How To Set Effective Limits And Help Children Cooperate

Like it or not, part of everyday life as a parent is Setting Limits with our child. We naturally want to keep our kids safe, help them build respectful relationships and learn to take care of themselves. And that means we need them to do things like stop snatching toys from a friend, wash their hair, and get into the car seat. Knowing when and how to set effective limits can be a challenge.

Children want nothing more than to feel loved and belong. When they feel connected and free from hurt feelings, they willingly cooperate.

But when they can’t feel a sense of connection to the adults around them, or they have emotions bubbling inside, they’re unable to think well. This literally happens in the brain. The thinking part (the prefrontal cortex) goes offline and the emotional part (limbic system) takes over. When we’re swamped by feelings, brain scans show there’s virtually no activity in our thinking brain*. That’s when children show challenging, unworkable behaviour and refuse to do things that are perfectly sensible to be doing.

That’s why trying to reason with your off-track child doesn’t work, they simply can’t think!

Why “Bad Behavior” Isn’t Bad At All

When our child is doing something that doesn’t make sense, like throwing food on the floor or refusing to get to get dressed, they’re waving a red flag for help. They’re signalling to us loud and clear that they need support to regain their good thinking. This is exactly when they need us to bring a warm limit, so they can offload feelings clogging their mind.

how to set limits without power struggles

Here, in a nutshell, is how to set effective limits that also foster connection:

1 – Listen

Take a moment to figure out what’s going on. Are your expectations unrealistic? Sometimes we’re simply expecting too much from our child, like hoping our 2-year-old will happily play alone whilst we have an hour-long chat with our friend.

Is it you that needs some help? Sometimes our child is fine but we’re feeling depleted. Maybe we’re tired and their loud raucous play is pressing our buttons. There’s nothing wrong with what they’re doing, they’re thinking fine. We’re the one that needs to look after our needs and either ask them to play more quietly or find a quiet place to rest.

Do they need information or help? Sometimes a child is doing something unworkable because they simply don’t know there is anything wrong with it or they need practical help. If in doubt, we can offer the information or assistance. If the information or help doesn’t bring a change in behaviour, we can take it as a sign that they’re off-track and the need a limit.

2 – Limit

Stay calm, move in close and stop the unworkable behaviour. That might mean you need to put your hand on the kicking leg, so it can’t hurt anyone or hold a hand that’s about to snatch a toy. The key is to bring the limit, not calling out across the room, “Stop” because their brain isn’t functioning well, and they can’t really hear you. Move to where your child is and offer gentle eye contact. Simply ask what’s happening or warmly state the limit, “I can’t let you do that”. No need for harshness, no need for punishment or lectures, simply say what needs to be said in a gentle warm tone.

3 – Listen

Set effective limits, then we listen. We hold the limit and listen to the upset that pours out from our child. We’re offering them a boundary to offload against. And they’ll use it to sink into what they’re feeling and cry, storm or tantrum. We stay close anchoring them through their upset. Our goal is to take the tone of “I love you even when you feel this way”.

If you’re able to stay all the way through the upset, you’ll find your child comes out the other side sunnier and more cooperative. They’ve offloaded some inner hurts and can think better.

Setting Boundaries and Limits Playfully

And once you’ve got the hand of setting limits using Listen – Limit – Listen, you might like to try Setting Limits playfully. It can be such a relief to let go of being a serious parent and playfully hold limits with your child.

Moving in playfully, in a way that gives your child powerful position and draws out laughter, not only builds the connection between you, it also helps your child offload some emotional tension through giggles. Sometimes this is enough to have them co-operate, other times it helps build the safety, so they can offload some deeper feelings.

Warm boundaries, set early, are a gift to children and the adults who care for them. They help build cooperation and good thinking in your child and are a healthy part of a safe secure relationship.


Source: Rachel Scholfield


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