Parents You Have Lost Control: Part 3

December 7, 2020

Parents You have Lost Control: Part 3

Every family needs an established set of limits. Predictable limits help children feel protected and challenged. They are designed to ensure safety and to allow for exploration. Consistent limit-setting may be the most difficult part of a parent’s job.


Limits are loving and compassionate when set by parents. Although it can be difficult, and some children may claim that their parents hate them when they set them, limits provide structure, support, and guidance that a child needs to feel safe.When set in a calm and empathetic manner, limits provide the basis for a child’s future identity development.


Limits are instructive, and parents are not. It is tempting for parents to “preach” when setting limits, so as to be sure that the child understands the lesson. However, the real teacher is the limit. Children learn best through experience, and a consistently set limit will teach a lesson even if a child has tuned out the voice of a parent.

Meaningful and Manageable

Limits serve a purpose and are simple enough that parents can follow through on them with moderate effort. First, the set limit should be directly related to the offense. For example: if homework goes unfinished, then Billy will not be able to watch TV tonight. The limit should cause some level of anxiety for the child. Sending them to their room with TV, video games, and internet probably will not cause anxiety. Additionally, the limit should not overwhelm parents. For example, grounding a busy teen from the car for a year will cause too much disruption to the family routine, and parents will not likely be able to enforce the grounding.


An important limit for one child may not be important for another. Every child is different, and parents should adjust their parenting approach based on the needs of the child. Age is an important factor as well. A teenager can handle more freedom to choose than an eight year old. As a child matures and grows, they should be able to earn more freedoms.


Limits should be set in appropriate time. For a young child, the enforcement of the limit must be very close in time with the offense. For a teen, however, delaying the limit so that mom and dad can discuss it together can actually raise the level of anxiety and increase the effectiveness of the limit.


Limits must be emotionally safe. A parent must be in control of their emotions while setting a limit. A parent that is visibly angry and upset while setting a limit cannot think clearly enough to set appropriate limits. This parent is also in danger of producing fear in the child rather than anxiety. Fear produces external motivation, which is not the goal of limit-setting. What we desire to produce is internal motivation, which is produced by anxiety

One of the hardest parts about learning of setting limits is deciding what level of freedom, both emotional and physical, is appropriate for your child. Obviously a toddler has narrower limits than a teenager who has begun to demonstrate personal responsibility. The most important piece of setting limits is allowing enough freedom of exploration and experimentation so as to provide the child with the feeling of competence, power, confidence, and excitement. But, you do not want to allow so much freedom that the child does not learn to respect the rules of nature and authority. The optimum level of freedom provides enough challenge for the child to master increasingly difficult skills and enough limits for the child to be safe and respectful. In this next exercise, I challenge parents to sit down with one another and access what LIMITS will be for their house in the current stage. It is recommended that families re-evaluate household LIMITS for each developmental stage (infant, toddler, preschooler, elementary, Jr. High, High school).

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