Tips for Setting and Holding Limits with Kids

December 12, 2012 at 8:20 am (Positive Discipline)

I had a funny conversation with a friend the other day. She told me that she knows how to set limits for her kids, so why does she often feel frustrated with their behavior?  Why is she overwhelmed at the out-of-control vibe she gets from her kids most days? I said that many people do know how to set limits, but have more difficulty in holding them. I giggled as a scene from Seinfeld popped into my head…the rental car reservation.

Jerry: You know how to take the reservation; you just don’t know how to hold the reservation. And that’s really the most important part of the reservation, the holding. Anyone can just take them!

You know how to set the limit; you just don’t know how to hold the limit. And that’s really the most important part of the limit, the holding. Anyone can just set them! No soup for you! (More Seinfeld.) We laughed.

Of course, we know how to set limits with our kids. We see behavior that is unpleasant, unacceptable, causes us strife, or that we’re generally not OK with. We know what we could do without, and we’re quick to say no to it…to set a limit.

The hard part is holding that limit–to realize its importance and not let it go, either out of fear of being “the bad guy,” wanting to avoid the imminent meltdown, or just because you forgot you ever said it. Setting limits with kids is, indeed, important, but when it comes to their effectiveness, it’s the holding that is most important of all.

Tips for Setting Limits:

  • Pause to identify what the behavior is triggering inside of yourself. Why do you find yourself wanting to limit this behavior? Has it crossed a line? Are you just personally uncomfortable with it? Is anyone getting physically injured? Emotionally hurt? Creating irreversible property damage? Clarify for yourself what you are limiting.
  • Identify the child’s needs. Behavior is an expression of an underlying need, so what need is the child expressing through this behavior? Does the child need this limit? Could she need something else even more? How will this limit help her? (calm down, be safe, stay healthy, learn about rules…)
  • Identify your needs: do you need this limit? How will it help you? (calm down, stress less, keep the house tidy, worry less about injury, feel respected…). I’m not saying any of these considerations are right or wrong, it’s just helpful to be clear on where the need for the limit is coming from.

Early Aug 2007 015

Tips for Holding Limits

  • Allow for exmotional expression. When you set a limit kids don’t like, let them have their feelings about it. This might be the hardest part of holding a limit…the tears, the yells, the fits, the disruptiveness of it all, along with the pointed stares from others if you’re out in public. But the tears are important for a child’s ultimate acceptance of it and their ability to move on.
  • Re-evaluate the reason for the limit; be confident of its necessity. There may not be a simple reason behind any limit–I have been through enough situations to know that any other parent may disagree with me on a limit–but know that it’s right for you and your child in that moment. And guess what? If you’re not confident, it’s OK to change your mind. I’ve had experiences both ways; I have said, “You know what? I thought I was OK with this [behavior], but I realize I’m not. Will you please stop ___,” as well as I’ve said, “You know what? It’s OK. I know I said not to, but I actually don’t mind if you ___.” In doing this, I don’t feel like a jellyfish parent, or permissive, or wishy-washy, or any other adjective for a less-than-firm-parent. I feel like a human being. Attentive, considerate and flexible.
  • Think about how you can help your child be successful within the frame of your limit. “OK, you want to ____, and I’m not OK with that. That’s a limit for me. I can see you are really having a hard time with this. What can I do to help?” The limit is still there: you’re still not allowing ____ to occur. But you are willing to work with a child rather than standing rigidly against him to prove your authority.


Tips for Finding a Balance:

  • Realize the level of importance. On a scale of 1 to 10, how importatant is this particular issue? Is it important to stand unyielding on a 2 just for the sake of consistency and authority? Is this a hard limit for you at an 8 or 9? Why? Know what’s important. What do you value? What do you want to teach your kids?
  • Decide how the child can be involved in setting limits. What input do they have to contribute? Can a compromise  be determined cooperatively? It may be possible to turn (what may seem to a child) an arbitrary limit into a teachable and connective moment.

A common question about consistency always comes up regarding limits: Isn’t consistency important? When I set a limit, isn’t it important to follow through on what I’ve said? Yes, consistency in parenting is important–consistent communication, consistent respect, consistent relationships. Many parents think they are “giving in” or “caving” to their child when they change their mind about a limit they’ve set. I say, it’s OK to re-evaulate a limit and work with a child to change the outcome. Here’s where you’re being consistent: you’re consistently ensuring a child’s safety, growth and development, consistently responding to his needs, consistently allowing and accepting his emotions. That’s the consistency that matters.

