Setting Effective Limits with Love: 9 Guiding Principles

Discipline is one of parents’ most important responsibilities. Setting clear and appropriate limits is a gift, as it teaches children how to cope with life’s frustrations and disappointments, and to be flexible—to be able to adapt to not getting what they want, when they want it.

Since doing home visits is a key component of my work with families, I have the chance to observe parents in their efforts to discipline their children in-vivo and have identified a number of key factors that create obstacles to parents being the effective and loving limit-setters they want to be. Taking these factors into consideration helps parents approach discipline with empathy toward their child vs. anger and frustration, and leads to parents feeling more competent and in control of helping their children learn to manage their bodies and emotions in acceptable, healthy ways—the ultimate goal of nurturing healthy development in the early years.

1.  Be sure your expectations for your child match her age and stage of development. Recognize that young children are driven by emotions, not logic, so irrational behavior is totally normal. The part of the brain that enables us to think about and manage our feelings and impulses is not well-developed until five to six years of age. Young children are driven by emotions, so trying to use reason to get them to cooperate is rarely a useful endeavor. Expecting more from children than they are capable of can lead to lots of frustration for both parents and children. Having appropriate expectations is critical because the meaning you assign to your child’s behavior influences how you react. If you think your child is purposefully breaking rules, you are much more likely to react in harsh ways that further distress your child instead of calming her. If you see these behaviors in the context of normal development, you are more likely to approach your child with empathy and appreciate these moments as opportunities to teach good coping skills.

2. Tune in to the meaning of your child’s behavior. Getting to the root cause of your child’s actions can help you to respond in ways that are sensitive and effective. A tantrum in the grocery store might be caused by sensory overload, fatigue, or disappointment about not getting a cookie from the bakery. Biting might be a self-soothing strategy, a way to keep others at a distance, or an expression of anger. Understanding the root cause of a behavior can help you come up with discipline strategies that address the underlying issue and help your child build strong coping skills. This means considering some factors that impact behavior: What’s going on in your child’s world—has she experienced a recent move? A new caregiver? A recent loss? Parental stress? It’s also important to think about your child’s temperament. Is she a big reactor or a go-with-the-flow kind of kid? Is he persistent or does he get frustrated easily? How does she react to new people and experiences—does she jump right in or need time to feel comfortable? All of these factors influence children’s ability to cope with life’s natural stressors, such as adapting to new experiences, learning to wait, and managing daily transitions.

3. Don’t fear your child’s feelings. Feelings aren’t “right” or “wrong”, and they are not the problem. It’s what children (and we adults!) do with our feelings that can be problematic. Ignoring or minimizing feelings doesn’t make them go away, they just get “acted-out” through behaviors (often negative) that can lead to more stress, not less, for your child…and you. Naming feelings is the first step in helping children learn to manage them—a key factor for developing self-regulation.

4. Keep in mind that happy children aren’t always happy. Just because a child doesn’t like a limit, and is unhappy in the moment, doesn’t mean it’s not good for him. (I have yet to hear a 3-year-old say, “Thanks, Dad, for not letting me have those M&M’s before dinner. I know how important it is to eat my growing foods.”) Setting and enforcing clear limits is actually very loving. Learning to accept limits leads to flexibility and the development of effective coping strategies: accepting a cheese stick instead of candy or finding another toy to play with when the one they want is off-limits. This ability to adapt is what ultimately makes children happy and helps them be successful in the larger world.

5.  Limits are only as effective as your ability to implement them; they can’t depend on your child’s compliance or cooperation. You can’t make a child get in her car seat, but you can give her the choice between climbing in herself or having you put her in. You can’t make a child stay in his room after bedtime, but you can put up a gate to provide a boundary that prevents your having to continuously (and with increasing annoyance—not good for anyone) escorting him back to bed. Depending on your child to follow through puts him, not you, in the driver’s seat.

6. Young children are strategic, not manipulative. Children are driven to get what they want and will use any tools at their disposal that help them reach their goal—they are not purposefully trying to drive you crazy. If throwing a tantrum results in extra iPad time, a later bedtime, or simply getting more of your attention, your toddler is putting 2 and 2 together, making an important assessment: “Excellent strategy! Put that one in the win column.” This is not manipulation, it is strategic.

7. Don’t take the bait! Young children are incredibly clever—they are highly skilled at tuning in to what yanks their parents’ chains and gets them in the jugular. (I hate you—you are the meanest mommy! You are not invited to my birthday party! Sound familiar?) While this feels so wrong, and is extremely exasperating, children are just trying to figure out how to gain the control they so desperately want, and yet have so little of. Any reaction from you reinforces the behavior, even if your response is negative. The best way to respond to bait? Ignore it. This doesn’t mean you ignore your child—you just don’t react to the provocative behavior. Instead, acknowledge the underlying feeling: “You are mad that I took the iPad away,” and move on.

8. Be responsive, not reactive (otherwise known as “know your triggers and manage your emotions”). Anticipate what kinds of situations get you revved up and reactive and make a plan for how to calm yourself in order to make a thoughtful decision about how to respond to your child. It might mean taking a mommy/daddy time-out. This gives you a chance to calm down and think through the best way to respond, while throwing a monkey wrench into what might otherwise become a heated back-and-forth. (It also sometimes has the very fortunate effect of stopping the child short in his tracks—so shocked at your calm response!) Taking this time-out can keep you from being reactive, give you time to think, and provide a very powerful model for exercising self-control. It is also a great tool for co-parents to avoid undermining each other and to allow time to come up with a united plan: “Hmm…this is a problem; you want ice cream but it is almost dinner time and that is not a growing food. We need a minute to think about how to solve this problem.” Once you have agreed on a plan, you let your child know what his choices are: “We know you love ice cream and want some now, but that is a sweet for after dinner. Now your choices are apple slices or carrots.” If he throws a big fit, you calmly and lovingly let him know you see he is unhappy about your decision and then move on. Don’t fear the tantrum!

9. Avoid solving your child’s problems. It’s a natural, human reaction not to want to see our children struggle. Our knee-jerk response is often to rescue our children or “fix” whatever is causing them distress. (One cry of frustration from my three-year-old challenged by a puzzle resulted in my instantaneous, mom-to-the-rescue response—fitting the pieces in their correct spaces to make him feel all better—setting a pattern of him relying on me to be the fixer for years to come.) When parents repeatedly solve their children’s problems, they are missing opportunities to help them develop the confidence that they can master new skills. In helping make it all better so our children won’t feel bad about themselves, we are actually doing the opposite: we send the message that our children are not capable of mastering the challenges they face, and that only adults can solve their problems.

Discipline comes from the word disciple, which means to teach a follower or student. It has nothing to do with punishment, which has been shown to have negative long-term consequences for children far into adulthood. When you approach limit-setting like that favorite teacher you had growing up, who was clear and firm but loving, who didn’t shame you when you made a bad choice but helped you see the consequences of your actions and learn to make good decisions, you give your child a gift that keeps on giving.

For guidance on helping children learn to make good choices, check out: “I Don’t Like the Choices You’re Choicing Me!” How to Set Enforceable, Loving Limits

To read about a positive, effective approach to discipline, take a look at: Discipline Do’s: An Effective Approach to Addressing Challenging Behaviors in Young Children

To explore ways to be more responsive vs. reactive, check out: Responsive vs. Reactive Parenting: It Makes All the Difference