Setting Limits With Difficult Kids: How To Get Them To Listen
All emotionally healthy kids test limits. It's a normal thing for kids to do as they develop-and in my opinion, it's actually a good thing for them to do. Problems often emerge when parents don't feel comfortable setting limits in the first place or when kids don't learn to negotiate for changes in those limits, and act out instead. And kids certainly develop different ways of testing limits that can be inappropriate and unacceptable.
I believe part of the job for parents is to train their kids how to accept limits. But I also think parents need to allow for their children to challenge and test limits in a healthy way. I think that kids should always test limits. Parents often ask me, "Will this ever stop?" And I say, "It shouldn't. But what should stop is any kind of manipulation or intimidation that your child is using."
Setting limits is a two-way street. In one way, the harder your child pushes, the more we should be asking, "Is he ready for more responsibility?" and "Am I, as a parent, ready for different limits?" Think of it this way: butterflies have to push their way out of the cocoon; the cocoon is the limit on the butterfly. In the same way, your limits are the cocoon on your child. He's going to get out someday and grow and move on. But it's good to make sure that he pushes a little and shows that he's really ready. And you can only tell if he's ready by how much he struggles or how much maturity he shows. The scary fact is that in order for kids to grow functionally and emotionally, adults have to take risks.
When your child starts to get into the teen years, he will often begin to rebel against limits more forcefully; getting kids to listen is hard because they don't think they need them. And parents often want their kids to understand their motivation. But I want to be clear here: parents cannot seek validation from their kids. Among other things, the risk of being disappointed is always there. Seek validation from other parents, or in what you read here. Seek validation by being able to change how you parent. But if you seek validation from your kids, it's a fruitless chase-and you're giving them too much power.
Being a limit setter is not always easy or fun. Some parents rely on it too much, and are overly rigid with rules. They over-utilize limits and don't develop the teaching and coaching roles of parenting. Instead of being a limit setter, they have taken on the "Punisher" role. And some parents don't use it enough; they just don't know how to draw that line effectively. I understand that; it's often something you have to feel your way through.
Certainly the "Limit Setter" is one of the roles of effective parenting-along with the Teacher Role and the Coaching Role-that is important to have in your tool kit. I believe these three roles integrated together can help almost anyone be an effective parent.
Often, your young child won't understand the consequences you give him when he crosses the line. In fact, whether your child is three or eighteen, limit setting is one of those things that he probably won't understand. Instead, he thinks, ?Why can't I do what I want? I could handle it if only they'd leave me alone. And if you try to get him to agree with your reasoning, you're often met with deaf ears. I think if you want your child to accept your limits, you're asking for too much. Most kids have a whole inner monologue going on in their heads that says, "I can do it"; it's no big deal; why won't she let me?? As a limit setter, your attitude has to be, "I'm your parent, and my job is to keep you safe and healthy. This is the way it is." Don't hesitate to set firm limits in the areas of health and safety.
Don't forget, adults are expected to set limits on themselves all the time. You're expected to set a limit on how you talk to others-you're not supposed to depend on somebody else to say, "Don't be rude." That process is called "internalization." When kids see their parents setting limits, eventually they absorb those limits and use them as their own. Let's say you tell your child, "Talk nicely to your sister," but he doesn't listen, so you set a limit. If necessary, you give him a consequence. When he finally starts to talk nicely to his sibling on his own, what has happened is that he's borrowed your limit; he's internalized it. In other words, it's inside of him now; he's taken in this lesson. So kids learn to internalize the limits that we teach them. And if you don't teach limits, what your child internalizes is chaos-and you'll see it in his behavior.
Will your child love you more if you set limits? Who knows? But the fact is that human beings want to love people who are loving to them. It's part of our nature. And so if you're reasonable, your child will love you. Again, if you set limits in a hateful way, if you're resentful and nasty and cranky all the time, he's not going to want to be around you.
I give parents a lot of guidelines around this because the bottom line is, if the look on your face is demeaning or harsh, then it won't teach your child a lesson-it will only hurt his feelings. Remember, kids? feelings get hurt like everybody else's. It's important that they perceive the person setting the limits as somebody who's being reasonable and calm. If you're screaming when you set a limit, you've waited too long.
Parents should set limits clearly and calmly. You can be as forceful as you want, but your tone and your face should not be mean or resentful. If you feel that way, which I understand is normal, go spend a few quiet minutes alone until you're ready to do speak calmly. And then go back and set the limit.
Over-explaining your rationale to your child is really not the way to go, because then you're training your child to be a lawyer. Just explain why and set the limit. You can say, "That's the way it is." Don't let the limits you've set turn into a power struggle, and don't allow your child to think that he can argue you out of what you've decided.
If it looks like your child is going to test a limit-or if he already has-sit down with him and talk about it. Say, "I'm wondering why you didn't come home on time. Your curfew is 10 p.m. and you violated it." If your child says, "Well, that's not fair;10 o'clock is too early," You can say, "Well, let's do this then. If you can come home on time every day for a month, then we'll talk. We'll sit down and I'll listen to what you think is fair; we'll work something out. But that's the only way to change the limits without consequences around here."
If your child wants to talk about the limits, then try to hear what he's saying. It might be, "Hey, I have to come home at 10 p.m., all my friends stay out till 12. I don't think it's fair, blah, blah, blah." Don't defend your position. Just say, "Well, I think 10 p.m. is safe. If you think you can stay safe, then let's try 10:30." Or say to your child, "How late do you think you should stay out?" And if it's 12, you can say, "That's great, 12 o'clock would be our goal, then. We're not going to start at 12, but I'm willing to start at 10:30. And let's try that for two weeks and see how you do." So incrementally, this gives your child a mechanism to test limits and change limits without being defiant.
Parents need to know that their child will love them even if they set limits-and perhaps even more so. If you're not waiting for your child to validate you, then it's okay if he gets angry and frustrated and doesn't like the limits you impose on him. Remember, the place to get validation and forgiveness is not from your child.
by James Lehman, MSW