Setting Limits

Limit setting involves parents clearly communicating what is right and wrong and consistently following this up. When children do something we want them to do this should be met by praise and encouragement. When children do something wrong or break the rules, they should be corrected in a gentle but firm way. Effective limit setting assumes that good communication characterized by positive involvement and encouragement is present.

The limits parents set for their children give clear signals for expected behavior and  help the child to learn rules. Toddlers, for example, do not have enough experience to understand why they receive a “no”. A child feels more secure when it experiences that its parents are united in a common attitude. A lack of, or unpredictable, limits can cause the child to feel anxious and insecure.

Parents need a plan for how to deal with unwanted behavior and violation of rules, and to adjust this plan to their child. Characteristics of good limit setting:

  • Intervene early. It is best to deal with unwanted behavior or rule violations at the earliest opportunity, and to correct these the same mild way each time. 
  • Be quick and clear. When the child shows unwanted behavior, or rule violations are discovered, the child needs to be corrected as soon as possible, and one should be clear about what is wrong without being moralizing. Remember that the child is in the process of learning.
  • Give predictable reactions.The child must know about the consequences of unwanted behavior in advance. Remember that small and mild consequences that occur each time are more effective than strict consequences.
  • Be calm and firm. If we deal with problematic behavior in a calm and consistent way, it is more likely that the child will display less unwanted behavior and more of what we want. The extent of the problematic behavior will be reduced, and a more helpful atmosphere will be induced.

First of all, in PMTO treatment parents learn different ways of interacting with their child through positive involvement, good directions, praise and encouragement. These parental skills must be thoroughly reviewed before the parents learn to use specific strategies for limit setting, adjusted specifically to their children.

It is recommended that children should be given five times as much praise and encouragement as correction, i.e. limit setting works best when parents already give plenty of praise and encouragement.


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