Setting Limits: Are you Helping Too Much?

A Guest Post by Emilie Leeks

Sometimes it feels easier just to help when a child is struggling with a task, but getting into the habit of setting expectation limits shows them that they have the power to help themselves.

When you set an expectation limit, you aren’t making life difficult, you are actually equipping children with good problem-solving skills. You are simply saying that they do not need you. That they are able. That they are “good enough.”

When you set a limit like this, you might have to, for a while at least, quell your own urge to help them as they vent, cry or offload. They might call you a “meanie” as they struggle to pick up their clothes and hang them, tell you that you are terrible, while they rage at their homework book, or throw the toy you’ve asked them to pick up, but if you can accept that these feelings are more about how they sense their own inadequacies and less about you, you’ll find it easier to stay calm.

Listen, Don’t Abandon

They might hit despair, so, while you aren’t jumping in immediately, sticking around as a support will help and comfort them immensely.

To help, breathe, and tell them that you are right there and that you believe they can handle the challenge and listen to whatever outrage pours. When they finally master the task, in your presence, their joy will be evident, and in the long-run, their approach to challenges and their confidence will grow.

“Will Somebody Help Me?!”

Here’s how setting limits like this can look in real life. Hand in Hand Instructor Emilie Leeks’ son was frustrated when he couldn’t find something he wanted right away, and she did all she could to help him help himself:

“My son, who is 7 years old, was in our shed, looking for some skittles. They were somewhere in amongst a lot of other garden toys, in a big box. He was sounding extremely irritated at not being able to find them quickly and easily, and was shouting out from the shed, quite crossly “Help! Can somebody help me?.”

I went over and asked what he needed and he told me that he was looking for the skittles and couldn’t find them. He sounded very stressed.

He tends to very quickly move to extreme anger when he’s frustrated with something, rather than work through the problem, and  it’s an area I really want to support him in. I decided to set a limit, and said calmly “I think you can find them in there.”

Immediately, he said, “I can’t! I can’t!”

I think he would have loved me to just head on in there and fish them out for him, which I’m sure I could have done easily enough.

Facing My Own Frustration Challenges

I’ve been working in some of my Listening Partnerships on recognising when I might want to set limits, and why I can find it difficult.

I hate seeing my kids get frustrated about things, and I know that I have been guilty in the past of jumping in too quickly to help them with things that are bugging them. Now, I am really trying to wait until I’m asked. Even then, I find myself sitting with my discomfort when they get frustrated. Solving an issue for them has always felt quicker and easier, and means I can avoid all those uncomfortable feelings too!

On this day I said I believed he could do it, but I tried to guide his thinking a little bit by saying,  “Yeah, it’s really hard when the box is so full. I bet they’re right at the bottom!”

He has recently been diagnosed with being on the Autism Spectrum, and has some quite rigid thinking. Problem-solving is an area that he can find challenging, so sometimes I scaffold a bit more than I might with other children his age – especially when the situation becomes emotionally charged for him.

I felt he might have been worried about the idea of making a mess, and so I also said I didn’t mind if he needed to take lots of toys out in order to find the skittles. I told him, lightly, “We can always put them back afterwards,” and that I’d be around if he needed me.

Then I felt it would be a good time to step away a bit.

I had to go back one more time when he was getting stressed again. He was starting to shout, “Help. HELP!! They’re not there – they’re not THERE!” and panic.

He finds it really challenging to come down from this point once he gets there, and so I focused on staying calm myself, and really trying to let him feel heard.

In these times, when I say too much it seems to aggravate him more, so I just came close and said, “I’m here,” and waited.

Again I had to gently hold my limit that I wasn’t going to help him. I didn’t actually need to phrase it like that. I continued with “I believe you can do it.”

Sure enough he found all the skittles himself – and remembered to put all the other toys back afterwards too! It was fantastic to see him work through something that was challenging and frustrating for him, and to succeed in the end.

I was quite proud of myself  for not jumping in and solving the problem, and equally for him about persisting! It felt like a real breakthrough for both of us.

Read about how to tell if your child wants it or needs it in I Want It Now

Learn the Four Types of Limits your Child Needs to Hear

Emilie Leeks lives in Berkshire, UK with her husband and three children. She is a certified Hand in Hand Instructor with additional experience in speech, language and communication issues.

This post was originally published on Emilie’s blog Journeys-in-Parenting. You can also contact Emilie through her Facebook page.


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