8 Steps for Effective Limits and Consequences

We know that effective limits and consequences are key to the development of respect, empathy, and self-discipline. That said, setting and enforcing them aren't always easy. Try these tips to get started:
  • Get real. Remind yourself that it is your child's job to push against the limits and your job to set them. Some children will push harder than others, but all kids will test limits. This is a normal part of development, not a personal attack on your parenting.
  • Set limits ahead of time. When possible, state your expectation clearly as well as the consequence for non-compliance. For example, "Make sure you are home before dinner or you won't be able to go to Kelly's house tomorrow." When you need to come up with a consequence on the fly, take a couple of deep breaths before you respond. You don't want to threaten your child with something you can't follow through on.
  • Be specific. For example, “I want you to take out the garbage. If it’s not out in ten minutes then you are choosing not to have your video game time tonight. It’s your choice.”
  • Follow through. If your child doesn’t take out the garbage then it is your job to enforce the consequence. That’s why you should choose a consequence you can live with.
  • Remind your child it is a choice. Make sure you are clear with your child that he is choosing with his behavior. “Since you didn’t take out the garbage you are choosing not to play video games tonight.”
  • Consistency is critical. Your child needs to experience the negative effects of a poor decision. If you waffle she will not learn this important lesson.
  • Don't nag. Remind your child of the rule or consequence but avoid overexplaining, nagging, or lecturing. Keep it simple, "If you choose to hit your sister than you are choosing to be all done with this game."
  • Avoid power struggles. Nobody wins in a power struggle. Here are more tips for avoiding power struggles with teens.
Have little kids? Here are some tips that might prevent the need to say No in the first place:
  • Plan ahead. Know your child's ups and downs and how she acts when she gets tired. Try to head off problems before they happen.
  • Schedule. A predictable schedule helps your child know what to expect. When children don't know what is happening next their anxiety can cause them to act out. This doesn't mean that you need to be a robot, but overall consistency is helpful.
  • Pay attention to transitions. Transitions can be hard for kids. Give your child a warning before an activity change or departure. Come up with a predictable and fun song for regular transitions like clean up time or hand washing before naps or meals.
  • Stay involved. Little ones need activities to keep them occupied. Having an activity to pull out when you are in a tight spot can help keep them safely occupied.
  • Create a "yes" environment. For example, rather than repeating "No!" every time your toddler climbs on to the coffee table, point her towards something more appropriate. Have climbers, couch cushions, or other objects that are safe for her to climb on.
  • "No" sweat. A toddler saying no is not a child being defiant. It is completely developmentally appropriate. Don't take it personally.