Here is a secret. Kids love limits and boundaries. You would never know it from their behavior, and their reactions to limits. It is in their developmental DNA to push against boundaries and rules and limits, and in doing so it is how they come to understand themselves and the world around them better, and how they grow emotionally. While they will rebel against most of the limits you set, limits actually provide a safety net for them to explore their environment. They know how far they can go, and know if they cross those lines, they will be taken care of. Those who grow up with little or no limits, experience fear and uncertainty, which leads to anxiety and the need to predict the future and plan for all possible outcomes. Growing up with inadequate limits develops distrust in one’s ability to live in the present and develop good coping skills.
Limits by themselves are not enough. Parents need to develop limits, consequences, and follow-through. All three aspects need to be present. Limits without consequences or follow-through are the proverbial “bark without bite." Limits need to be set clearly and objectively, and understood by the child. As much as possible, they should be set out in advance of behaviors, and not reactive to issues and events which come up. Naturally, all behavior is not always predictable. We will use an ongoing example for demonstration. A curfew limit could be “you need to be home by 10 PM." The child needs to understand it is not 10:05 or 10:10, but 10. Consequences should be explained in advance, and not as a reaction to an event. I believe it is important for consequences to be related to the offense, and not random. If curfew is the issue, the consequences need to be related to privileges for staying out, and not unrelated issues. It is very important to not have consequences of removing things which are positive for the child’s development.
In our curfew example, the consequence could be something like “if you come home after 10, you won’t be able to go out next weekend." The consequences should be meaningful enough to change behavior, and should BE DISCUSSED IN ADVANCE. Children will learn they have choices, which have consequences and have a right to make those choices. This approach enables parents to diffuse their anger over broken limits. Imagine, instead of getting angry at your child for coming home late, you said “I respect your right to have an extra 10 minutes out today, knowing that as a result you will not be going out next weekend."
The final piece, and most critical piece, is follow through. You must think clearly about the consequences you set, and be certain you are able/willing to act on them. If you do not, if you soften, then your child will learn to not trust your words, and internally ignore your limits. We have all seen rambunctious 2 year olds in shopping carts in the grocery store throwing items. The parent screams “if you don’t stop, I’m never taking you shopping again." Even at 2, the child smirks internally, knows this is not true, and their willingness to listen is eroded slightly. Before you set consequences, make sure it is something you will see through.
This process – LIMITS/CONSEQUENCES/FOLLOW-THROUGH is essential in raising children who will feel secure and safe in a stressful world.
Next week, I will discuss Delayed Gratification.
Remember, if you have issues you would like to see addressed, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Moe Gelbart, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Thelma McMillen Center