Setting Limits: No Ifs, Ands or Buts

Discipline is the hardest part of parenting. You are not alone if you find setting limits and following them through difficult enough without having to think about not shouting. Parenting is exhausting and we often have limited time available to us. However I want to remind you that children are not ‘mini-adults’ and that they need to be treated as people. We can be firm and loving at the same time without having to shame, isolate or leave our child feeling ‘bad’.

Our western culture values obedience over self-expression. If your goal is to punish then you fill find discipline hard. But if you want your child to learn good behaviour and have the skills to make good choices for themselves as well as good emotional regulation, then these ideas may be for you.

Setting limits

Children are not ‘mini-adults’, they need to be treated as people with respect, love and empathy.

Children’s brains are primed to explore how things work and they use repetition to make sense of the world. That is why children often ask to read the same books, play the same games and watch the same cartoon over and over again. Their little scientist brain is asking “if I do this again, will it be the same?” When it comes to behaviours that are socially unacceptable or that we don’t wish to see, children behave in the same way because they are exploring and need to test out boundaries. It’s healthy and important for them to do so for their development.

Let me give you an example: Imagine you teach your child how to count to 10 for the first time and the next day they cannot count past 5. Would you be angry with them? Or would you sit with them and do it again, maybe turn it into a game or a song to help their learning? By doing the second option you are showing that you understand that it will take your child more than once to learn the 10 number sequence. The second option shows you understand learning a skill takes time. As parents we need to remember that learning good behaviours is a skill that takes the same time and patience it takes to learn anything else.

Children are driven by their impulse to explore so they can understand the world. As parents, we are often driven with the impulse to control and do unto our child what was done to us. A disciplinarian doesn’t match up well with an Explorer. As parents we need to shift our need for control into a desire to teach and that small shift can change how you feel about the next steps.

As parents we have to set boundaries and limits for our children and we need to reinforce them over and over again, calmly and with patience. We need to remember that children do these behaviours because they are learning and developing and not because they are ‘disobeying us’.

It is not appropriate to give children complete autonomy in choices of nutrition, appropriate clothing, or safety and health issues (at least not until they are at an age that you are comfortable to allow them to make those choices). It is our responsibility as parents to make these decisions and hold limits without wavering in the face of their displeasure. So how can you do this with love and empathy for their feelings?


Firstly, to set a limit you need to state it clearly including what you want to see your child do. You then need to follow-through with action about the limit while acknowledging and validating the feelings that come up for your child in response to this (see my posts on this here).

Example of setting a limit:

State the limit: “Here are your crayons. Remember the table is not for drawing”

Tell your child what they can do: “You can draw in your lovely colouring book”

Follow-through with action when your child pushes the limit: “I can see you are drawing on the table now. Thank you for reminding me that I need to supervise you when you draw. I am going to put the crayons away for now”

Acknowledge and Validate the feelings that come: “You love drawing, I know you are sad I have put them away”

Another example that parents often ask me about is when children are being physically aggressive. I suggest looking at my post on meltdowns here for ideas of how to gently but firmly hold your child and keep them safe.

State the limit: “No hitting in this house, you can feel angry but you cannot hit”

Tell your child what they can do: “If you feel angry you can shout ‘I AM ANGRY’ or you can stomp your feet like this”

Follow-through with action when your child pushes the limit: “I need to keep you and your brother safe. The anger is really big so lets go together to your bedroom. I will stay with you, I will keep you safe”

Acknowledge and Validate the feelings that come: “You are so very angry. I am here for you. I love you. We can take deep breaths together”

A child’s brain does not have the same developed powers of logic and reasoning that a fully formed adult brain has. It is therefore unreasonable to present them with reasoned, logical, and intricate arguments for and against every limit that must be set.

Typically, adults say things like, “You don’t want to get into the car, BUT we are running late and we need to go now.” Somehow, when you include “but” and everything that follows, it invalidates the preceding part of the statement. As an example, if I was feeling stressed about the juggle of house chores, work and childcare and shared this with my husband and he replied, “You are so stressed right now, BUT you’re the one who is home during the day so you just have to get it all done” I am pretty sure that would make matters worse for him that evening!

I have spoken previously about the power of acknowledging your child’s experience and validating their feelings. In order to set a limit and hold it, try to forget IF, AND or BUT in your vocabulary. Try and simplify everything you say and instead - just observe and narrate what you do.

Some examples to illustrate this further are below:

Instead of: You don’t want to eat broccoli today but it’s good for you! Don’t throw it, if you throw it again you won’t get banana for desert”

Try: “You don’t want to eat broccoli today. You want more banana but it’s all gone. Ah you are throwing the broccoli. You know food is for eating, thank you for letting me know you are done with your dinner. I will take your plate away now”. (take the plate away).

You don’t need to explain why you are serving broccoli or how it is good for your child. You also don’t have to accept that they throw food. You can acknowledge their feelings (“You don’t want to eat broccoli today”) observe the behaviour (“You are throwing the broccoli”) and set a limit (“Thank you for letting me know you are done with your dinner. I will take your plate away now”).

It’s enough and more respectful to simply observe and narrate the behaviours as they happen.

PS - I always encourage offering 'desert; foods alongside the meal and will talk about why in a future post so if you are curious about the way I have phrased the second example keep your eyes peeled, new blog coming up in a few weeks!)

Another example (based on my reality as a mama!)

Instead of: “I know you want to stay and play. You don’t want to get in the car but it’s time to go home now! Come on please help mummy, we need to go we are running late”

Try: “I know you want to stay and play. You don’t want to get in the car. You’re so upset right now.” (Pause, take a deep breath and Cloak yourself in Calm (see my post here) “I need to be sure you are safe. Do you need another moment before I buckle you in? OK.” (Pause. Breathe). “OK, I’m going to buckle you in now.” (Pause to let what you say register and then gently and firmly talk to your child through the process.) “I’m helping you with your right arm. And now your left arm. Now I will do the buckle. There it’s all clicked together. Now I’m going to make your straps fit snuggly. I know you are still very upset. You are crying so much. It’s okay for you to feel sad, I know it’s hard to stop doing something nice. I’m going to get in the front seat now but I can still see you. Mummy is here, I love you darling”.

Yelling loudly to get heard over the screams can make children feel scared and get louder themselves. The louder and more upset your child becomes try and get softer and more intimate. As well as cloaking yourself in calm using a mantra, try talking in a half whisper. The act of doing this can remind you to stay calm AND it will help your child feel safer. Remember, in those moments it is just you and your child trying to connect and help them regain emotional regulation. Go slow, stay quiet.

By holding your limit with calm and not punishing the big feelings you are helping them learn good behaviour and you are showing them love at a time when its the hardest for you to give it to them, but is the time your child needs it the most.

Good luck! Parenting is hard and its okay if you don't get it perfect every time. I would love to know how it goes for you if you try these ideas so feel free to comment and share either here or on my instagram page.

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