7 Ways Setting Limits Can Go Awry

And what to try instead

“Sometimes I feel like my kids are out of control,” worried one parent. Another quickly added, “My daughter knows just how to push my buttons.” A third chimed in with, “I’m always in a power struggle with my four-year-old son.”

Comments like these are common in parenting workshops, and I’ve uttered versions of my own over the years. While many of us know that setting limits is a helpful remedy for parenting dilemmas like these, we also know that sticking with this strategy can be easier said than done. Figuring out how to balance discipline with warmth and flexibility is difficult. Trying to stay calm when we are tired and triggered is tricky. It’s no fun dealing with our kids’ unhappiness when we are setting limits.

Parent frustrated while setting limits

When we struggle with setting limits and enforcing consequences it can be helpful to remember the costs of the alternatives. While permissive parenting (anything goes) can be the tempting path of least resistance it tends to leave everyone disregulated in the long run. It is our kids job to push against the limits, it is our job to set them. If we don’t do it, how will they ever learn to say no to themselves. The opposite of permissive, authoritarian parenting (my way or the highway), isn’t very effective either. While striking fear in our kids may get them to comply, that isn’t the goal. The goal is self-regulation.

Reams of research show that a balanced approach is the way to go and the strategy of limits and consequences works best. Parenting with firm rules, consistent and calm enforcement, limited negotiation, and plenty of warmth will help both our kids and our own mental health the most.

This makes a lot of sense as we talk about it in a parent discussion group, but following through on the resolve when we’re tired, rushed, and stressed is difficult. When I see the mess on the dining room table I know that I should calmly say, “If you choose to leave your art supplies on the table then they are going away for the rest of the day.” But when my son either ignores me or drops to the floor in a sobbing heap, it’s hard to follow through with warmth and consistency. It makes it even harder that we never hear a response like this at the end of the hard work, “Thank you, mommy, for setting that boundary. It is teaching me patience and self-discipline. I love you!”

While talking about and rehearsing “best practices” can be helpful, it is also helpful to be real about when things don’t go as planned. You may have a different set of pitfalls when setting limits, but here are my finest:

1. Repetition

I tend to slide into repetition when I am especially reluctant to actually enforce a consequence. When I hear myself saying, “I am going to say this just one more time” for the fifth time, I know that I’m off track. Repeating the rule with incessant warnings and reminders simply teaching kids that they can delay (and maybe get out of) a consequence by ignoring us.

Try saying it clearly, once. Otherwise, let it go.

2. Over-explaining

It can be tempting to over-explain our reasoning for a rule convinced that children will cooperate if they just get enough evidence. Just last week I found myself explaining to my nieces and nephews why throwing sand out of the sandbox doesn’t show respect to everyone else who uses our yard…and that we will have no sand left in the sandbox… and that their Grandpa had gone out of his way to get the sand for them…and why gratitude is important…. and that other children have this rule too…and on and on. While I was enjoying my soapbox, the children had all moved on to putting sand down the slide, my grand lessons lost on them. While providing reasons for rules is important, too much explanation tends to make a boundary way more confusing to small children.

Try simple, clear language.

For example, “You know that the rule is that the sand stays in the sandbox. If you choose to throw sand out of the sandbox, you choose to be all done in the sand box for the afternoon.”

3. The great debate

A debate over a rule can go on forever with young children, especially when your child’s capacity to repeat their point of view is endless. Listening is important, but endless back-and-forth is fruitless. Choose when to negotiate carefully and avoid endless debate.

Try a clear end to the conversation.

For example, “I know you still feel upset because you want to blow bubbles inside right now but the answer is no. I am done talking about this now. When you are ready to talk about something else let me know.” Repeat as needed.

4. The emotional rollercoaster

One of children’s main tasks is to learn how to handle big feelings. It isn’t surprising for children to fall to the ground sobbing one minute and be ready to play the next. Sometimes it is easy for me to stay calm in the face of these wild vacillations. But on especially hard days I can jump right onto the rollercoaster with them. Unfortunately, when we jump on the ride, it gets more wild. In contrast, modeling calm helps them get to calm. Far more than what we say, our kids learn by watching how we manage our own sadness, anger, and excitement.

Remember that you are your child’s emotion coach.

5. Ping-ponging

In the face of grand sadness and protests over a limit, we can be tempted to back peddle to permissive parenting. The challenge with this is not only that your child learns that “no doesn’t mean no” but a quick retreat to “anything goes” is unlikely to stay that way for long. If you are anything like me, a spat of permissive parenting often ends in an authoritarian moment when I am pushed to the edge. This ping ponging between “anything goes” and “my way or the highway” is not only ineffective, it is also when we tend to make mistakes like shaming, yelling or giving empty threats.

Choose consequences that you are confident you can follow through on.

6. Winning

Being firm and “winning” are not the same thing. It may feel like semantics, but winning implies that the child experiences defeat. When I start to feel like I want to “win” with my kids it usually means I’ve lost sight of one of my the important questions that should drive the practice – “What is it I hope that my child learns?” Setting limits isn’t about compliance and suffering. It is built on the idea that children are responsible for their actions and that need to experience the effects of their choices in order to learn and grow. We teach and model a different set of choices and skills and give them opportunities to practice ways to regulate their emotions and make good decisions.

Remember that no one wins in a power struggle.

7. Fixed parenting mindset

It is worth revisiting the research on growth mindset. People children with a fixed mindset believe that their intelligence and abilities are fixed traits and that talent is what leads to success, not effort. In contrast, a growth mindset celebrates struggle. People with a growth mindset believe that abilities can be developed with practice. They see that falling down and getting back up again are part of living and learning.

We’ve written a lot about nurturing a growth mindset in children, but don’t forget to apply the same wisdom to your parenting. So you’ve ping-ponged, jumped on the rollercoaster and debated all before breakfast? Served yourself healthy portions of guilt alongside the cereal before school?

Parenting is hard. It is something that we work at, day in and day out. Some days we are our best selves. Other days not so much. Then we work to mend it. We get up and we try again.

Celebrate your struggle.