PEP Blog


Within Limits: A Fresh Angle on Setting Limits for Kids

By Paige Trevor

Limits can be tricky. Some of us set too many limits, which we spend all our parenting energy upholding. Some of us set too few limits and just throw up our hands saying, “Kids will be kids.”

Limits are important. Both the natural and the social world have plenty of them. If we don’t define and uphold limits within our families, our children may go into the world unprepared to work, live and play with both a spirit of freedom and a sense of responsibility.

But how do we do it? Most of us set and uphold limits with a lot of adult talking and reminding that is often followed by disappointment when children test the limit or balk and cry about it. To give parents fresh perspectives and new tools for this common parenting problem, I called in two experts, Dr. Mona Delahooke and Marjie Longshore.

Dr. Delahooke is a clinical psychologist who empowers joyful, resilient parent-child relationships by translating neuroscience research into practical and compassionate strategies. Delahooke’s work is particularly relevant right now. After over two years of stress and uncertainty, the collective parental nervous system is fatigued, worn out and at its wit’s end.

Delahooke calls our nervous system our “platform” and asks us to consider that keeping it in check and on an even keel is truly a parenting tool.

We talked about how important it is to be responsive to our children instead of reactive. When parents’ or kids’ “platforms” are depleted, it leads to short tempers, tantrums and generally ineffective problem-solving. Remembering that our “platform” can get worn out through the day might lead us to reserve the limits that are most difficult to uphold for the morning, while allowing the evening to be a more relaxed time when we focus on connecting and having fun.

Marjie Longshore is founder and executive director of the Family Leadership Center (FLC), whose mission is to educate parents, teachers and caregivers in principles based on Adlerian Psychology so that they can encourage young people to lead and contribute to society. Her fresh take on limits is for families to discuss and create a shared dream or vision. Longshore suggests we gather our people and ask, “What do we stand for? How do we want to be as a family this year?” Ideas may come up like, “We are a peaceful and kind family” or “We are a family that is both responsible with our work and fun in our relationships.” There are endless versions and variations of what families can stand for. This leads to the question, “What are the rules that will support our hopes and dreams?” You may be surprised by your kids’ responses, which often relate to limits that need to be upheld.

Longshore had an experience that prompted a shift in her mindset when her kids let her know that she was on her phone texting too much. We adults often make the excuse of work as to why the limits we set for our children don’t apply to us. But imagine the respect Longshore’s kids felt when they kindly reminded her to put her phone away during dinner hour, and she did. As a family, they made an arrangement that if she went over the limit, Longshore would put a little money in a jar and every so often they would take the money and go out for ice cream together.

There is a great difference between setting a limit (easy) and upholding a limit (hard).

Bearing this in mind and thinking about our nervous system and the creation of a family vision, Delahook, Longshore and I came up with a list of ways to set and uphold limits with more success and less upset.

Top Tips for Upholding Limits

  1. SLEEP: Research is unequivocal about how sleep is a life-support system, for both you and your child. It’s not something extra; it’s essential. Adequate sleep will make parenting easier and help your child’s social-emotional growth.
  2. PLAYFUL ENGAGEMENT: Play feeds the child’s “platform.” Before you uphold the limit or transition, do something fun together – throw a ball, go for a quick walk or engage your child in any kind of playful activity. Play is really the love language for children. Five minutes of play can often sidestep a 20-minute tantrum about handing over the iPad.
  3. SOCIAL COMMUNITY: Both parent and child experience mental health benefits when we are part of a community. Get back in touch with grandparents, spend time with your neighbors, do activities in groups again. Our nervous systems work best in community: talking, relating, playing and engaging with the wider world.
  4. HOLD THE LIMIT: If you take the time to set a good limit, uphold it. Even if it’s painful. It can take a lot of courage to leave the park when that desperate 3-year-old starts crying or to enforce a resentful teen’s curfew. It’s energy well spent to keep your word and uphold a family vision.
  5. STAY CALM: Our attitude is key to our family running smoothly. Upholding a limit doesn’t have to be mean. One-word reminders or physical cues can help us stay calm. When the iPad needs to be turned in, you might uphold the limit by extending your arm, palm up, shoulders relaxed and waiting. Most kids will grumble a bit but fork it over in under 60 seconds.
  6. MINDSET: Many parents have a history of not feeling understood or “seen” by their caregivers. As children ourselves, we might have been confused about limits that felt mean or punitive. Therefore, we can sometimes feel ambivalent about setting limits for our kids, not wanting to repeat some of the indignities we experienced. Delahooke takes the perspective that limits are healthy (in the right dosage) and that if we are positive and energetic around the limit, we usually have an easier time upholding it when things go sideways.
  7. MORE TRANSITION TIME: Consider that our kids’ “platforms” are being stretched as they go back into more activities and hours away from home. They can be fatigued by all the comings and goings. Making transition times longer and more playful can serve us well. It requires more effort upfront, but we usually end up saving time in the long run by avoiding the outbursts of overwhelming emotions.

Limits are often challenging for everyone. Consider, though, that grappling with limits, paying attention to nervous systems (theirs and ours) and having real conversations about solving family problems will provide invaluable opportunities to bring our families closer together. Limits – seen from a fresh angle and with a few new tools – can reenergize us to uphold those limits we most value.

This article appears in the August 2022 issue of Washington Parent magazine.


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