September 12, 2016

For most parents, limits are usually set with one of these three words:




No, you can not play outside.  Don’t run in the hallway. Stop hitting your sister.

You Can Set Limits Without Saying NO

Wait, what? You heard me. It is possible to raise healthy, respectful and law abiding children without telling them no (very often). Stick with me on this for a minute. I am not advocating for permissive parenting where children get everything they want at the moment that they want it. What I am talking about is an ILLUSION of getting everything that you want. Or at least having the ability to feel some sense of control in your life when you are a young person.

I know what you are thinking:

“But not everything is okay”

Some things will always be off limits

Right, some things are off-limits. Some things are just not okay. Like, you can NOT drink my “Mommy juice” (aka whiskey and soda). You just cannot. You can just use the F word. No way, Jose! But I am telling you that instead of saying, “No John, you can not have my juice” there is another way that will result in more connected and peaceful parenting in your home.

So, what do I say instead?

The method is use is called “ACT Limit Setting” and comes from well-respected child centered play therapy theories from Garry Landreth. There are 3 parts to this system (hence the acronym ACT).

A:  Acknowledge the Feeling

C: Communicate the Limit

T: Target the Alternative

So, in the case of my beloved Mommy Juice, the answer becomes,

“You are thirsty (the feeling), but my juice is not for you to drink (the limit), You CAN HAVE apple juice or chocolate milk (the alternative).”

Limit Setting Targets Appropriate Alternatives

You see how the word NO was never mentioned and yet an appropriate limit was set. AND the child still feels like they got what they wanted (which was something to drink).

All three steps are important but as parents, we usually start with the limit.   No, you cannot have my drink. You see how this sets up a power struggle and a disappointed child.

Automatically, the child is angry with you as the parent. YOU won’t give me what I need/want.   If you start with the feeling, you automatically connect with the need and soften the blow of the limit.

Ways to acknowledge feelings:

  • You are so disappointed!
  • I know that you were so excited about that.
  • Joe, you really wish you could have that.

Usually, the child will respond with a yes of some sort to verify that you got it right. They are probably now expecting that you are going to give them whatever they asked for.

Here comes the limit:

  • The couch is not for jumping on.
  • Your sister is not for hitting.
  • This movie is not for kids.

At this point, your child is bummed. They thought they were going to get a yes, and then were surprised by the no. This is not a cruel joke. By acknowledging the feeling/need, you established a connection.

You are able to set a neutral limit by saying, “this is not for that.” It reduces defensiveness and it easier to stomach that “you can not do that.”

Memorize your Alternatives in Advance

This is the hardest part until you get some practice. Target the alternatives. For every No, there is usually at least one yes. Try for two! Remember, you can drink chocolate milk or apple juice. Alternatives!

It might be you can hit a pillow or tell your sister you are mad at her. You can jump on the floor or sit on the couch. You can watch this movie or that movie instead.

When children are breaking rules, it can be difficult to come up with appropriate alternatives. But think ahead. Children are creatures of habit. They ask for the same types of things over and over again. They break the same rules all the time. So pick one and memorize the appropriate alternatives.

Limits Create Security

Over time, children start to memorize the options too and then you have to do less of this. It also grows with your child. It works for 2 year olds and it works for 16 year olds.

My little girl is so good at limit setting that she does it all the time.  The other day I overheard her tell her little brother (who was rolling a toy car on the wall)

“Wanna play cars? We can roll them on the ground.” 

It was the 2 year old version of ACT limit setting. And guess what, it worked!

This system works because children like to do what they CAN DO.  If they know that something is always allowed, they become more likely to just choose that thing in the first place.  This makes your job easier over time.  If they don’t comply? Read more about how to impose consequences without feeling like the bad guy.

About the Author

Jen Taylor, LCSW-C, RPT-S is an EMDR Approved Consultant and Certified Journal to the Self Instructor.  She is a therapist specializing in complex trauma, an international play therapy teacher and a published writer of multiple play therapy chapters.  Jen is the creator of the original 2017 Play Therapy Summit and many other innovative programs for mental health professionals.  Jen uses writing therapy, play therapy and expressive arts for her clients and for other mental health professionals so they can lead more joyful and meaningful lives.  Jen encourages people to try new things and create daily habits that allow for incremental progress towards previously unimaginable results.   Jen is a travel enthusiast, an avid reader, and a girl who lifts weights and runs for fun.  

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