As a parent, setting boundaries with your children is an important part of their development and well-being. However, setting and enforcing boundaries can be a challenge. Children are naturally curious and adventurous, and they may test limits to explore their world. As a parent, it is your job to provide structure and guidance while allowing your child to grow and learn.
ACT Limit Setting
One effective way to set boundaries with your child is by using the ACT limit setting model. ACT stands for Acknowledge, Communicate, and Target Acceptable Behavior. This model emphasizes the importance of acknowledging your child’s feelings, communicating your expectations clearly, and taking appropriate action when boundaries are crossed.
The first step in the ACT model is to acknowledge your child’s feelings. This means validating their emotions and understanding why they may be pushing boundaries. For example, if your child is throwing a tantrum because they don’t want to leave the playground, you could acknowledge their frustration by saying, “I know you’re upset about leaving the playground. It’s hard to stop playing when you’re having fun.” By acknowledging their feelings, you show your child that you understand and empathize with them.
The second step is to communicate your expectations clearly. Using the word “but” or “however” is the perfect way to link the acknowledgement with the expectations. In the example of a child being upset about leaving the playground, we communicated that we understand the emotional expression the child is showing. We would continue the conversation by adding to “It’s hard to stop playing when you’re having fun” with “but we are all out of time for today and we need to leave.
The third and final step is to Target Acceptable Behaviors. This means working with the child to identify healthier alternatives to the behavior. In the example of playground time being over, the parent might say, “Would you like to skip to the car or have a piggyback ride?” This type of limit setting can help establish healthy boundaries and empower the child to feel like they have a choice in the situation, even though they are not too happy about the outcome.
This limit setting model is not always a one and done application. In our playground example, the child may continue to express their frustration with having to leave the playground even after we tried to give them a choice on how they want to leave. The parent can go back to the first step and acknowledge that frustration and reiterate the expectations and target behaviors again. This may look different for every child, and parents that use this model will find what works best for them. If the child continues to ignore the choices presented, parents must continue to be firm but respectful in providing what is called the “ultimate limit”. The ultimate limit communicates that the parent will make the choice if the child does not. In our example, the parent might say something like, “You can choose to leave the playground, or you are choosing (consequence) and I will be taking you to the car.” This communicates that the child still has the power to make the right decision and if they choose not to that your boundary will not change.
Consequences should be appropriate and consistent, and they should be enforced in a calm and respectful manner. Consequences should be relevant to the situation that created them. In our example, the consequence could be related to returning to the playground or playing at home. Parents could establish that the child must be in time out when they get home from the playground, or that the child will not be allowed to go back to the playground that week.
Being firm on boundaries is also essential when setting boundaries with your children. Children need to know that you mean what you say and that there are consequences for their actions. Research has shown that consistent limit-setting and consequences are associated with better behavioral outcomes in children (Gardner & Dishion, 2014). When you are consistent with your boundaries and consequences, you help your child develop a sense of trust and security, which is important for their overall well-being.
In addition to using the ACT model and being firm on boundaries, there are other things you can do as a parent to set boundaries effectively. One is to model positive behavior yourself. Children learn by watching their parents, so it’s important to demonstrate the behavior you want to see in your child. For example, if you want your child to be respectful and kind to others, model those behaviors yourself by treating others with respect and kindness.
Another important aspect of setting boundaries is to be clear and consistent with your expectations. Children thrive on routine and structure, so it’s important to establish clear boundaries and expectations from an early age. Consistency is also key – if you set a boundary one day and then allow your child to cross it the next day, they will become confused and unsure of what is expected of them.
Finally, it’s important to remember that setting boundaries is not about punishing your child or being authoritarian. It’s about providing structure, guidance, and love as your child learns and grows.
If you are looking for help with your child, please contact us and let us set up a time to talk.