We need to set limit with our kids.

They can’t be allowed to hit their sibling, draw on the couch, eat unlimited lollies, or be on their screens all day.

Yet there is so much research that shows that parenting with kindness and connection is so important for our children’s lifelong emotional health and wellbeing. When we connect emotionally to our children, and respond to their feelings with empathy, children grow to be confident, resilient and empathic people.

Parenting with empathy and connection also makes parenting easier! Kids who feel seen, heard, validated and understood, feel settled and secure in themselves – which leads to more co-operation, and less acting out due to unmet needs or big feelings.

But it’s easy to confuse this kind, empathetic way of parenting, with being permissive and letting kids get away with things.

We do need to set appropriate limits on their behaviour. It’s not healthy for them to always get their way at the expense of other people’s needs. We do need to limit their screen time or the amount of lollies they eat. Kids do need to hear “no” sometimes.

But we don’t have to be mean to set a limit. 

We don’t have to say “no” in a harsh or unkind way, or even with frustration in our voice! We can set limits on behaviour while still responding to, and acknowledging, the feelings underneath their behaviour. It’s normal for kids to have the desire to eat all the lollies in the packet, and of course they just want to keep playing that computer game, its fun!

We can acknowledge those feelings and desires even as we say “no”.

Some examples:
“I know you’d love to have another cookie, they’re so yummy! But that’s all for now.”

“It’s time to turn the computer off now, I know you’d love to keep playing and it’s hard to stop huh. Do you need my help?”

“Wow you’re having so much fun on the swings! I bet you would love to stay at the park for ever and ever! We said 5 minutes and it’s time to go now” (taking the child’s hand and walking to the car.)

“You’d really love to buy that toy wouldn’t you, I can see how much you love it. We are not buying that today.”

Another great way to validate their feelings is to grant their wishes in fantasy. E.g., “You wish that you could go to bed whenever you want! I bet when you are a grown-up you will stay up all night long!”

Setting limits with empathy helps our child feel understood.

When we acknowledge their desires as normal, and we communicate that we understand how they feel, it can make it easier for them to accept the limit.

It’s ok if they are disappointed or even cry. Kids learn resilience through learning to handle frustration and disappointment, and when they can’t get what they want, our empathy helps them learn to handle their disappointment.

If they scream, cry or rage when we set a limit, then it’s possible that they have a backlog of feelings that they need to let out. We don’t have to change our limit. In fact it’s important that we hold firm and just listen to their feelings to help them release the backlog of stress and upset. (See earlier post on meltdowns.) Your warmth, empathy and caring presence, gives the child the safety they need to feel, express and let go of these feelings.

Three tips for setting limits

1. Attune/Acknowledge: See if you can attune to, or resonate with, the emotional experience inside your child before limiting their behavior.

2. Limit: Clearly state the limit. Step in to gently stop any unacceptable behaviour, e.g. put your hand on the toy she is about to throw. Be calm, gentle and firm.

3. Listen: After you have set the limit the child might begin to cry or tantrum. Stay close and empathise as she releases her backlog of feelings.

For example: “Wow! You’re so mad that she broke your tower! It’s not ok to hit your sister. Come and tell me how sad and mad you are.”

When setting limits you’re aiming for firm and kind. 

We don’t need to get angry. Their desires are normal. They are allowed to be upset when they don’t get what they want. If we get upset or angry then we are not able to help our child with their feelings.

It’s important to stick to your limit. Your child needs something firm to come up against in order to process their disappointment. If you change your mind when your child protests, then they will learn that you are not serious about your limit, and they will continue to push the boundaries.

When we set limits in this way, kids learn to manage their emotions and start to learn consideration for others. It also keeps our relationship with our child warm and loving, which is likely to result in more co-operation. They may not get what they want but they get something even better, our love and understanding.