For Parents: How to Set Limits and Stick to Them


It's one of the most difficult aspects of parenting -- setting limits...then enforcing them. Certified Parent Educator and Family Coach, Kim DeMarchi, M. Ed., stopped by to share her fool-proof formula. Get more great tips from Kim on her Passport to Parenting Facebook page.

Whatever your place of reference with setting limits, here are four specific steps to assist you in not only setting them, but sticking to them:

  1. Empathize with how the child feels. We all have a basic human need to feel heard, understood, validated, etc
  2. Pause and do NOT say “But”
  3. State the limit clearly or ask the child what the limit or agreement is
  4. Give a choice (5 years or younger) or ask the child what their options might be (5 years or older) Here is an example of what that might sound like with the above candy scenario:

Scene: You’ve just agreed to let your child have 1 piece of candy that afternoon, but also told her that 1 is the limit. Child: “I want another piece of candy Mommy.” Parent:

  • Step 1 Empathize: “I know you want another piece of candy.” Or “It’s fun to have surprise treats every now and then, isn’t it?” Or “I enjoy the sweet taste of candy too.” Or “That was really kind of your friend to give you some candy. I can see you are really enjoying that piece of candy.”
  • Step 2 Pause: (just be silent for three seconds)
  • Step 3 State the limit: “You had your 1 piece I said you could have.” Or “When do we usually eat sweet treats?” Or “Do you remember how many I said you could have?”
  • Step 4 Give a choice: “Would you like to have some carrots or almonds?” Or “Would you like to choose another healthy alternative?” Or “Do you want to put the candy away or do you want me to put it away?”

What if these steps aren't effective the first time?

If these steps aren’t effective the first time, and your child is whining or complaining, go back to step 1 - Empathize. Try your best to be kind, but firm.