Most parents know that limits are important in helping children understand right and wrong, but the challenge lies in knowing the exact strategy for effective discipline and sticking with it.
A good place to start is to ask, “What does this rule teach my child?” This question will guide you to discipline your kids with love. With that at the back of your mind, here are 8 effective strategies for setting limits with children.
1. Let Your Children Know Exactly What You Expect From Them
First, think about your values and the behaviors that reflect them. You need to figure this part out to create effective boundaries and set reasonable limits.
If you’re not sure what behaviors to discourage or encourage in your child, ask yourself questions like:
- What’s important to me as a parent?
- What behaviors reflect our family values?
- What am I teaching my child with this limit?
Once you have a clear idea of what you want, explain these expectations to your child as clearly as possible.
You want to be specific if you want children to do as you say, especially younger kids. For example, suppose you are concerned about your child wasting food and not getting enough nutrition. In that case, a more specific instruction would be, “Always eat all of your food” rather than “Eat your food.”
2. Combine Limits With Reasonable Consequences
Rules and limits are ineffective if there are no consequences for breaking them. You don’t have to choose between showing your kids love and disciplining them. Instead, both are necessary for raising well-rounded children.
According to a study on the Conditional Sequence Model of Disciplinary Responses, effective parenting combines love and limits, not pitting them against each other.
When setting limits for kids, be clear about the consequences of non-compliance with your expectations.
However, be sure to use appropriate consequences and measured responses when correcting your child’s misbehavior. Remember, you don’t want to kill a fly with a sledgehammer.
3. Be Consistent With Limits and Consequences
Enforcing rules one day and letting them slide the next is the quickest way to encourage your children to disregard limits.
Children need to know that their parents’ expectations are always the same and they will face specific consequences if they break the rules. When you consistently enforce limits and follow through with the consequences of non-compliance, your kids will understand that the rules are non-negotiable and be more likely to stick with them.
However, be sure to choose consequences you can live with, or else you might find yourself failing to follow through.
4. Point Out a More Helpful Behavior
Children will make poor choices occasionally, no matter how often you remind them of the rules. And while it is important to let children experience the consequences of their poor decisions, one way to teach them to make better choices is to provide alternative behaviors.
For example, you could say, “Hitting your friends is unacceptable behavior. Be nice and kind to your friends.”
This way, you restate and reinforce the better behavior you want to see in your children rather than focusing only on the unwanted behavior.
5. Respect Your Child and Be Empathetic
It’s common for kids to think their parents are out to frustrate them with a bunch of dos and don’ts (remember that you felt this way too when growing up and breaking all the house rules). Always keep this in mind when enforcing limits because it will help you to be more empathetic toward your child.
Respecting your child and being empathetic doesn’t mean being inconsistent in enforcing limits. Instead, it means listening to your child and understanding their frustration, even if you won’t bend your rules.
Of course, you can adopt the somewhat authoritarian “my house, my rules” approach, but that may not be your best move if you’re looking to foster a nurturing parent-child relationship.
Listening to your kids and acknowledging their frustration usually results in better outcomes. It makes explaining your reasons for setting limits easier while showing that you understand their frustration.
6. Avoid Arguing or Power Struggles
Setting limits with children is not about showing who’s the boss; it has nothing to do with power struggles. Instead, it is your way of ensuring the safety and well-being of your children.
With this in mind, you should avoid engaging your kids in a power struggle. Don’t argue or get into a battle of wills to get your children to comply with your rules.
Instead of arguing, simply provide the expectation and consequences, and let your child know that they are choosing with their behavior. You could say something like, “You are choosing not to watch TV tonight since you didn’t do your homework.”
7. Offer Your Kids Choices Whenever Possible
Want to reduce the likelihood of power struggles? Find ways to make your children feel more in control by giving them choices whenever it is safe to do so.
For example, you could allow your child to choose between cleaning their room now or at a later time.
Choices give children a sense of freedom to do what they prefer but within your rules. It is a good way to teach children responsibility instead of mere robotic obedience and conformity.
One more thing: remember to keep each child’s developmental stage in mind when offering choices.
8. Model Appropriate Behavior
Lastly, model the behavior you want to see in your children. Let your words and actions show your kids that you follow the same rules and expectations you want them to live by.
Demonstrating how to behave is one of the most effective ways to encourage children to stick with the limits you set for them.
Things to Remember When Setting Limits for Kids
Wouldn’t it be great if children just followed the rules we set for them? But as all parents know first-hand, kids don’t always comply with what they are told, no matter how well spelled out the instructions are.
This can lead to stress and frustration, making many parents wonder whether parenting will ever get less exhausting.
To help reduce stress, keep the following in mind as you set limits and discipline your children.
Plan Discipline Early
Trying to think of the appropriate discipline in the heat of the moment can be stressful and may lead to ineffective discipline. Think things through when you are calmer, and don’t wait for your kids to step out of line before letting them know what’s right and wrong.
This way, you reduce the need to constantly set limits for minor misbehaviors, and your child is well aware of your exact expectations.
Children will always test limits; that’s a given, and that’s how they explore their boundaries and independence.
Pushing against limits is a perfectly normal and natural part of development in children. Knowing this, you shouldn’t view it as a personal attack on you or your parenting when your child pushes against the limits you set.
However, it’s your job to set and enforce limits, no matter how hard your children push against the rules.
Nagging is a common mistake when it comes to disciplining kids. Unfortunately, it doesn’t produce any positive results for kids or the parent-child bond.
Avoid lecturing or over-explaining. While it is important to be firm, yelling doesn’t help. Simply state the rule, explain the consequences of poor behavior, and allow your child to choose.
Notice Signs of Frustration
Trying to discipline a child when you’re not calm can easily turn into punishing the child. You want to catch early signs of frustration, such as:
- Shallow breathing and rapid heart rate
- Talking to your child with your voice raised
- Having blameful thoughts even before you hear your child out
Paying attention to these signs can help you step back and calm down to prevent impulsive discipline.
Indeed, disciplining kids and parenting, in general, can create lots of stress and tension, but avoid flaring up as much as possible. I recommend taking deep breaths to help you calm down and regain composure before addressing your child’s unwanted behavior.
You Don’t Have to Respond Immediately
Effective parenting doesn’t mean having all the answers at your fingertips, ever-ready to provide solutions right away.
Sometimes, it is okay to walk away, especially when you notice you are losing your temper. If the situation makes you feel difficult emotions welling up, take some time for yourself to think things through before responding.
This way, you are likely to respond more appropriately and be more consistent in disciplining your children.
Setting limits for your kids isn’t about intimidating or embarrassing your children. And discipline doesn’t automatically translate into always saying no to your children or punishing them.
Instead, effective limit-setting teaches kids appropriate behavior to keep them safe and secure in different situations.
Remember that kids learn more by what they see than what you tell them. As you give your children clear instructions, be firm but gentle and patient with them. And don’t fail to model the behaviours you want them to emulate.