One Thing Parents Need To Do Before Setting Limits

It could be getting out of the house, it could be buckling up a seatbelt, it could be chores or homework, sometimes we have to set limits.

Limits are necessary, and limits are good for children.

But oftentimes limits provoke big feelings for kids, who might battle them, refuse, cry, or complain about them.

So what can we do?

Getting a child to comply shouldn't be about demanding a change in the child's behavior, says Abigail Wald, a parenting instructor with Hand in Hand Parenting.

“The pitfall is we get focused on our kids' behavior and we try and bribe them out of it or distract away from it, or we punish them. All of that is a forceful grab at trying to get your child to do a different behavior,” Abigail told host Jacqueline T.D Huynh on her show for ParentPump Radio.

Abigail was being interviewed on the show about helping parents set healthy limits, and spoke about the tools she uses as a Hand in Hand Instructor, pioneered by the non-profit group's founder, Patty Wipfler.

This forceful grab is often when battles over limits breakout.

To understand why we butt heads, parents need to understand what can happen in the brain when limits come up.

Understanding Your Child's Perspective

The limbic brain is like a ‘good/bad' gateway, says Abigail. It scans for what feels good, or not good, and what feels safe and not safe. Within that limbic area is the amygdala, which is largely responsible for perceiving this safety.

When the amygdala is triggered it moves into shutdown and stops the pre-frontal cortex from doing its job, which is accessing clear thought and listening to others, kindness and responsiveness, creativity, problem-solving, and thinking of self.

“When we get triggered into areas of un-safety we can't think,” Abigail says.

What Shutdown Means for Parents, Kids, and Setting Limits?

How does brain science come into play when an issue like homework comes up?

Parents that face ongoing battles with issues like homework move towards shutdown in anticipation of any struggle.

They might decide that, since homework has to be done, and they expect a battle over it, the answer is getting it done first, to get it out of the way. Parents think, “Ok, We'll do homework before we do anything else.”

Sounds reasonable.

Not so much, says Abigail.

“That answer isn't going to work for the child, because the child has already been through an entire day of having to do hundreds and hundreds of things where what they felt didn't matter.”

Homework is another to add to that list. They move into the same world where “what I feel doesn't matter,” says Abigail.

These feelings can happen with kindergarten kids as much as it can for children in 7th Grade, she says.

Children may also have doubts and insecurities about themselves and their abilities that homework brings up.

  • “I'm not doing well at school.”
  • “I got a bad grade on my test”
  • “Everyone laughed when I got up to solve the math problem.”

“Who knows what they feel about homework,” Abigail says.

What Can I Do If They Say No?

If parents only hear “No,” they often move into shutdown themselves, and resort to bribes or punishments:

  • “No screen time until it's done.”
  • “Do your homework and then we can ice-cream.”
  • “If it isn't done we won't let you have that sleepover Saturday.”

So what can parents do instead? Abigail explains that if parents get lots of “no's,” or battles when they try and set limits, it should be seen as a response coming from shutdown.

One Thing Parents Need To Do Before Setting Limits

Instead of making demands when a child comes home, try connecting first. An empathetic response, some understanding, and connection work to move past the defensive barricade children put themselves in.

What's the quickest way to do this?


If a parent listens first and then responds they can then partner calmly with their children on a strategy that works for both.

  • “You don't feel like doing that now, huh? Want to tell me why?”
  • “Do you want to play for 10 minutes first?”
  • “How about we have some Special Time before homework?”

If parents can see offtrack behavior as a signal that a child is coping with big feelings about the limit, rather than just refusing it, they can respond rather than react. They can listen and connect.

Before children need limits, they need support. Their brain needs connection to sense safety. This happens when parents listen, and when they feel heard.

Then can they move past shutdown and “No,” becomes “Yes.”

Listen in to Abigail's entire interview and learn one question parents must ask themselves before setting limits and find out Abigail's Listen-Limit-Listen strategy for setting healthy limits. Go to Pump Up Radio now for the full interview.

Get this guide to setting healthy limits that help kids thrive.

Get the Setting Limits and Building Cooperation class with your Hand in Hand Parent Club membership.Save

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