It’s no leap of brilliance to remark that kids need consistent limits, yet we all struggle in different ways to implement them. Kids resist, often quite resourcefully. We want them to be happy, and we want to be happy ourselves, so we relent, perhaps because at that moment we’re too run-down to rally. Maybe our neighbors set different standards and we worry that they’ll judge us—or that our kids will. We may feel pushed to anticipate our kids’ each and every need ahead of time, or perhaps we’re inclined to treat teens how we would another adult. Or maybe, aiming for comfort during a crisis, we let go of so many boundaries that life at home starts to feel out of control. Not only do these ideals burn out parents, they fly in the face of what we know about cognitive development.
We absolutely want to minimize children’s distress, maximize their well-being, and treat them with care and respect. The overriding goal is a warm, supportive environment that balances clear rules with open discussion when appropriate. The bottom line is that kids require clear limits for emotional growth, to develop resilience and frustration tolerance, and to learn how to interact with the world. As the grown-up in the room, we must always aim for what’s best in the long haul.
If from the start children knew how to behave in public, eat a balanced diet, pick clothes for the weather, treat friends, manage time, handle responsibilities, and make healthy lifestyle choices, we could get them an apartment when they near kindergarten and leave them to it.
Limits are in fact a large part of why kids need parents. If from the start children knew how to behave in public, eat a balanced diet, pick clothes for the weather, treat friends, manage time, handle responsibilities, and make healthy lifestyle choices, we could get them an apartment when they near kindergarten and leave them to it.
For now, our kids rely on us to mediate between them and the world, protect them, and teach them as they grow. Part of our role is to cultivate executive function-related skills such as emotional resilience, cognitive flexibility, and patience.
Running Out of Steam
That all may seem obvious, but what gets in the way of our limit setting? Our own exhaustion, for one. Parents who immerse themselves in rearing children without any acknowledgment of their own needs are at risk for burnout.
Stress itself often leads to inconsistent limits and a general state of overindulged children: “Yes, you can have the whole box of cookies for all I care as long as you let me finish this phone call.” Setting aside a few minutes a day to meditate or hang out with a friend or schedule a date night with our spouse can go a long way toward establishing consistency with our kids. An important aspect of setting limits for kids is understanding our own.
Overestimating executive function (EF) is another common problem that undermines discipline. A child’s apparent misbehavior may stem from not yet knowing how to manage emotions or the morning routine. Another quick path to actual misbehavior is asking for something a child is not capable of doing. He may unconsciously think, That’s a big pile of homework . . . I don’t know where to start. It makes utter sense for him to throw a fit if he’s pushed to work but doesn’t know what to do—he needs us to step in and support him while creating a reasonable plan. He might need guidance in breaking the homework into smaller portions and managing time. Perhaps we need to talk to his teachers about adjusting his assignments. Maybe a potential learning difference requires more of our attention.
Maintaining rules and guidelines does not mean becoming rigidly strict. Guide behavior through reward and praise whenever possible. Have fun, make jokes. Offer reasonable options: “You can do your homework now or in half an hour but not right before you go to bed.” Pay attention to your choices and stick to only as many limits as needed. Remain open to discussion and flexible to change, but adhere to clear boundaries the remainder of the time.
Consistent and Coordinated Messages
Coordinate with other household caregivers and teachers around your plan to manage behavior whenever possible. As a foundation, guide behavior through praise and rewards, steering children towards success with positive feedback. And then also consider, when will you rely on time-outs? When will you use planned ignoring as a strategy? When is it time for consequences? The more structured you are in managing behavior as a parent, the easier it is to stay calm and consistent under pressure.
Establishing healthy attachment and positive relationships relies on emotional consistency from you, but that does not mean shielding your child from ever getting upset. It’s okay if kids get in trouble sometimes or don’t succeed in everything.
Record your strategy somewhere easily accessible, and consider posting it for your children. Remain aware that with any change around discipline, your child’s behavior may intensify for several days or weeks. Once the new plan takes hold, the whole household will run more smoothly.
Remember, establishing healthy attachment and relationships stems from emotional reliability from you, not protecting your child from ever getting upset. It’s okay if kids get in trouble or don’t succeed in everything. Your child isn’t perfect and needn’t strive for that goal. Positive parenting requires an emphasis on supportive feedback while continuing to teach children through firm boundaries and limit setting.
