Written by Amy Brinn, LICSW
Senior Trainer and Facilitator, Parenting Journey
In part one of this article, the ideas of discipline as teaching, and limit setting with age appropriate consequences are presented as an important part of parenting. How that looks in each individual family will vary according to each family’s culture, temperaments, teaching styles, etc. So there is no one way to set limits. On the other hand, where do we start and how do we learn what works for our own parenting/caregiving situation? Here are some helpful ideas parents can use to inform their own style of parenting.
Establishing firm, caring, and effective limits
- Children need to know the rules. We often assume that children know what we know about acceptable behavior, but they don’t. It is all a learning process. It is important to always clearly state the rules and explain them in detail so the child knows what is being asked of them. When they are one and try to touch an outlet we say “No,” firmly pick them up and move them away. As they get older we can lengthen the explanation but it is always best to be brief and concise. Children don’t listen to long lectures.
- Learn about child development. Many of us don’t have a lot of contact with children before we become parents, and don’t have an idea of what we can reasonably expect from a child who is two, three, seven, etc. This causes frustration for parents/caregivers and children that can lead to tantrums and unhappiness all around! There is a wealth of great information on the Internet and in the library about child development at all ages and stages. It can also be really helpful to ask your pediatrician about this.
- Parents need to set firm limits. When a child misbehaves (tests the limits) parents can:
- Keep the focus on the behavior. For example, say “I can’t allow you to hit your brother,” as opposed to “you are so out of control.” It is important that the guidance be specific to the behaviors that are unacceptable, and the explanation be brief and to the point.
- If the child doesn’t know what was expected of them, explain it clearly. For example, if you asked them to clear the table and they do a poor job, explain and show them what you expect.
- Try to keep your voice calm. (This can be really hard, and we will talk about strategies for staying calm in the moment in a future article!) If you yell, you have lost control – they will sense that and the situation will escalate. There are techniques you can learn to give yourself some time before responding, or take some time to cool down to avoid yelling.
- As needed, clearly state the consequences for the child’s behavior. For example, “yesterday I showed you what I expect you to do when you clear the table. You can do that now, or _____________(consequence).”
- Always follow through on the consequences; children are like detectives searching for clues about whether you will really expect them to do what you ask. If you don’t enforce your expectations, they get mixed messages, which they find very confusing. It is always important to give consequences that match the misbehavior, and ones you can enforce without being harsh for them or a burden for you.
- Give children encouraging messages along the way. Encouraging messages inspire cooperation.
- When we criticize a child’s character instead of addressing the specific behavior, we send a discouraging message that can cause shame.
- We are not trying to teach a child that they are bad, rather, that the behaviors are inappropriate, unsafe, and unacceptable.
- We need to make sure we are praising specific behaviors that children are doing well and emphasizing successes.
- It is important to “choose our power struggles” instead of reacting to every small misbehavior.
- Set and enforce consequences.
- Consequences can stop misbehavior. They provide clear and definitive answers about who is in charge, and they teach responsibility by holding children accountable for their choices and behaviors.
- Consequences need to be immediate, consistent, related to the unacceptable behavior, and age appropriate.
- It is really helpful to identify what is important to your child, so the consequence will have meaning to them. Sometimes rather than a negative consequence, we can offer a positive reward for behavior that is well done. (This is different than a bribe!) For example, “if you do your morning chores each day, you will earn a star. When you have five stars, we will go on a special outing.”
- If possible, think about consequences in advance and/or take a break before defining them so you are not making the decision when you are feeling angry or upset.
- After a consequence, the child should be allowed a clean slate.
- It is important to note that some children have behavioral problems and in that case parents need more help in limit setting. Parents/caregivers can talk to their pediatrician, school, and/or counselors, for this help. These basic strategies may not work in those cases.