6 effective + empathetic ways to set limits with your child

If your child doesn’t think you’re on his side, why should he do what you want?

6 effective + empathetic ways to set limits with your child

Parental limits are the boundaries where your child’s desires smash up against what you’re asking. Since your child thinks those desires will make him happy, he’s not going to give them up easily. That’s why he tests every limit, just to be sure.


But when humans come up against a limit that won’t budge, we do eventually give up—the human race is still here because we don’t keep on banging our heads against immovable walls. As we give up the fight, our body shifts from being governed by the sympathetic nervous system (action: fight or flight) to being governed by the parasympathetic nervous system (regroup and replenish).

A signal is sent to the lacrimal glands of the eyes, which is where tears come from. So when we give up, we cry. We grieve what we’re losing. Our tears offload stress chemicals, we feel better, and we can move on.

The developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld calls those the “tears of futility.” His term illustrates why your limits need to be clear and firm. If they aren’t, your child—particularly if she’s strong willed—won’t think the situation is futile at all. Maybe she can get you to reconsider? So, if you want your child to accept your limits, you have to believe in the limits you’re setting and communicate that resistance is futile!

But here’s the catch: Your child needs to know he’s tried everything. If he doesn’t feel you understand, he’ll escalate his anger to “make” you see his perspective (just in case you somehow missed how outrageously unfair it is that he’s not allowed to do whatever it is he wants to do). And, really, if your child doesn’t think you’re on his side, why should he do what you want?

That’s why empathy is an essential part of setting limits. It communicates that you understand your child’s perspective, and you are on your child’s side, but your limit is firm.

So your ability to match your child’s emotional tone is crucial. Mechanically parroting your child’s words will not help him feel understood. But, if you match his level of passion, he’ll know you really get it:

“You LOVE running, don’t you?! You can run all you want in the grass. Streets are not for running—streets are for cars. You may hold my hand while we cross the street or I can carry you. You can run by yourself again on the other side of the street,” for example.

Or: “Wow, Sara posted those photos from Saturday? That’s so exciting! And the rule in our house is still that homework comes first. You can go online once your homework is finished. I know, it’s hard to wait! But it’s always good to have something to look forward to, once you finish your homework. That’s a good self-management trick.”

To accommodate your limits, your child has to switch gears, giving up what he wants for something he wants more. Ultimately, what he wants more than anything is that warm relationship with you. But as you set limits, you can also offer your child something else he wants and needs, and this will make it easier for him to switch gears.

Here are some examples of what you can offer:

  • Autonomy: “You have a choice. You can take the medicine from the spoon, or we can put it in a smoothie to disguise the taste. You’re in charge of this decision.”
  • Partnership with you in solving problems: “You two are really loving this game! And we have a problem to solve. The baby’s asleep and voices this loud will wake her. What should we do?”
  • Mastery: “I love how you’re in charge of getting your water yourself. The way to keep our precious water from slipping away down the drain is to twist the handle very tightly when you turn the water off. Do you think you can show me how to do that?”
  • Contribution: “The baby is so much happier in his car seat when you make faces at him. See how much he loves that? Thank you so much for helping him feel better!”
  • Playful connection with you: (putting a sock on your ear and speaking in a funny voice), “Is this Ben’s foot? Where’s Ben’s foot? I’m his sock and I need his toes inside me, quickly!”
  • Fantasy fulfillment: “It sounds like you would love some ice cream, right this minute! What if we had a huge bowl of ice cream the size of this car? What kinds of ice cream would you put in your huge car bowl?”

These are all examples of meeting your child’s deeper needs for autonomy, play, contribution, and so on. Start with a clear limit, add your understanding, and then sweeten the deal for your child by meeting a deeper need.

Excerpted from The Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids Workbook.

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