How To Set A Limit And Stick To It

Everyone knows someone like this (it might even be you).


They know it, their spouse knows it, and worst of all, their kid knows it. Frankly, everyone does.


They can’t set a limit and stick to it.


Setting limits for these people goes something like this: “Johnny, stop doing that, okay?  C’mon, Johnny, I mean it. If you don’t stop that, we are going to leave. You got that? I’m serious. Johnny, stop! Do you want to leave? I said STOP. You aren’t listening to me. That’s it. We’re leaving. Did you hear me? JOHNNY!”


When I hear parents like this, it takes all my strength not to walk right up to them and say, “Uh, excuse me. When are you going to leave? You know, you told him you were going to leave, like, three times already and you’re still here.”


So, why is it so difficult for parents to set and stick to limits?


To begin, let’s look at the reasons for setting limits at all.


Why set limits?speedlimit

First and foremost, we set limits for safety. Before our toddlers start to crawl, we childproof our homes. We put up gates and lock cabinets, setting physical limits so they don’t hurt themselves.


As children get older, their need for limits continues in order to keep them safe and healthy. We have limits for what they can and cannot eat, what time they go to bed, how they keep clean, how much TV they watch, etc.


All of these limits help teach our children how to stay healthy and balanced.  It also teaches them social norms, your family’s values, and morals.


Another reason we set limits is to model for our children how to set their own limits. If I want my daughter to be able to set personal boundaries and be confident and assertive enough to uphold them, I need to model that for her.


Why you have a hard time sticking to limits

1.  It’s easier to give in. Let’s face it. When your kid is whining or arguing, you know that sticking to your limit may result in a meltdown, a tantrum, or a fight. So, you give in. You back down. You accept defeat. But what happens when you do this? You feel resentful, annoyed, angry, and powerless. And your child learns how to manipulate you and that you can’t be trusted to stick to your word.


2. You feel guilty. You’ve been at work all day and haven’t spent time with your child, so you’re permissive out of guilt. You let bedtime slide, you give extra sweets after dinner…harmless, right?


In reality, your spouse gets angry because now he is the “bad cop,” your child learns to take advantage of you, and you set up a pattern of being so permissive that your child doesn’t ever take you seriously.


3. You want your child to like you. Not only will your child still like you when you set limits, he’ll be more likely to also trust and respect you. He’ll feel secure knowing that you have his best interests at heart and that you are so firm in your convictions, you won’t allow his challenging behavior to control you. He might get upset with you, but this is only temporary. It’s not your job to make your child happy. It is your job to help him become a well-adjusted, self-sufficient adult.


Now that we’ve discussed some of the common reasons parents have difficulty with limits, here are a few TIPS for making it easier.


Decide what’s important to you.

You don’t need to set a limit on everything. Too many limits restrict your child from experiencing his own mistakes and learning from them. Decide what’s really important to you and be clear on where you stand and why.


Focus on what you want.

When you set a limit, be sure that it’s clearly stated, and that you focus on what you want, rather than what you don’t. For example, instead of: “Stop poking your brother in his leg,” you can say, “Please put your hands in your lap.”


Establish routines.

Whenever you have routines in place, it’s so much easier to set limits because “this is how we do it.” For example, when your child says he doesn’t want to brush his teeth, you can remind him that “after bath we brush our teeth, read a story, and go to bed.”


Use empathy to manage resistance.

When your child starts to argue or complain about a limit, connect with her by letting her know you understand her point of view. For instance, when your daughter doesn’t want to get out of bed in the morning, tell her you appreciate how warm and snuggly it is under the covers. Then wait a moment. Don’t rush to tell her how she needs to eat breakfast and get ready for school just yet. Allow your genuine response to linger for a moment so she feels your compassion. When she feels understood and connected to you, she’ll be more likely to accept your limits.


Offer choices.

Within limits, there are still choices. For example, your son might need a bath, but does he want to take it in the morning or at night? In the upstairs or downstairs bathroom? With the blue or yellow soap? You get the idea. Offering choices helps your child feel more in control of the situation and reduces resistance.


Be consistent.

