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4 Types of Limits That Children Need

Science says that limits give a good framework for children to flourish. And setting limits is an integral part of Hand in Hand's empathetic, authoritative approach.

In the throes of morning madness, the rush to pack bags and get out the door, it can be maddening hearing your children push back against your limits.

“Ugh! I'm not eating oatmeal!”

“She took my bag.”

“But I don't want to wear my jacket.”

It's not much easier to deal with at any other time either. During a playdate when a fight for a toy breaks out, at birthday parties when they ask for “Just one more cookie.” Over dinner, when your food is deemed disgusting, or at bedtime, when your little one refuses to brush his teeth/change into PJs/stop playing Lego/stay in bed.

No wonder it's so easy to resort to yelling orders, bribing or threatening to get things done. We've all been there.

Science says that limits give a good framework for children to flourish. And setting limits is an integral part of Hand in Hand's empathetic, authoritative approach.

But for a parent who is uncomfortable saying no, prompted by an idea that a limit might cause their child distress, or fearing a tantrum will erupt, setting limits can bring daily internal struggle.

Other parents may default to saying no harshly because it's what they heard from their own parents, or because they think there is no other way to get a limit heard, but may feel that there should be another, kinder, way.

Hand in Hand's approach to limits is to set them as soon as behaviour begins to cycle off-track, in a calm, connecting and loving way.

How does this look?

Limits can be playful:

“Oh no!,” said with a nod of the head, a smile, and a gentle brush to move a child's hand from tipping his water. “I can't let you tip water.”

Limits can be fun:

“I caught a little growling tiger,” you say, swinging your little one up on your shoulders when he or she growls because you asked him to put his socks on. “This little growling tiger doesn't want to put his socks on, but we must if we want to go to the jungle gym. Come on little tiger. Lets put on the socks.”

Giggles naturally break the tension and can bring back harmony, off-setting mounting tension.

Limits can be understanding:

Move in, make eye contact, and state the limit calmly.

“We are going to go eat dinner now. I'll help you get to the table.”

“No. No more cookies tonight.”

It's true that children might meltdown when you set limits. But when you know that tears can help children connect and your warmth and support help them through, you also know that you are giving children space they need to offload fears and worries that are, since they feel disconnected in these moments, causing them to bargain or rebuff requests. You can read more about how crying can be helpful for children in Crying – Causes, Concerns and Coping Calmly.

When Setting Limits Feel Hard

Still, whichever side of the limit-setting fence you stride, when your children test boundaries thick and fast, it can send the brain whirling, making it hard to step in and set a limit, playfully, calmly or otherwise.

How you were raised can trigger how you feel about limits and the way you set them. Hand in Hand instructor Kathy Gordon suggests using Listening Time sessions or talking through with a good listener to explore issues you may have around setting limits. It can also help to talk about different limits, how they are valuable, and if your child needs more regular limits to “bump” up against. (This ‘bumping against' is when you say no but stay close and listen to a child's outpouring so that that have space to get heard. Hand in Hand calls this a pretext.)

Talking about limits can relax the tension you as a parent might feel about them. You might find that you find it much easier to step in with a softer no after talking about it. If you do find yourself feeling anxious as your feelings get triggered in the moment, it can help you to slow down, take a breath and think about why you are setting a limit.

Kathy suggests there are at least four types of limits that might be helpful to think about when you are in the thick of things. We've also included some examples of that you might say to set a clean, clear limit calmly and with warmth.

Four Types of Limits Your Children Need To Hear

SAFETY limit: This is a very clear cut. Safety limits are used to stop a child from hurting something or someone.

“I can't let you hit me.”

“I can't let you bite someone.”

“I can't let you stand on that wall.”

“I can't let you pull the cat's tail like that.”

VALUE limit: These limits are concerned with upholding your family values and aims.

“I can't let you talk that way to your sister.”

“I can't let you take that toy away from your friend.”

“I can't let you eat candy for breakfast.”

“No. No screen time now.”

EXPECTATIONS limit: These limits show your belief that your child can fulfill a request, attempt a challenge or try something when their fears hold them back.

“I know you can handle this.”

“I know that you can do this sweetie.”

“I know it feels hard, but I know you can finish this.”

“I hear that you are worried about playing the game, but I know you can do it.”

PROPOSAL limit: We can set these limits ahead of a fact to preempt the situation and bring the feelings your child has about them to the surface. “When we are working on separation, for instance, we might do a long, slow goodbye where we propose that it's time to leave and then listen to the feelings,” says Kathy.

“I am going to leave.”

“Let's get your things together, it's time to go to school.”

“I'll tuck you in and turn out the light. I'll sit here for a minute and then I'll leave.”

“Let's go inside to the party.”

More Resources on Setting Limits and Boundaries with Children

Read 17 Ways To Say No To Your Child if you'd like more ideas on how to set a warm limit with kindness.

You get our Setting Limits And Building Cooperation class free with your Parent Club membership.

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