And because I like to use examples when I can, here’s how a setting, resetting, and holding of a limit looks in my house:


Me: Please don’t tear up that styrofoam. It’s making a mess all over the floor.
JJ: Aw, but it’s so fun!
Me: There are pieces everywhere.
JJ: I’m trying to tear it all up and then use the pieces to make something.
Me: Here’s my concern–little pieces are everywhere, and it’s going to take work to clean it up. Me. My work.
JJ: [looking around at where the pieces have gone]
Me: I don’t want to do that. And I also don’t want them just left on the floor and walked on.
JJ: How about I finish making my thing and then I’ll clean them up?
Me: How will you do that?
JJ: With the vacuum.
Me: I guess I don’t mind you ripping that up if you will then clean it up–all up–when you are done. I just cleaned and I need a break from it now.
JJ: I will! Will you get the vacuum out for me?
Me: Of course.


So the original limit, don’t tear up the styrofoam, was modified to tear it up and clean it up. I had a need for cleanliness, relaxation and to be done with cleaning, but JJ also had his needs–for play, tactile exploration, experimentation, construction, discovery–all of which are important to his growth and development. Both of our needs were valid. I could have insisted on the original limit and taken the styrofoam away, but that would have been ignoring his needs and creating animosity between us because of the lack of communication.

Here’s another one, which prefaces with JJ having a huge fit about not being first in the bathroom to brush his teeth at bedtime:

Me: I am ready to tuck everyone in for bedtime. I will do everyone who is ready and then I will go downstairs. [I spend 20 minutes in Elia’s room tucking her in because she is ready. After which, JJ is still crying in his room about not being first in the bathroom.]
Me: I’ll be downstairs getting some work done.
JJ: [25 minutes later] I’m ready for you to tuck me in now.
Me: Oh, I’m downstairs. You can come down and give me a hug and a kiss, and I’ll say good-night down here.
JJ: But I want you to come up!
Me: I was up there a while ago and was waiting for you to use the bathroom so I could tuck you in. Now I’m down here. I’m happy to say good-night to you and give you hugs but you’ll have to come downstairs.
JJ: FINE [comes downstairs to say good night.]
Me: Good night, babe. I love you, sleep well.
JJ: But I like it better when you tuck me in upstairs.
Me: I know. You weren’t ready when I was, though.
JJ: [Stomps back upstairs, angry that I didn’t come up to tuck him in.]

That’s OK. He can be angry. It was really important to me to get downstairs and do some work. (But I must say that it’s also OK if your reason for not wanting to drag out bedtime is simply because you don’t want to drag out bedtime!) This, along with the fact that I know my son and know how bedtime would go if I didn’t hold this limit, was important.

And guess who has gotten into the bathroom in a timely manner at bedtime ever since?

Set and held.


  1. LP said,

    Fantastic examples! Thank you so much.

  2. Gina Osher said,

    I love this Kelly! I always try to ask myself if I am willing to “hold the no” because when I say no to something & am wishy-washy, all hell breaks loose. 🙂 I love the Seinfeld reminder. So funny! Thank you, as always, for breaking it down. It really helps to see examples of how it works in real life. I am getting better at this process.

    For us (because we are trying to teach my often rigid daughter to be more flexible) it also helps when I sense that I am not going to be able to be firm in my “no”, to acknowledge her request/demand and say “well, I can be flexible about this” and continue to discuss how we can make it worth for both of us. In that way I’m modeling what I’d like to see from her as well.

    Love this post…sharing now! 🙂
    – Gina

    • Kelly said,

      Thank so much, Gina! Love your example about providing an example of being flexible!

  3. Selmada said,

    I’ve been there. In your first example, with the foam (almost the exact same situation). However, after promising to clean the mess, once done playing and shredding the foam, my child walked away and did not follow through on the cleaning. How would you handle that part?

  4. Gleamer said,

    Many times I find that limit setting is done without room for empathy, love, and healing. The limit is about the bigger older person being in control. Kids are also setting limits. For example your son might have been trying to let you know that he had reached the limit of his ability to cope with being disconnected with you or with his big feelings. Yes. Mission accomplished. He’s in the bathroom in a timely manner. Check. At what expense. What has he learned? Do things on Mom’s time table or feel horrible? If I was small I would bury any needs and do what Mom needed to earn her love.

  5. KIrsty said,

    Thanks for this post! My husband and I really struggle with setting limits. We’re really tough on some rules, and totally permissive on others. I wish we could find a healthy, respectful positive balance. This post is a good reminder going into the new year.

  6. 30 Blogs with Tips for Getting Good Behavior from Kids | Babysitters said,

    […] Tips for Setting and Holding Limits with Kids […]

  7. Sara said,

    This is so incredibly helpful. Thank you.

  8. Setting Limits That No One Can Refuse « Abundant Life Children said,

    […] Kelly Bartlett of Parenting from Scratch gives very practical suggestions for limit setting: “Tips for Holding and Setting Limits with Kids“ […]

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