Like it or not, part of everyday life as a parent is Setting Limits with our child. We naturally want to keep our kids safe, help them build respectful relationships and learn to take care of themselves. And that means we need them to do things like stop snatching toys from a friend, wash their hair, and get into the car seat. Knowing when and how to set effective limits can be a challenge.
The Need for Effective Limits Is Real But Hard
Despite the need for rules and boundaries, many of us feel at a loss or afraid we’re not sure how to set effective limits with our children. This is totally understandable when we begin to consider personal histories and our strong desire to raise our children well.
I’ve worked with many, many parents who were brought up with harshly set limits and listened to the deep hurt that leaves. I’ve also worked with countless parents who had few or no limits as a child and witnessed the pain and loneliness that comes from lack of guidance.
So, with shaky templates to draw on, we might find ourselves in power struggles trying to reason with our kids, cajole and bribe them. Perhaps we become harsh and threatening, saying things we later regret.
Or we maybe we simply give up, leaving our child free to do whatever they please.
How do we help children cooperate? Thankfully, the Hand in Hand Parenting tool of Setting Limits gives us a new map. A way to set effective limits with our children that naturally foster cooperation.
Setting Limits in a Way That Fosters Cooperation
Before we dive in, it’s helpful to notice how children naturally want to fit in and get along with those around them. They want nothing more than to feel loved and belong. When they feel connected and free from hurt feelings, they willingly cooperate.
But when they can’t feel a sense of connection to the adults around them, or they have emotions bubbling inside, they’re unable to think well. This literally happens in the brain. The thinking part (the prefrontal cortex) goes offline and the emotional part (limbic system) takes over. When we’re swamped by feelings, brain scans show there’s virtually no activity in our thinking brain*.
That’s when children show challenging, unworkable behaviour and refuse to do things that are perfectly sensible to be doing.
That’s why trying to reason with your off-track child doesn’t work, they simply can’t think!
Why “Bad Behavior” Isn’t Bad At All
When our child is doing something that doesn’t make sense, like throwing food on the floor or refusing to get to get dressed, they’re waving a red flag for help. They’re signalling us loud and clear that they need support to regain their good thinking. This is exactly when they need us to bring a warm limit, so they can offload feelings clogging their mind.
The Hand in Hand approach gives us a welcome way to Setting Limits that avoids power struggles, harshness and lack of guidance. It shows us how to hold respectful boundaries with our child in a way that helps them think well, feel connected and become more cooperative.
How to Set Limits Without Power Struggles
Here, in a nutshell, is how to set effective limits that also foster connection:
1 – Listen
Take a moment to figure out what’s going on. Are your expectations unrealistic? Sometimes we’re simply expecting too much from our child, like hoping our 2-year-old will happily play alone whilst we have an hour-long chat with our friend.
Is it you that needs some help? Sometimes our child is fine but we’re feeling depleted. Maybe we’re tired and their loud raucous play is pressing our buttons. There’s nothing wrong with what they’re doing, they’re thinking fine. We’re the one that needs to look after our needs and either ask them to play more quietly or find a quiet place to rest.
Do they need information or help? Sometimes a child is doing something unworkable because they simply don’t know there is anything wrong with it or they need practical help. If in doubt, we can offer the information or assistance. If the information or help doesn’t bring a change in behaviour, we can take it as a sign that they’re off-track and the need a limit.
2 – Limit
Stay calm, move in close and stop the unworkable behaviour. That might mean you need to put your hand on the kicking leg, so it can’t hurt anyone or hold a hand that’s about to snatch a toy. The key is to bring the limit, not calling out across the room, “Stop” because their brain isn’t functioning well, and they can’t really hear you. Move to where your child is and offer gentle eye contact. Simply ask what’s happening or warmly state the limit, “I can’t let you do that”. No need for harshness, no need for punishment or lectures, simply say what needs to be said in a gentle warm tone.
If we don’t step in, our child will continue to do unworkable things. They aren’t thinking well and have lost all sense of connection. Their mind is flooded with feelings and they need our help to release that tension.
3 – Listen
Then we listen. We hold the limit and listen to the upset that pours out from our child. We’re offering them a boundary to offload against. And they’ll use it to sink into what they’re feeling and cry, storm or tantrum. We stay close anchoring them through their upset. Our goal is to take the tone of “I love you even when you feel this way”.
If you’re able to stay all the way through the upset, you’ll find your child comes out the other side sunnier and more cooperative. They’ve offloaded some inner hurts and can think better.
For this approach to work, it needs to be done in the context of a warm connected relationship with the adult setting the limit. A powerful way to build a safe supportive connection is to do regular Special Time with your child. You can get a free download on Special Time from our book here.
(If the situation is an emergency, like a child running onto the road, deal with that promptly. You can listen to their feelings after the danger has passed).
What Warm Loving limits Look Like in Real Life: Three Examples
So, let’s look at how this goes in real life. Here are three examples illustrating how you to stop your child from doing something, how to hold the expectation that your child will do something, and how you can set limits playfully.
