Parents often avoid setting limits for their kids because they think doing so will upset the child. Not setting boundaries, however, can lead to an unhappy child who doesn’t know how cope with difficult feelings, which is an essential life skill.
By setting limits on what they can and cannot do, you are giving your child a chance to practice managing their emotions. When they are sad or feel overwhelmed, allowing them to figure out how to handle the situation on their own (with limited parental intervention) helps them grow into strong people who can face the challenges of adulthood.
Why Rules Are Important For A Child
Discipline is the process of shaping a child’s behavior in order to raise emotionally mature adults. It teaches self-control, core family values, and consideration for others’ needs. It also instills assertiveness without being aggressive or hostile. Learning what is expected of them in terms of behavior gives a child an understanding that their actions have an effect on those around them. Through discipline, children become emotionally mature, considerate people who can tolerate discomfort when necessary.
Contrary to the negative connotations of discipline, such as “punishment” or “controlling” the child, boundaries and limits actually help children feel more secure. Adherence to rules, expectations, and routines make things predictable. They reduce confusion and uncertainty, which in turn decreases anxiety. If a child is able to get the parent to change their mind or relax the rules on a regular basis, it threatens their security because they learn they have more power than the adult.
How To Set Limits With Your Child
Through the years, there has been much controversy about appropriate ways to discipline children. Oftentimes, parents want to set boundaries but they have no idea how to go about it. How to do they balance the freedom to be a child with restrictions so their kids learn self-discipline?
The first step is that you, the adult, need to know what behaviors you personally value and what you believe in. Is it important to you to be respected? To be loyal? To be honest? If, for example, you value honesty and you don’t discipline your child for lying to you, then you’ve taught them it is okay to lie to get what they want.
Next, you need to decide what values you want to uphold as a family. Is it important to eat dinner together as a family? To get homework done before watching television or playing games on the computer? To have a scheduled quiet time to wind down in the evening? These values may change as your children grow and mature, but setting down family values will help your child function respectfully within the family unit.
Along the way you have to also do the things you are asking your child to do. Children learn from example and if you ask them to do one thing, but you do another, it’s confusing to them. In addition, both parents should agree as much as possible on the limits and boundaries they are setting for their children. Without this agreement, kids will quickly learn to play one parent against the other to get what they want.
Consistency is the key to discipline. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to be consistent and keep to those limits, though. This is especially true when you are worn out from work, not feeling well, or are under pressure. If you occasionally let your child off the hook, don’t be too hard on yourself. The trick is to keep it from becoming a habit.
Setting Age Appropriate Limits For Your Child
Obviously, your child’s limits and boundaries will change as they age, but the following are our age appropriate recommendations:
- Infants (birth to 12 months) – Limits for this age basically revolve around setting schedules. This includes setting a nap or bedtime schedule, a feeding schedule, and a playtime schedule.
- Early toddlers (one year to two years) – Children need to explore at this age, so you need to be somewhat tolerant. Limits include keeping the child safe, limiting aggression (hitting, biting, etc), and keeping possessions safe from toddler destruction. During this age, toddlers do not understand verbal explanations, so simply say, “no” and remove or redirect the child away from what they are doing and towards a more suitable activity.
- Late toddlers (two years to three years) – This is the time for temper tantrums as the child leans there are limits to what they can do or play with. Kids this age don’t understand how to change their behavior based on your directions or anger, so it is better to remove or redirect them. If the child throws a tantrum, remove them from the activity until they calm down.
- School-age (eight to eleven years) – Children at this age rely on rules and order to make sense out of their environment. They think in absolutes and enjoy predictability, which means security to them. Despite what they will tell you, they want rules and need structure in their lives. Without guidance, there is uncertainty, which is very scary to children in this age group.
- Adolescents (13 years to 18 years) – Adolescents are typically caught between the demands of their peers and parents. They may abandon family and parental values as they become more involved with friends. They may challenge limits without apology. They may also distance themselves from family members. As tough as it can be sometimes, the best thing a parent can do is to avoid lecturing or belittling an adolescent. Stay available to talk when the child needs to and continue to require them to adhere to the rules you’ve set down. Making a “contract” for behavior between you and your teen can be helpful, as well.
When you know where to draw the line, it will be easier to maintain a healthy relationship with your child. By defining what they can and cannot do, parents are able keep from disciplining emotionally, which allows their child to develop the skills they will need to be self-aware, independent and happy as they mature.
We Can Help
If you are concerned about setting and enforcing limits for your children, we can help. For more information, contact The Children’s Center for Psychiatry Psychology and Related Services in Delray Beach, Florida or call us today at (561) 223-6568.