Consistency is important for your child to really be able to trust you and feel safe. When you think about it, adults test limits all the time. How often do you “test” the speed limit? Sometimes you get away with it and sometimes you don’t. But what would happen if you got a speeding ticket every single time you sped? I bet you would stop testing that limit! When you’re consistent with your limits and follow through on your consequences, your child learns he can depend on you.


Don’t take it personally.

It’s your child’s job to test the limits. She’s figuring out her place in the world and learning through trial and error, just like the rest of us. When you realize that her behavior is a normal part of growing up, you can stay calm and connected enough to guide her through life’s twists and turns.  Read my post about realistic expectations here.


IMAG1046So, here’s an example of a time I set a limit. We were at gymnastics class and Dalia, 3, had finished her class while Marissa, 7, still had another thirty minutes to go in hers. Dalia decided to just walk right into Marissa’s class and join her.


When I realized this, I gently took Dalia’s arm and escorted her back out to the waiting area. I explained that she wasn’t allowed to go into the class and that she needed to wait with me in the lobby.


Well, Dalia didn’t like that. She tried again. And again, I led her out of the class and repeated the limit. Dalia began to scream and cry. I picked her up and said, “You want to be with Marissa. I know, you really want to be with Marissa.” She calmed down slightly, so I put her down.


I wish it were as simple as that, but the moment her little feet hit the floor, she headed right back toward the door! This time, I calmly went over to her, picked her up (at which point she started kicking and yelling), and said in a relaxed, but firm voice, “Dalia, you have a choice. You can wait with Mommy in the lobby or you can wait with Mommy in the car. What is your choice?”


She chose to wait in the lobby, but if she hadn’t, I was fully prepared to go sit in the car with her for thirty minutes…and she knew it.


What are your limits? What’s the hardest part for you about setting and sticking to them? Are there other tips you can share for making it easier? Leave a comment below and let me know!


If you’d like personalized help setting limits or dealing with any aspect of your parenting, click HERE to schedule a free mini-session with me. I’ll give you some free coaching to help you get unstuck.

Showing 6 comments
  • Alison

    Brilliant! Well-explained! I feel like you got your examples from observing me and my kids……it is definitely not easy to do but you have to persevere and eventually it pays off! Thanks for this great post.

    • Pam Howard

      No, I haven’t been spying on you, Alison;) It just goes to show how common these struggles are for so many parents. Thanks for your comment and for reading the blog!

  • bethiebee

    You’ve hit the nail on the head–it’s not just about setting limits, it’s sticking to them that’s necessary. Kids without limits feel unloved, with devastating consequences. Kids whose parents don’t stick to limits fare almost as poorly, at least that’s what I’ve seen among teens. My husband and I have come to see sticking to our reasonable limits with reasonable consequences for not doing so to be a gift we give our children.

  • Lauren

    Having been a special Ed teacher before becoming a mother, I employed many of these strategies in my classroom. It’s funny how much of a harder time I have using them as a parent! I consider my self a parent that sets frequent limits and always sticks to them however I’ve learned to be careful not to set a limit that’s just as much a consequence for me as it is for my daughter. For example, I let my daughter watch tv every evening while I make dinner. She’s fully engaged in an activity that doesn’t require my participation which allows me to be in the kitchen. I will often ask her to clean her toys before she comes to watch. When she would argue with me about it I would tell her she couldn’t watch tv until her toys were put away. Once I said it I stuck to it, but then I’d find myself not getting around to making dinner until almost bedtime! Now I pick a different limit that doesn’t interfere with my agenda. I also try and use language that removes me from the situation. For example, “I wish we could read books before bedtime, but if you don’t get in the bath we won’t have time.” This way I’m not the bad guy taking something away 🙂

    • Pam Howard

      Hi Lauren! Thanks for reading the blog! Your comments raise some great points that I neglected to mention. You definitely want to set limits that you can live with…I remember when I was pregnant with my second and I had just driven an hour an a half with my older daughter to see Grandma. I set a limit and said that the consequence was leaving Grandma’s house. After 30 minutes of being at Grandma’s, we got back in the car and drove another 90 minutes home. I (not my daughter, who fell asleep) cried the whole way home!

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