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Setting Limits

Setting limits with our children can be one of those sensitive topics on which we have intense feelings about how to do it best for our child, while at the same time, we experience self-doubt and fear when our child resists or behaves inappropriately. We worry about whether he will be liked by others or have the skills he needs (social or otherwise) to manage in everyday life.  In this post, I’ll share my thoughts on what’s going on beneath the surface when we struggle with setting limits, as well as some strategies for how to gain some clarity and work with your child in a way that fosters connection.


My Story

I have struggled a LOT with setting limits with my son, and felt the worry that goes with watching his behavior and wondering if I could have or should do something different. I’ve also felt the shame that goes with feeling like a bad parent who has let her child down, and that his behavior is the evidence for the whole world to see. I have shared in previous posts that I grew up in a home with fairly strict rules and little regard for feelings. Because I realized as an adult that I was fairly disconnected from my feelings, and I believed that experience contributed to my disconnection, I have worked diligently to raise my son in a way that honors his feelings. However, my painful past experiences muddled my clarity.

Some examples of decisions that have been difficult for me are:

  • My son wants to watch more TV and have more computer time—which I limit quite significantly. My limit-setting in this area has caused great conflict in our relationship at times. I’ve read Hold on to Your Kids—I know I need to stay connected. So what happens when I try to set limits and my son completely pulls away from me, not just for an hour or two, but much longer, and it’s evident that I have no ability to influence him at all? How do I set limits and stay connected?
  • My son decided he wanted to take karate, so we enrolled him in a program. He has been taking it for a while and has loved it. When he doesn’t feel like going some days, and resists strongly, do I enforce it, and risk that it will jeopardize our connection, or that he will come to hate something that he might have otherwise loved because I’m being too rigid?
  • And, do I make him practice his karate or his violin? If he loves it, won’t he just naturally practice when he feels like it?

And there are many, many more examples.

These situations have been the subject of my personal search and writing for a couple of years now. Here’s some of what I’ve discovered.


Strict vs. Permissive—Two Sides of the Same Coin

When it comes to setting limits, parents often have one of two general tendencies. We either tend toward permissiveness, because we are worried that if we limit our child too much that we won’t be showing enough compassion or understanding of his perspective, or that we will constrain his ability to be who-he-really-is. Conversely, at the other end of the spectrum, we have a tendency toward being rule-oriented with a lot of external limits, and we worry that without these structures our children will become unruly, disorganized, with socially inappropriate behavior, or that they will be unsafe.

Both tendencies have value, but either one can also be detrimental if our perspective and actions arise from a fear. Let me explain.

The value of structure and rules is that they prevent chaos, and they allow us to get things done efficiently and effectively. Too much structure or too many rules can result in the child experiencing a lack of spaciousness or flexibility to learn and grow through experience, trial and error, or to be spontaneous, fun and creative. We may get a lot done, but we can possibly end up being disconnected (in varying degrees) from ourselves and our children.

The value of tending toward permissiveness and spaciousness is that it provides lots of opportunity for the child to grow and learn independently, and it can result in the child developing confidence to try new things independently, because they’ve had lots of opportunity to do that. However, too much spaciousness can also result in the child experiencing a feeling of inadequate guidance or neglect.

In both cases, children can experience feeling like they are not seen and heard for who they really are—in the first instance, the high focus on rules and structure results in the child trying to squeeze herself into an “acceptable space” and be approved of, and in the second case, the child may feel as if no one bothered to notice or took the time and energy to insist the child learn useful life skills.

Further, in both of these situations, we are reacting based on a fear (usually subconscious) from a past experience we have had. So when we limit-setting this through the lens of focusing on behavior, ‘permissive’ and ‘strict’ can be seen as opposites. However, when we view through the lens of focusing on spirit (or, our inner authentic essence), ‘permissive’ and ‘strict’ parenting can be seen as two sides of the same coin—they are both fear-based rather than love-based.

Just to clarify, recognizing that some of our strategies are fear-based doesn’t mean we don’t love our children. In fact, our underlying reason for doing this is typically to spare our children pain that we ourselves have experienced in the past (pain of disappointments, feeling unloved, etc). We love our children so much, and want them to have joyful lives.

If want to connect, build relationships and mentor our children, and we need to let go of fear. When we release our fears, we regain our clarity. We are then much more able to stand grounded, centered in our authentic selves, and set limits while at the same time holding a loving space for whatever response our child might have to the limits. We re-connect with our hearts and compassion.

Finding Balance

Here are some questions to help gain clarity:

1)         Ask yourself what you’re afraid of.

2)         Is there an experience you have had in the past that you are trying to prevent your child from having?

3)         Can you actually prevent that? Is your thought about what might happen to your child true? Do you have any beliefs that you took on in the past, that are no longer true?

4)         Recall your own past experience and your beliefs, use that to illuminate your fears, and make a conscious decision to release them. Then choose a thought that is more aligned with what you want to create.

When you are no longer acting from a place of fear, you will have more clarity and confidence in the limits you set, and your children will feel that confidence, and be more willing to follow your guidance, even if you’ve set limits they’re completely happy with.

Back to my story

When I asked myself what I was afraid of, one of the things that emerged was that I was afraid that if I was too harsh, we would become disconnected and not ever re-connect, kind of like my own childhood. I was very disconnected from my parents and it’s painful and lonely. I wanted something better for my son. I also felt powerless as a child, and I wanted to spare my son that painful feeling.

Releasing the fears brings you to a place of feeling your own compassion, for yourself and your children, and you find a stronger ability to connect with your children. I’ve personally experienced this over and over, and each time, we gain more openness and honesty in our relationship, and the bond grows stronger.


Has this been a challenge for you or someone you know?

I am offering lots more on this topic, as well as how to connect with your resistant child in my upcoming 1 day workshop which runs on January 25th and again on March 1st. It will have more details on:

  • How to find the middle place between permissive and strict, and what to base your strategies on,
  • How to set the foundation for your child to make good independent decisions,
  • Strategies for working compassionately with your child who is resisting—to get to WIN – WIN
  • Practical tools to take home and use.

Parents will leave this workshop with more confidence and clarity, and will spend less time in self-doubt, worrying about whether they’re doing the “right thing” or doing enough, or worrying about whether their child will be okay when he/she won’t follow their guidance.

For more details on the workshop, click here, or call me at 250-744-0207.

As always, I’d love to hear from you! What strategies have you found helpful for setting limits?

I welcome your stories, questions or comments below.