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How to set limits without saying (or screaming) “Don’t!”

Don’t push your brother! Don’t whine! Don’t do that! No more TV! Stop running!
Many parents desperately try to manage the child’s misbehavior. It’s definitely a hard task as a parent! But this type of limit setting is often not very effective because of two reasons:

  1. When children hear their parents say, Don’t do this. Don’t do that., what stays in their head is this and that. The exact things you don’t want them to do! Children need more useful information that’s clear and concrete. You need to communicate with them in a way they can understand. They need to hear what they should do, not what they shouldn’t do. So, if you don’t want your child to run in a store, you can tell him/her to walk instead of “Don’t run”.
  2. When you set limits with children by saying “Don’t”, “No”, “Stop”, it often creates power struggles because they see you as someone who is blocking them from doing what they want to do. Now they are angry with you. They may even feel like you are denying them for who they are, even though you are just trying to set limits on their behavior. It could damage their sense of self.

Nonetheless, setting limits is a hard but very important job as a parent. Children do need to learn what is appropriate behavior and what is not.
An effective limit setting method that is very easy to remember is the ACT method. It was developed by Dr. Gary Landreth (the founder of the Center for Play Therapy – University of North Texas). It’s a simple 3-step method of limiting children’s behavior while teaching them self-control and responsibility for their own behavior.

ACT Method of Limit Setting

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The basic rule of the ACT method is: “It’s okay to feel any way you want to feel; it’s just not okay to act any way you want to act.” We as parents very often try to change the way the child feels, for example, by saying, “No need to cry”, “That’s nothing to be upset about” or “You don’t hate your sister, you love your sister.” With the ACT method, there is no attempt to change the feeling. Instead, you empathize with the child and communicate to him/her that you understand the feeling. Many parents skip the first step and go right to the limit. But the first step is very important because in order to target a satisfying alternative, you have to really understand how the child feels.

The goal of ACT method of limit setting is to provide the child with an acceptable outlet for expressing the feeling or desire, while giving him/her an opportunity to exercise self-control. You need to allow your child to experience the consequences for his/her choices. Your child can decide to break or accept the limit, but it is your job as the parent to consistently enforce the limit.

I know it’s easier said than done. But if you remember the steps and practice implementing the method, it does get easier. And what is very helpful with this method is that it teaches children responsibility and self-control, so over time, there will be less need to set limits because they naturally learn to take more responsibility and choose more appropriate outlet to express themselves on their own.

For more information about this method, you can go to Dr. Gary Landreth’s video “Choices, Cookies, & Kids”

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