Five Behavioral Tools for Healthy Limit-Setting
You are the adult. You get to say no and set rules when you must. This is part of being a mindful, caring parent. So what are the limit-setting tools to rely on?
All parents need a behavioral tool that can be repeated multiple times a day on occasion. Typically, major consequences shift behavior only once a day. After declaring, “You’re grounded this weekend,” what can you add? Yelling doesn’t work, and physical punishment is out. Time-outs are irreplaceable—a few minutes sitting somewhere boring to settle down. With persistence and planning, they work for almost all families.
2. Redirect behaviors when possible
Because every behavior happens for a reason, it’s easier to replace a behavior (“When you’re angry, go to your room”) than squash it (“Never throw a tantrum like that again, ever”). For your child, simply stopping a reaction is far harder than shifting the impulse. When there’s room, offer choices, targeted praise, and rewards to define new behaviors that replace problematic ones. A sense of control for a child goes a long way. Asking a child to clean up right now may lead to conflict. Ask if they’d like to clean now or in five minutes. They’ll choose later, feel better, and become far more likely to clean up.
3. Planned ignoring
Childhood behavior often derives from a desire to grab attention or change a parent’s mind. Even negative attention from an adult may feel better than no attention. For instance, if a child is jealous of a sibling, acting out may allow them to own your attention for a minute or two. When a behavior is attention seeking, punishment or too much discussion can perpetuate it. Therefore, if you don’t respond at all to some behaviors, they resolve.
Not responding outwardly takes effort
To avoid seeming callous, calmly state your intention (“I’m going to wait until you’re settled”) and then move on. Your bile rises and a cloud impairs your vision, and you continue as if nothing is happening. The results are often worth it (although you should expect a short-term increase in the behavior before it resolves). This approach is especially effective with tantrums. In the face of unremitting screaming, parents understandably give in to demands: “Fine. Take my phone. Just quiet down!” That outcome makes the inappropriate behavior useful because the child receives what they want, even though they are being chastised. Rendering the behavior useless by ignoring it makes it less likely to recur.
4. Natural consequences
Children sometimes learn from making a mistake and experiencing the outcome. Your child refuses to wear a jacket, so you let him go outside and get cold for a few minutes. He won’t stop goofing around and as a result misses the beginning of his show. Instead of redirecting your child, you let him persist and experience whatever happens as the natural consequence. Of course, don’t use this approach in situations where safety is at risk, only when the stakes are low.
To use natural consequences well, remain aware of your child’s development. Natural consequences work only when a child has the underlying ability to manage a situation. “Fine, stay up late, you’ll be sorry when you are tired tomorrow” doesn’t affect much; most kids won’t be able to relate how they’ll feel tomorrow to today’s actions. Even if they say they understand, they almost certainly feel otherwise, until they have a broader perspective of time and more advanced EF. Whenever natural consequences fail, reevaluate your assumptions. You might think poor grades would be a solid natural consequence. But if a student is unable to handle her homework, they aren’t. More often than it seems, even the brightest child relies on parents to set the groundwork, problem-solve, and create a solution.
5. Direct consequences and lost privileges
During a calm, quiet moment, plan consequences that make sense as a fallback. Ones created on the fly often are unenforceable. Consequences can be loss of screen time, a favorite toy, an activity, or anything else feasible and clear in meaning. Whenever you find yourself relying excessively on consequences, step back and review your behavioral plan and be sure you’re mixing it up. Households cannot stand for long on consequences alone.
Through all the corrections and conflicts children encounter, it’s crucial to return to positive time together, positive feedback, and rewarding behaviors. Aim for consistency, forgive yourself for your own inconsistency, and start with a focus on the positive whenever possible. And then, with children of any age, remember that positive parenting techniques only go so far on their own—all parents need means for firm, dispassionate, and consistent ways to say no.
Excerpted from How Children Thrive: The Practical Science of Raising Independent, Resilient, and Happy Kids by Mark Bertin, MD. Copyright c 2018 Mark Bertin. Reprinted with permission of Sounds True.