How to set limits for children

Children need to have a clear understanding of your expectations in order to behave appropriately, but it can be challenging for caregivers to set limits and commit to them. Early on in my career, I heard “limits mean love” and it stuck with me. Limits help show children that they are loved, cared for and safe. Here are some of the challenges I’ve seen for caregivers:

  • Setting limits and consistently following up on what is expected.
  • Navigating power struggles and arguing with children about what is expected.
  • Creating expectations that are too convoluted and unclear.

Limits are designed to teach children and help them grow. As you work to define clear expectations, it’s important to think through, “What am I teaching my child?” This way of thinking, along with the tips below, will help make setting limits easier.

  • 1. Be clear with the limits. Specific rules and expectations should be presented in such a way that children can understand and explain them in their own words. For example, “eat all of the food on your plate” is a clear expectation, but “eat your food” may be too broad.

  • 2. Be consistent. When caregivers provide limits, they should be established and held firm to. When limits are adjusted over time, children can learn to then circumvent those expectations. Dr. Jennifer Hartstein noted, “Routines help establish expectations (2017).” Again, limits mean love and routines help children to understand what is expected and what should be followed.

  • 3. Provide an alternative behavior. 3. A simple statement of “I know you did ‘x’ but next time I need you to do ‘y’” is always a good way to go. By providing an alternative behavior we are teaching children how to better handle situations.

  • 4. Pair limits with a reasonable consequence. Dr. Larzelere, a psychologist, (1998) found that with a combination of reasoning, teaching the child, and punishment, behaviors change. Check out the study .

  • 5. Lead with a positive statement. Debra Macmannis (2012) explained that “whenever possible, request the behavior that you want from your child rather than what you don’t want.” This is a good way to set up for a positive response. Telling your child, “since you’re so strong, do you mind taking out the garbage” is a much more encouraging request than, “take out the garbage.”

  • 6. Offer choices when you’re able. Rules and expectations are tricky and sometimes we provide an expectation that may not work. The US Department of Health and Human Services notes, “Find ways to allow your adolescent independence and agency within your rules.” This allows children to adjust and test their own abilities. These choices should be provided safely and with the development of each child in mind.

  • 7. Don’t argue. Providing children with the chance to understand why the rule is there is fine, but when parents engage in a power struggle, hurt feelings happen. Give the expectation, provide the reason and then be done. Silence can be a powerful tool.

So how might this be helpful to those who suffer from mental health issues? Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Discover (ASD) can learn to manage their impulses more. Being clear and concise can help children affected by ADHD or ASD have a better understanding of the rules and expectations. Setting limits can also help children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and conduct disorder diagnoses learn to follow expectations, and children diagnosed with depression know they are still cared for. For children suffering from depression, it can also increase their self-esteem through the use of choices. Of course, when it comes to working with children “ reinforce, reinforce, reinforce (Harstein, 2017).

Many of the therapists at Pathways have specialized training and experience in working with parents to help address problematic behaviors they may be experiencing with their children. If you or someone you know is finding it challenging to set limits with their children, contact Pathways Psychology Services at 630-293-9860. We can help.


By Zachary Meers, LCPC