Helpless and Needing Parenting Guidance? Learn How Limit Setting With Your Child Can Encourage Social-Emotional Growth
Parenting during a pandemic is not easy! In fact, it’s incredibly hard. We have been pushed beyond our limits and have had constant pressure to keep our children and ourselves healthy, to assist in their developmental growth in a time of quarantines and social distancing, to simultaneously play the role of parent and teacher, and to somehow manage them at home and try to work at the same time. Why does this feel hard? Because it is hard. We feel helpless, ineffective, and are struggling. And while we try to manage all of these difficult feelings, we often feel like we’re failing. If you feel this way, you are not alone!
So many families are experiencing these feelings and parents are looking for tools to help them manage emotions and behaviors they’re seeing at home. As parents, we are our children’s guides, and we can help them learn self-control, responsibility, and teach them the ability to make good choices. Dr. Garry Landreth, founder of the Center for Play Therapy at the University of North Texas created the A.C.T. method for setting limits. I have used this method both in therapeutic practice for years and helped parents apply this method at home. This method takes practice, but can greatly assist in a child’s (and parent’s!) growth. If you’re experiencing a need for setting limits with your child, this could be a helpful tool for you to try.
A.C.T. Method of Limit Setting
Children are more likely to comply with limits when they experience respect for themselves and acceptance for their feelings and behaviors….both positive and negative. The A.C.T. method for limit setting can help facilitate this.
Rationale for Limit Setting
So often we feel like a bad parent or that we’re doing things wrong. We often fall into the trap of thinking that our child’s behaviors are a direct reflection of us as a parent. This is very often not true but feels true deep down. As we develop as children, our job is to try things, to test boundaries, to explore with curiosity, to see how things work. We also test what we need to do to get attention or figure out what we need to do to get comfort. As a parent, our job is to help our children navigate boundaries. Setting limits and having children go hand in hand. Limits teach us how to be safe, and promote respect for both physical and relationship boundaries.
However, limits are not needed UNTIL THEY ARE NEEDED. Don’t set unnecessary limits. Limits should be both minimal and enforceable. Unenforceable limits do harm to the relationship by interfering with trust.
A.C.T. limit setting can help you guide your child toward their development of self-control, to build emotional regulation skills, and to help them to navigate how to make good decisions.
Limits are based on clear and definable criteria supported by a clearly thought-out rationale. All feelings, desires, wishes of a child are accepted, but not all behaviors are accepted.
When to Set Limits
- Limits provide physical and emotional security and safety for children. Limits should convey respect and care for the child. They provide structure to the environment so the child can feel safe.
- Limits protect the physical well-being of the adult and facilitate acceptance of the child. Limits are set on children’s behaviors that hinder adults’ safety.
- Limits facilitate development of decision-making, self-control, and self-responsibility of children. The child’s need is acknowledged and accepted, the decision is the child’s and the child becomes empowered by making a responsible decision.
- Limits promote consistency at school/home.
- Limits promote boundaries in relationships with adults
- Limits protect home/ classroom space/school.
How to Set Limits
- Check-in with yourself. Are you in an emotional space where you can set limits, or are you yourself dysregulated and need to reset before you begin setting limits with your child?
- Are you setting limits for the right reasons? If you are in the mental space where your answer to a child’s “why” is “because I said so!”, you are not in the right space to set limits effectively. Try taking a break to clear your head and then return to the situation. Use your own coping skills! And you can model this for your child by saying “I am having a hard time managing my strong feelings right now. I’m going to work on calming down for a minute so I can make sure I can help you.”
“Because I said so” disempowers the child and puts you in a position of you against the child. Helping the child make a healthy/safe/good decision is your goal. You are your child’s guide.
3. The biggest rule with limit setting- DO NOT ENTER LIMIT SETTING TERRITORY UNNECESSARILY. Once you enter into limit setting, you MUST follow through. There are times when we enter unnecessary power struggles, which makes limit setting challenging and ineffective.
Use the ACT Method for Limit Setting
A: Acknowledge the child’s feelings or intent. This communicates to the child that his or her feelings are understood and that they are important, and tells the child that you aren’t setting limits just to be mean. Begin by using: “I know that you” then insert “feel” or “want” and reflect the child’s feeling or intent.
Example: “I know that you want to sit on the table….”
C: Communicate the Limit: Determine the limit, and make a statement of fact. Do NOT pose this as a question. Your voice should be serious, but NOT yelling or scolding. You can be non-judgmental by simply stating the limit as a fact.
Example: “I know you want to sit on the table, but the table is not for sitting on.”
T: Target 2 Alternatives: The two alternatives must meet the needs of the child’s feelings and the limit. The child must be able to express feelings without breaking the set limit. Alternatives must directly meet the needs of the child (i.e. if the child wants to paint, then the alternatives should involve painting).
Example: “I know you want to sit on the table, but the table is not for sitting on. You can either choose to sit in your chair or choose to sit on the floor.”
Help! ACT is not working!
Did you complete all of the steps? Make sure you do before you read on.
Set the limit 3 times. If the child ignores the choice 3xs, it’s time for…..ULTIMATE LIMIT SETTING!
“It seems like you’re having a hard time making a choice. If you choose not to choose, then you choose for me to choose for you.”
The use of the word “choice” is ESSENTIAL throughout the ACT process. By using “choice,” you are allowing the child to make a decision and to then take responsibility for that decision. This means that you do not have to feel like the bad guy! And it gives the child a pathway for empowerment in the future. By you giving the child choices, the child determines which choice they feel will meet their needs the most. If they fail to do that, the concept of accountability is learned! Tears are likely to come during Ultimate Limit Setting. You can reconnect with your child during this time by saying “I’m sorry that you made that choice. It seems like you’re having a hard time now. I’m here to help you with these hard feelings. But next time, I know you will know how to make a great choice.”
If you’re interested in trying A.C.T. at home, first start by trying out your new skills when pressures are off and you’re not in the middle of a behavior with your child. Start with something where pressures are off and your child isn’t already engaged in a behavior. Try something like this:
You notice your child is consistently leaving their backpack/ shoes/etc on the floor and you’d like to see them put their belongings in a place that works for you.
“I know you want to leave your backpack on the floor, but your backpack is not for leaving on the floor. You can choose to hang your backpack on the hook by yourself, or you can choose for me to help you hang your backpack on the hook. What would you like to choose?”
You can think about the different scenarios that arise in your day-to-day with your child and spend a little time writing out the A.C.T. method before trying it out. Give yourself practice and patience. You’re learning a new skill and it will take time before you feel comfortable using it.
We see you working hard to increase your effectiveness as a parent and to strengthen your relationship with your child. Practice makes progress and if you get stuck, you can always reach out to us for help!
Want to learn more parenting and emotional regulation strategies to help you navigate challenges with your children and facilitate their and your own growth? We want to help you become a better version of yourself.
-Kate Singer, LMFT 105837/LPCC 4605
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