8 Tips for Setting Limits in a Positive Way

8 Tips for Setting Limits in a Positive Way

Setting limits is one of the most difficult and frustrating parts of parenting, often filled with tense moments and challenging feelings.  However, effective and consistent discipline is an important parenting tool to help children develop healthy prosocial behavior, as well as feel calm and safe.  Discipline isn’t about punishing children, constantly telling them no, or causing humiliation, fear, or embarrassment.  Effective limit-setting is about teaching children skills and behaviors essential to healthy functioning in lots of different environments. It is about modeling how to regulate emotions and behaviors, even when feeling angry or upset.

While discipline is an important part of parenting, it can also be stressful. Understandably, children’s misbehavior can lead to parents feeling angry, frustrated, defeated, overwhelmed, and exhausted.  Discipline is not an easy task.  Therefore, it can often be helpful for parents to find ways to take good care of themselves when setting limits with children.  When parents pay attention to caring for themselves, they are better able to set effective and consistent limits.

Make sure to breathe – Deep breathing is a powerful tool to calm challenging thoughts and emotions and regain control.  In the midst of stressful child behavior, using deep breathes can often help parents relax enough to think through what they want to say and do.  When parents stay calm, children are more likely to calm down too.

Notice anger cues – Paying attention to physical cues signaling frustration can help parents stay calm and prevent full-blown anger.  Common physical cues are rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, clenched fists, blaming thoughts, and raised voices.  By recognizing these signals early, parents can take steps to calm down before engaging in ineffective or impulsive discipline.

Use positive self-talk – When setting limits, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by negative, hostile, and defeated thoughts.  It can feel like things will never change or get better.  When managing difficult child behavior, parents can take good care of themselves by remembering to use positive self-talk.  This includes normalizing challenges as a typical part of family life and focusing on what is going well.  Take time to notice both parenting and child strengths and improvements.

Take time for yourself – In many circumstances, it can be helpful for parents to walk away from a difficult situation and take time to calm down before setting a limit.  Parents don’t have to respond immediately or have all of the answers right away.  In fact, taking time to think through a situation before responding can often result in more consistent and effective discipline.

Limit discipline to the essentials – Taking time to decide on important rules, those rules that are unbreakable, can help parents reduce the number of limits they need to set.  This often helps a child better understand expectations and relieves parents of the pressure to set limits on minor misbehavior.

Plan discipline in advance – In addition to taking time to decide on important rules, it can be helpful to plan discipline strategies and procedures in advance.  Having a plan can reduce the stress of problem-solving in the moment and make limits more predictable and safe for children.  When possible, take time to write down plans and share with them with the family.

Find social support – Don’t be afraid to talk with friends and other parents.  Social support can normalize challenging parenting experiences, reduce self-doubt and stress, and provide reminders of parenting strengths and successes.  Prioritize adult time as an important part of parenting.

Balance limit-setting with encouragement – While discipline is a critical parenting tool, it is most effective when balanced with encouragement.  Make sure to stay tuned next week to learn more about how to balance discipline with encouragement to grow children’s healthy behaviors and development.

Image: © Konstantin Pukhov | Dreamstime.com


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Kimbree Brown
Kimbree Brown is a research associate with the KITS program. She has worked with the program since 2010 and recently completed her Ph.D. in counseling psychology from the University of Oregon. Her focus is in early intervention and prevention to improve mental and academic health of children and families.


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