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Words to Use When Setting Limits



Quick Tips from the books "Raising Your Spirited Child", and "Kids, Parents and Power Struggles"

       Developed by: Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, Ed.D and Lynn Jessen, MA. 

If a behavior is unsafe, hurtful, or disrespectful to self, others, or the environment, it’s time to step in and set a limit. A limit tells the child what needs to happen. Why it needs to happen. When it needs to happen and what you will do if it does not happen. A limit can be used to either stop or start a behavior. 

Unfortunately, when you set a limit children never say, “Thank you mom/dad, that’s exactly what I needed.” Instead they may throw a screaming fit, leaving you to worry if you are being mean. When that occurs, take a deep breath. Remind yourself clear, consistent limits create a sense of security for children. When you reliably do what you said you would do children learn they can predict your response. This creates a sense of trust. Instead of being mean, it is comforting.  

Toddlers are in a stage of development when they are learning what the rules are. They do not know that you throw a ball, but not a truck! During this stage of development their brain is literally screaming, “Do it!  Try it! Find out what happens!”  That is why words alone will NEVER stop a toddler and why a toddler will say, “No, no, no!” And then do what you just told her not to do. When you need to halt your toddler’s behavior, do not try to do so from across the room. Instead, go to her, place a hand on her and help her stop. 


Formula: The key with effective limits is that your child knows ahead of time what decision he/she is making. 

  • Tell the child what needs to happen. 
  • Why it needs to happen. 
  • When it needs to happen. 
  • What you will do if it does not happen.

"It is time to go. You can choose to walk, or I will carry you. I’m going to count to three and you can decide." 

  • “One, you can decide to walk, or I will carry you.
  • “Two, you can decide to walk, or I will carry you. 
  • “Three, you did not choose to walk, so now you decided I will carry you to the car.”
  • This is when your child screams that she will do it, but there is no second chance. You MUST follow through and say to your child, “Now you decided I will carry you to the car because you did not do it before I got to three. Next time you can make a different choice.” Then do what you said you would do. 
  • A key phrase in this scenario is, ‘you decided.’ This let’s your child know that through his behavior he makes choices and he is responsible for those choices. 

“It is time for alone play. You need to pick something to do. I will set the timer for five minutes. If you do not decide, I am deciding you will play Legos. The choice is yours.” 

  • Your child says, “I do not want to play Legos.” You reply, “That’s fine, you don’t have to play Legos, just answer before the timer goes off.”
  • Before the timer goes off your child says, “I want to play horses.” You respond, “Great! Do you want to get them, or do you want me to get them for your?” 
  • Or, the child does not decide before the timer goes off. You say, “Since you did not answer, you decided to play Legos.” That’s when he throws a fit, and you say, “You need to take a break until you calm down, and then you need to play Legos before you do something else.” Once again, follow through by insisting that he spend some time playing with Legos before going on to something else. 

“You can choose to play together. If I hear loud voices, and you are not getting along, then Mason will need to go to his room to play Legos, and Angela will need to go to her room and read a book. You can decide what you do.”

  • “I heard loud voices, its’ time for both of you to go to your spaces.”
  • Then follow through. They cannot go on to do other things until they have played alone in their room. 
  • Initially, the children may decide when they are ready to stop playing alone, but if they come back before they are calm, send them back to their space. Say to them, “Your voice is still loud. Your body is still moving fast. You will need to go back to your space. I will set the timer. When time is up, you may come out if your body is moving slowly, and your voice is calm.”

“You can choose to ride quietly in the car to the beach. If I hear loud voices in the car, I will know you are deciding to go back home. The decision is yours.”  

  • “I hear loud voices. You decided. We are going back home.” 
  • Then turn around and go home. Yes, it will be disappointing to everyone, but if you do what you said you would do, without giving any second chances, you’ll only have to do this one or two times, before the fighting in the car will stop. 
  • This is not being mean. Your child knew ahead of time what the choice was and through his/her behavior decided. This is an essential life lesson. 

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