Sunday, April 21, 2013


Deborah J. McNally, Psy.D.

Parents  often feel reluctant, disinclined or even unwilling  to set limits for their children.  They feel guilty.  They don’t want to be too harsh.  Or sometimes they just don’t have time to establish and enforce a limit, and decide to just let it go or even give in to their child’s demands.  

Furthermore, limit setting is taxing on parents.  Sometimes it’s difficult to think about what an appropriate limit is.  Parents can feel they are being too harsh or, worse yet, hurting their child’s feelings or emotional development.    Parents may not know why  limits are important.  Understanding the importance and value of setting limits with their children, can help them feel confident in doing so.

 So why set limits?   Yes, limits control behavior in the here and now.  But what else do they accomplish?

First, let’s take a look at exactly what are limits.  
A limit establishes a behavior as unacceptable.  A limit could be a simple “No” when a child does something he should not like throwing a bottle of water on the carpet or reaching to touch a hot stove.    Sometimes “No” is not enough to curb the existent behavior or there is a continued pattern in which the child repeats the behavior.  For example, whenever the parent turns her back, the toddler tries to hit his baby sister.   This might require a different kind of limit, i.e., a consequence for hitting his baby sister.  A “Time Out” such as  sitting on the stairs for 2 minutes would be an appropriate consequence for a toddler in this circumstance.

 But what are these limits really accomplishing?   And why should a parent feel confident about setting appropriate limits with their child?

1.  A limit controls a child’s behavior in the here and now.  It stops him from touching a hot stove or throwing his food on the floor or hitting his sister.

2. Limits help to socialize a child.  Establishing limits is a form of teaching your child the proper behavior that will allow him/her to function well in society according to societal norms and expectations.

3.  Limits serve to habitualize the behavior.  It makes the desired behavior a habit and it minimizes or extinguishes the unwanted or inappropriate behavior.

4.  Limits helps develop self-regulation and  internalization.   The child begins to internalize these limits meaning he/she incorporates them as an attitude, value, norm or behavior into one’s own identity and sense of self.  The limits provide a necessary structure which then creates an internalized structure for the child by which he learns to control his own impulses and resulting behavior (soon the toddler no longer hits his baby sister).  This begins the development of self-regulation.   Self-regulation or self modulation is the skill of being able to control one’s behavior and one’s emotion. 

5.  Therefore, good limits are a building block of self esteem which is the individual’s own evaluation of his/her self-worth.   All children want to please their parents.   Pleasing their parents along with being able to exert control over themselves provide a sense of self-control, mastery and behaving in the way parents approve of.  It is an achievement of control over one’s behavior.   This all builds a child’s sense of self worth.   It creates a positive feeling in the youngest of children and as they develop it creates a more complex feeling of    “I can do this!  I can act in accordance with my parents wishes.  And I can exert control over myself”  Many of these behaviors become routinized  (internalized) for the child  and the sense of self worth grows accordingly.

Setting limits is an extremely important part of parenting.  It helps control behavior in the here and now as well as teach children self-regulation and appropriate ways to function successfully in the world as part of the development of a positive sense of themselves.