Setting Limits That Stop Your Child from Offtrack Behavior
Here’s how one mother taking a parenting class with me used Setting Limits to stop her child hitting their baby sister:
“The birth of my second child has brought lots of challenges for my 5-year-old. The other day I was breastfeeding my baby and my five-year-old started to get cranky. He became demanding saying he needed my help. But everything he asked me to do were things I knew he could do himself. He asked me to take the top off a texter, to help him put on his jumper. Then he asked me to get him some water and when I said he had to wait, he came up, looked me straight in the eye and bopped his little sister on the head.
Whilst I missed that one, I didn’t want it to happen again, so I held his hand and brought the limit, “I won’t let you hit your sister”. He struggled and tried a few more times but I kept hold of him. This was tricky as I was still holding my baby and didn’t want her to get hurt. After a few minutes of struggle and trying to lash out, he burst into tears. My baby was crying too.
My son cried hard for a few minutes. He’d said he hated his sister and he hated me. Even though I felt hurt inside, I listened. A few times I said, “I love you”. I had two kids crying, one in each arm.
To keep myself anchored and calm I thought about how much I loved them both.
After about 5 minutes of solid tears my son softened. He looked at me and said, “I’m sorry mum, I don’t really hate you. I don’t really hate [my sister]. I just want you to play with me”. With the tears out, he could say exactly what was bothering him. We got the glass of water and he played sweetly with his little sister getting her to giggle at his antics.”
Holding the Expectation that A Behavior or Action Will Happen
Here’s how a mum consulting with me used Setting Limits to help her son go to sleep:
“We were all tired at the end of a big day. It was way past bedtime for all my kids. The older three were with their father. I was in the bedroom trying to get my 4-year-old son to bed. He was being really demanding, “No, I don’t want those pajamas!”, “I want some water. No not in that cup!”, “I want another story. No not that one!”
It dawned on me that nothing was going to please him.
I felt uncomfortable and torn. Part of me wanted to please him and keep doing everything he asked for. Yet deep down, I realised all demands were his way trying to let me know he needed help.
I took a deep breath and set a limit. “No love, no more books, it’s late now. Time for sleep.”
He threw himself onto the bed screaming and crying and thrashing around. I moved in close and gently touched his side. I felt a tension in me but managed to put that to one side and be as warm as I possibly could. “I’m sorry, I’m right here” I murmured. I made sure he didn’t hurt himself on the hard edges of the bed but mostly I just stayed close by.
He cried for a long time, maybe 30-minutes. And then the tears subsided. He looked into my eyes and asked if I could give him a kiss and hold his hand. I did. He soon shut his eyes and fell asleep. The next morning, he was bright and happy with an extra sparkle in his eyes. I could see how giving him the opportunity to offload those feelings by holding the expectation of sleep time had helped him shift a load of inner tension.”
Setting Boundaries and Limits Playfully
And once you’ve got the hand of setting limits using Listen – Limit – Listen, you might like to try Setting Limits playfully. It can be such a relief to let go of being a serious parent and playfully hold limits with your child.
Moving in playfully, in a way that gives your child the powerful position and draws out laughter, not only builds the connection between you, it also helps your child offload some emotional tension through giggles. Sometimes this is enough to have them co-operate, other times it helps build the safety, so they can offload some deeper feelings.
Here’s how a mum I know playfully set limits with her son when he was regularly hitting the family dog:
“My four-year-old son was hitting, kicking, pinching and grabbing our dog. It got bad. There was one day where I felt like I couldn’t leave the dog – my son would be there in a moment. I had been gently Setting Limits: holding his hand and saying, “No I’m not going to let you hit the dog”. But nothing shifted. No tears, no emotional release. Two minutes later he’d be back. I realised I needed to do something differently.
Before long, my son went for the dog again. This time I moved in playfully. I picked him up and put him on my shoulders. I ran around the house singing “no hitting, no hitting, we don’t hit in this house”. My son laughed and laughed. He said, “Sing ‘hitting, hitting,'” so I did! I picked him up again and he giggled some more.
About five minutes later my son went in to hit the dog again, I got in before he did and said, “No, I can’t let you hit the dog”. He got cross. I held the limit and this time tears came. He cried and cried. When the tears stopped he was much more relaxed. He didn’t hit the dog again that day.
I think being playful had helped him feel more connected to me and made it safer for him to offload his feelings and think better.”
Warm boundaries, set early, are a gift to children and the adults who care for them. They help build cooperation and good thinking in your child and are a healthy part of a safe secure relationship.
More Resources and Tools on Setting Rules, Limits and Boundaries with Your Children
You get our Setting Limits And Building Cooperation class free with your Parent Club membership.
Meet the Instructor
Rachel Schofield, a Hand in Hand Instructor with 10+ years experience, gives you personalised support and guidance in Setting Limits and other parenting challenges at The Connected Parent
*Bruce Perry M.D., PhD., Born For Love, 2010