Setting Limits is Not Being Mean


Developed by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka Ed.D. and Lynn Jessen M.A.

Clear Limits Build Trust and Security

When your child is in distress because you just turned off the television, took away the toy that was being misused, or left the park when your child did not listen it’s difficult not to feel like the mean old ogre.  The bad guy who just ruined all the fun.  The person your child now detests. That’s why it is so important to know that despite your children’s tears and protests you are giving them a very important gift; the knowledge that you can be trusted to do what you said you would do. Rather than hurting them, you are giving them a sense of security and predictability in the world.

What’s important is HOW you set and enforce the limit.

  1. It’s not a surprise. A clear limit is established ahead of time. For example, before they turn on a video you inform your children that you will allow them to watch videos until dinner is ready, but if they fuss when it is time to stop, then there will be no video before dinner the next day. Or, before arriving at the park, you inform the children that they may play at the park, but if they push another child, you will take them home. The children know AHEAD of TIME what they may do and what you will do if they do not comply. In the heat of the moment, they are not surprised by an unexpected consequence.
  2. When you follow through on the limit there is NO second chance. Once dinner is ready re-state the expectation by saying, “Dinner is ready, the video needs to go off.  Remember if there is fussing, there is no video tomorrow night.” Then, if they fuss, you add, “I hear fussing that means no video tomorrow night. This is when they beg, “Please, please, let me have one more chance.” And you must say, “No, tonight when you did not turn it off, you decided there would be no video. Next time you can try again.” Then, despite the protests turn it off and ban video the next night. The same concept applies at the park. Re-state the expectation. “I saw you push your friend it is time to leave the park.” They insist, “I won’t do it again.” But you follow through by saying, “No, this time you decided to leave the park, you can try again next time.” Then take them by the hand or if needed carry them to the car. If they are resistant and too big to carry, calm them, then leave. Do not allow them to play again.  
  3. Be empathetic but teach that even when upset we can decide how we will respond. Children experience dysregulation and are often overwhelmed by strong emotions.  It’s not easy to self-regulate and calm. But clear limits when followed through communicate to children that despite their frustration, irritation, or anger, they can learn to DECIDE how they will respond. They do not have to be a victim of their emotions. Learning to self-regulate is a process that takes time and practice. That’s why with your follow through you always offer the opportunity to try again later. But in this moment when they knew what was expected and what would occur if they did not meet that expectation, there is a consequence. A consequence that they can learn to avoid by DECIDING to act differently.  The reality is that interactions in discipline situations teach much more important lessons than a specific behavior like turning off a video. They teach the concept that it is possible to learn to DECIDE how to respond and that they are responsible for their actions. It is this lesson that fosters an internal locus of control, which is the foundation of self-discipline.
  4. You stay calm. It is so much easier to remain calm when there is a plan in place, everyone knows what will happen and you know you have been fair. You are now simply following through; you are letting your children know they can predict your response. You will do what you said you would do. There are no surprises. You are trustworthy.  You keep your word. That sense of predictability and security in our often-chaotic world is a wonderful gift.


Peace to Your Family!

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