can set limits with kindness. We can get down on a child’s level, use a calm tone of voice, say our limits with warmth, communicate that we care about the child and that is why we are setting a limit. Limits can be uncomfortable, but they don’t have to be scary! The more we practice, the easier it gets.


For a quick sheet on using the ACT model in schools, click here

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