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Setting Limits within the Family Setting


When we, as parents, think of limit setting, we may fail to remember the obvious: setting and enforcing limits is the job of the parent. Testing and trying to stretch limits is the job of the child. This battle could easily be described as perpetual, if not, at times, exhausting. Through limit setting, however, parents can help ensure their child's safety, while helping them learn about appropriate personal and interpersonal boundaries, social norms, and morals. Stated simply, limits help teach a child right from wrong. When a child understands what limits and boundaries apply to his or her own world, he or she will feel more secure.

While rules may be different from family to family and from culture to culture, the goal of limit setting remains the same. It is ultimately up to the parent to set acceptable parameters for behavior. For example, in any given home it may be unacceptable for children to curse, to borrow thing without permission of the owner, or to watch T.V. before homework is completed. In addition, family responsibilities should be determined. A parent may determine that the child is responsible for feeding the dog, clearing the dishes after a meal, and putting away his or her own laundry.

There are important factors to keep in mind when setting limits with children. Ideally, limits should be:

• Reasonable. Telling your adolescent that he or she is grounded for one year for breaking curfew is unreasonable.

• Enforceable. If you tell your teenager that he or she may never borrow the car again due to a speeding ticket, then you may have to be prepared to drive that teenager to soccer games, parties, etc.

• Age appropriate. It is unlikely that a 3 year old would be able to refrain from calling out to a parent in the middle of the night when frightened.

• Consistent. If you establish a rule one time (e.g. talking disrespectfully to others will result in being grounded) then the same expectations/consequences should exist for all similar events.

• Clear. Be sure that your child has a full understanding of what the limits are. Asking the child to repeat back to you his or her understanding of the rule may help ensure that both parent and child are “on the same page.”

As the child ages, limits may change to address the development stage of the child. While a parent may have set limits with their 4 year–old that no longer are necessary with their 14 year old, other limits are likely to remain the same. The ability to adapt parental expectations to meet the ever–changing needs of both child and family is key to maintaining healthy functioning within the familial setting.