Effective Limit Setting: Ideas For Parents

Limit-setting is the process parents use to teach their children the rules of the family and the world – what is expected of them, how far they can go, and what happens if they go too far. In the short term, limits stop unwanted behaviors, ease daily transitions, and provide safe boundaries. In the long term, limits help children become responsible people willing to accept the consequences of their actions. Reasonable limits provide a secure structure within which children can make choices and act with freedom. Unreasonable limits over-regulate the child or are so broad as to be meaningless.


Do not make everything into a battle; set as few limits as is reasonably possible and practical. Base the limits on the best interests of the child or the needs of the situation, not on your personal whim.  When setting a limit, consider what the child is capable of and whether or not your expectations are realistic. Except in emergency situations, think the limit through before you introduce it to the child. Do not set limits that you are unlikely or unable to uphold. Decide ahead of time on what the reasonable and related consequences will be if/when the limit is crossed. Plan for potential problems; most children test limits, at least some of the time.


When you inform your child of the limit, use clear and simple language, stating what you expect of the child and what you, as the parent, are willing or not willing to do. Explain what the consequences will be, including how long they will last and/or big they will be.


When the child crosses a limit, it is best to avoid either lecturing or asking for a child’s OK. Begin by stating the limit in short, clear language. Don’t negotiate, argue or plead. It doesn’t usually help to tell the child you are doing this because you love them; you can demonstrate both your love and serious intent by being friendly but firm. When you apply a consequence, act without saying anything more, just follow through on what you have told them will happen.

Limits should be consistently applied so that the child knows what to expect and the rules will have meaning.  Inconsistency in the pell-mell of family life is inevitable; be understanding of yourself if you are not fully consistent, but remember that children benefit from clarity.

Except in cases of emergency, it is usually OK to take a moment to figure out what is going on and what you are going to do, or to “think and act”.  This thoughtful deliberation is also a good model for your child.


Acknowledge your child’s efforts as well as their successes in following limits. Compliment them on what they did rather than on how you felt about it.


Effective limits evolve as children grow. Toddlers need many limits, college students home for the summer need few.   Here are examples of effective limit-setting at various ages and stages:

BABIES: Primarily use actions. Remove the baby or the object. Distract the infant. Modify the environment so that the baby’s world supports the limits.

TODDLERS: Use firm, short sentences accompanied by nonverbal signals. Fantasy and humor can also be helpful tools. Make sure that your child is capable of complying with the limits; you may have to train them in skills or behaviors first.

SCHOOL AGE CHILDREN: Begin with a verbal explanation of rules, expectations and consequences. Work out agreements in advance as much as possible. As the child matures he can have increasing input into the agreement.

TEENS: Limits with teens work best if they operate in an atmosphere of respect, are consistent with family values, have some form of accountability, and are reasonable, clear and consistent.  Limits that are too punitive or controlling can lead to adolescent rebellion. Limits that are too soft and yielding can lead to increased risk-taking as the teen seeks to determine where the limits are.

Effective limit-setting that informs, guides, educates, and adapts to children’s growth can contribute to a more orderly household, a more harmonious family atmosphere, and an increased ability for children to make positive choices as they grow and develop.

Scroll to Top