Setting Limits:  Helping Children Develop Healthy Boundaries

By Lauren Bondy, LCSW

Many of the most common family struggles can be solved with effective limit setting; yet, this critical skill is one that many parents lack.  Some parents find themselves giving in against their better judgment.  Others don’t set limits to avoid conflict.  Some want to be the fun friend rather than the bad guy.  If you face daily frustrations, power struggles, tantrums, or feelings of doubt and insecurity about your parenting, this article will help.    

Limits are essential for children’s healthy emotional development.  Limits convey to children that their parents care about them as they provide safety and security.  In addition, limits effectively role-model for children that healthy boundaries are essential.  When parents set limits in the early years it helps children set limits for themselves in all areas of their life as they get older:  in friendships, drugs & alcohol, sex, romantic partners, choices about self care, etc...  They may be disappointed about having limits imposed, but the security gained will far outweigh any temporary disappointment.

The following guidelines will help.  First, decide the rules for your home.  Rules should reflect your needs, comfort level and values (i.e. respect, safety of people & property, nutrition, etc...).  Then, communicate the rules to your children.  Rules must be clear and should NEVER be introduced in the middle of a problem. Parents often forget to explain the rule in advance, and the reason for each rule.  If it’s a good rule, it will make sense to children—even if they don’t like it.  For instance, if your rule is “no hitting” make sure to explain the reason for the rule even though it seems obvious.  You may say, “The rule is no hitting because hitting hurts.  My job is to keep you, your siblings, and all children in our home safe.”  Safety appeals to children as it is a basic human need.  Make sure they understand the rule.

When children test or attempt to break the rules, remember, this is not a negotiation.  Follow the three simple steps for setting limits:

Step 1:  Empathize--Put yourself in your child’s shoes.  Make sure she feels understood.  Let her know you “get” how she feels—even if you don’t like it, and even though you won’t be letting her have her way.  [“I know you’re angry that it’s time to go to sleep.  You’ve been having fun playing outside.”]

Step 2:  State the limit clearly—Remember this is not new information since the rule has already been explained.  [“The rule in our house is pj’s at 8:30pm”]

Step 3:  Give a choice (4 years and younger) or ask them what their options might be (4 years and older).  When giving choices, give only two choices and both must be acceptable to the parent.  They must be REAL choices not disguised threats. [“Would you like to put your pj’s on by yourself or have me help you?”]

Step 4:  Done--This means DONE.  No repeating the steps or request. 

 Guidelines for successfully implementing these steps:

  • Be brief & clear --too many words dilute the message.

  • Use a calm tone even when you don’t feel calm (this is KEY or you will find yourself in a power struggle)

  • Be FIRM & KIND—this delicate balance is key

  • Say each step only once. 

  • Be consistent and follow through—this is the only way your kids will only know you mean business. Over time there will be less push-back. 

 Exceptions must truly be exceptions.  Tell them, “It’s your lucky day.  I’m going to make an exception because…”  This way they know that the exception is by your choice not because they wore you down.

 Parents who have been letting things slide may find that when first implementing these steps, their children may up the ante by pushing back harder.  If this happens, give yourself a pat on the back.  This means that they have noticed that you are doing something different.  With time and consistency, they will learn that whining and resisting is futile.   You will notice that your home is running more smoothly and peacefully.  Above all, find comfort in knowing that your children are learning your values and how to set limits for themselves—a necessary skill for life.

For more information about our online parenting course or parent coaching, contact Karen Jacobson, MA, LCPC, LMFT at 312-330-3194, or Lauren Bondy, LCSW at 847-562-9503, Or, visit