How to Set Limits with Confidence, Without Fear or Shame


A guest post by Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW

setting limits I am not a proponent of permissive parenting. Kids need boundaries and limits to feel safe. But setting and enforcing them is tricky, especially if you are trying to avoid coercion, threats and bribes. The “calm and firm limit” is a parenting muscle that has to be exercised and built over time. I was way better at it when I was interacting with someone else’s child. Recently, I’ve had to practice — a lot.

When your child behaves in a rude or unsafe manner and your fuse has gotten short, emotions will run high. In the worst of these scenarios, your amygdala hijacks your prefrontal cortex and floods your body with adrenaline and cortisol, sending you into fight-or-flight mode.

At this point, you are no longer a rational human.

Once your “downstairs” brain (as Dan Seigel MD calls it) has taken over; your ability to think is diminished, you are emotionally unregulated and your perception of the situation is likely skewed. The best way to stay in your “upstairs” brain is to take very good care of yourself and keep the “marathon-not-a-sprint” perspective on raising the children — children with whom you’ll hopefully have long, wonderful relationships.

Here are 10 more tips to help you set limits with confidence

1. Think ahead. Make a plan and be strategic. In parenting, you have to be one step ahead. Luckily, we have the developed cerebral cortexes our young ones lack. We often know the places where our kids will push or fall apart. Whether it’s mealtime or bedtime, take the space to think things through and know where your limits lie ahead of time.

2. Don’t use wishy-washy language. One of the best tips I ever got as a teacher was to record myself in the classroom for an hour and then play it back to myself. I heard quite a few verbal habits I wanted to break, and using weak language when giving directives and setting limits was one of them. Aim to eliminate statements like, “I don’t really want you to do that,” (really?) and the ubiquitous “OK?” at the end of your sentences.

3. Check your body language and facial expression. Even though I wrote a book about saying the right thing, studies show that nonverbal cues carry huge importance. Don’t go all sing-songy if you mean business. And always, always, always get low. You are huge and intimidating to a child. You can mean what you say while crouched down, in close proximity and wearing a neutral facial expression.setting-limits01

4. Ensure that your tone is warm but firm. A sharp tone or staccato cadence can be over-stimulating and scary to a young child, setting off their fight-or-flight alarm. Yelling will trigger this as well — save it for emergencies. A scared child is likely to comply only after you’ve diminished their feelings of connection with you — and they need that connection to stay emotionally regulated.

5. Don’t expect a child to comply without upset. Set the limit where the limit is for you. Then make space for the feelings. It is unrealistic to expect a child to accept “No,” with, “OK, sure.” That will rarely happen. But, it will happen more if you are calm and reassuring: “I said ‘no’ to another cookie. You really wanted it. I will listen to your upset.” Have faith they can work through the tough feelings of not getting what they want. Handling disappointment is not something people learn by being shut-down emotionally. Hand in Hand has excellent resources for helping parents with the very hard task of keeping ourselves calm while children “offload” their messy feelings.

6. Have developmentally appropriate expectations. 1-year-olds get into everything. 2-year-olds cannot share without protest. 3-year-olds will say, “no” often. 4-year-olds must know “why.” 5-year-olds can be quite sassy, and on it goes. Brush up on where your child is developmentally. Remember how much they are growing on every level — emotional, physical, mental and psychological. That they hold it together, and are pleasant as often as they are, is the real miracle!

7. Stay decisive, even when you change your mind. Confidence in your decisions is crucial. If you aren’t sure whether or not you should let them jump on the bed, that is more problematic than if on Tuesday you say, “Yes, today you may jump on the bed,” (You feel well-rested, focused and able to keep this activity safe), then on Wednesday you say, “No, today is not a jumping-on-the-bed-day,” (You had insomnia, got a fat parking ticket, and have a headache). Staying consistent in your decisiveness is way more important than a rule being unwavering.

8. Be physical if you need to. Unless you are feeling really frustrated, it is okay to corral a child physically to keep them (or others) safe. In your lap facing outward (so you don’t get hurt either) is a useful way to do this. Check in with yourself and stay calm — NEVER touch your child when you are angry. Pay close attention so you are not hurting them. Sometimes, only a moment of contact is needed. Always let go as soon as a child is able to safely control themselves.

9. Don’t explain the reason for the limit more than once. It can be helpful to give the reason for the limit. But do not repeat yourself; it will only irritate you. Offer the explanation once, and then keep quiet. Hold your tongue — or as Carrie Contey PhD says, “Zip it!” — especially if they deteriorate into an emotional meltdown. When they are in their “downstairs” brain, language is not as accessible. You are wasting your breath. If you want a mantra to say out loud when a child is really losing it, “You are safe,” is my favorite.

10. Use humor. I cannot stress enough how well this works. Animate, and imbue with wit, objects like the toothbrush or bathtub water (Seriously!). Try a silly voice or tone, or invent a wild character. Not long ago I got a ton of mileage out of using a British accent. I guarantee this does not take any longer than bargaining, hollering or bribing.

Try on some of these suggestions. See if they fit. You will definitely know if they are working better than, “You better get dressed right now,” “How dare you talk to me like that!” or, “Fine, have the darn cookie.” If we want children to be internally motivated to behave well, we have to be firm and kind, stay connected to them, and listen to their feelings.

This classic Albert Einstein quote is one that epitomizes my quest to elevate parenting beyond the fear- and shame-based model: “If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.”

Build a closer, warmer, more playful relationship with your child

In this free class you'll learn what drives kids hard-to-handle behaviors, and you'll get practical, science-backed tools to use with defiance, tantrums, separation anxiety, crying and more, so you can calmly parent with confidence in a way that actually supports your child.

Watch now or later! Book a time to watch that's most convenient for you. 

Sarah Maclaughlin


Sarah MacLaughlin has worked with families for over 20 years as a nanny, preschool teacher, social worker, and coach for moms and dads. she is certified to teach many parenting curricula, including Hand in Hand’s Parenting by Connection. You can read more from Sarah on her blog


Share this post

Shopping Cart
  • No products in the cart.