The Long Ridge School

Setting Limits: Benefits for Kids; Challenges for Parents

By Marietta Morelli


LRS parents recently participated in a thoughtful discussion with psychologist Dr. Larry Rosenberg. The topic was selected from questions about setting limits.

Dr. Rosenberg began by acknowledging that parenting is the hardest job in the world, and that setting limits, at times can be challenging.

With that he asked the parents present to offer reasons why it’s important that we set limits for our children?

The group’s responses were summarized  as follows: Parents set limits in order to assure safety, to assist the child in adjusting to both the present and future realities of life, to establish an appropriate relationship to authority, and to help with self-regulation and impulse control.

It was noted that this is an important goal as long as we keep in mind that some children respond very well to a collaborative structuring of their daily schedule while others need firm direction. Limits must be developmentally appropriate to the age of the child and limits of one sort or another will need be set by parents until children are ready to take full responsibility for themselves.

Dr. Rosenberg stated that there is no one size fits all regarding what and how limits be set. Parents and children can all be different and because of this require different approaches. And parents have different levels of comfort with how limits should be set. These differences may relate to where they come from and what their own childhood experiences have been.

The matter of cultural differences was raised by someone in the group, and Dr. Rosenberg responded that while it is true that in recent times, child rearing practices and cultures are beginning to merge, culture remains a significant influence. He added that when considering culture, socio-economic status is also part of that picture.

Dr. Rosenberg asserts that setting limits is influenced by many variables. The age of the child, whether there are older or younger siblings, and the impact on the parent of family events such as the birth of a sibling. Parents need to recognize situational idiosyncrasies, and how they have affected their child and themselves.

One of the parents present commented that saying “no” to our children can be difficult. Dr. Rosenberg pointed out that we actually say no to our kids in one form or another a good deal of the time. For example, structuring a child’s time, such as screen time, is a way of saying “no”. We are, in that case, telling them what they can and can’t do.  We are offering a choice as well as our authority. By doing so, we are teaching children how to control their impulses and emotions as they learn to regulate themselves.

Dr. Rosenberg further noted that the ability to delay gratification is learned early in life and requires trust in a relationship. Trust gives a child the capacity to wait, believing that they will eventually receive what they need.  Think of a crying infant who waits for a bottle. When the bottle arrives a few minutes later, the infant begins to learn that the period of waiting results in the easing of hunger. If a parent always responds instantly- the capacity to wait and delay gratification doesn’t properly develop. Though recognizing the difficulty in listening to a baby’s cry, mothers and fathers learn to discern their infant’s cries. They learn to recognize hunger from danger, or pain. This is evident when parents let children cry themselves to sleep as a method of sleep training.

Dr. Rosenberg asked the group what is required of the child to adhere to limits. He suggested that the child must be able to recognize the parent as a separate person.

An infant has only crying available as the infant is without words.  And that infant doesn’t have the capacity to communicate their desires or concerns in any other way. Nor does an infant have the capacity to recognize the needs of the other person or their effect on that person. But as development proceeds, we come to expect children to learn that there exists another person with their own needs and set of emotions.

This stimulated comments from parents regarding a child’s sense of entitlement and narcissistic perspective? Counter to this would be a child’s developing capacity to step back and think about what this might be like for the other person.  The goal is to eventually develop a sense of mutuality, and reciprocity, where the child is mindful about you, where there’s some sense of being in a collaborative relationship; something that moves in both directions. This will also be a reflection of how the child experiences themselves as being treated. When a child is autistic, the capacity for reciprocity is relatively absent. In the metaphor of rolling a ball, there is a demonstration of a non-verbal reciprocity. The same thing is experienced in banter with another person; a rhythm is created. It’s that kind of feeling within the relationship that a parent hopes to attain with their child.

Setting limits helps children learn how to think about others. Dr. Rosenberg talked a bit about moral development. He explained that a two-year-old for example, learns not to grab things away from others, not because it is wrong but because he has learned that the other will become angry, because her mommy will be mad. As development proceeds, children move from a position of not doing something because of the wish to please a parent, or not get into trouble to coming to the point of evidencing behaviors that are grounded in moral and ethical principles.

Dr. Rosenberg also pointed out that setting limits that are too severe can have negative consequences.

In response to discussion about differences between children, Dr. Rosenberg defined personality in this way: personality is the typical way one responds to circumstances and, in the broadest sense, is influenced by two things, environment, and genetics. The percentage of each that is responsible for the personality traits of the child is impossible to determine. Cautiousness, for example might be a difficult trait to define by its origin. Dr. Rosenberg made clear that some circumstances can offer clear explanation for a person’s anxiety, sadness or anger, but genetics always play a role.

In moving to discuss what makes setting limits difficult, Dr. Rosenberg underscored that when children don’t get what they want there is a resulting negative emotion.  Sadness, frustration, disappointment, etc. Often negative affect is what the child must tolerate in order to comply with what they are being asked to do, or to contend with being denied what they are asking for. But the parent has to tolerate the child’s negative affect as well. Dr. Rosenberg returns to the example of sleep training.  One has to tolerate the child’s upset or angry response in order to set that limit and get the child to bed without your presence.

When it comes to setting limits, Dr. Rosenberg suggests that the parent must assess the degree of affect that the child can tolerate and how much they, the parent, can tolerate as well. The parent also has to assess what it is that is making it difficult for them to set the limit they are trying to set.

It was pointed out that rather than set limits, parents, at times, will give in, negotiate, withdraw, or retaliate. Dr. Rosenberg acknowledged that setting limits is easier said than done. No one is successful at it all the time.

In talking about this difficulty, Dr. Rosenberg offered that we often worry about what we say to others, as we should. But sometimes, we limit ourselves by not taking the risk of saying something that can be useful to the other because we are worried of how it might affect them. In this regard, being able to reflect on what it is that may be holding us back can be helpful.

So in setting limits for our children, it may be enlightening to honestly ask oneself: Am I saying this out of retaliation and malevolence, or am I saying this in the spirit of being helpful. If the former  is true, best not to say anything. But if what you are about to tell your child is based on what you sincerely believe is in their best interest, than you should be able to find a way to say it with a kind of certainty because you know that what you are doing is right thing and not mean spirited! When done for the right reasons, setting limits is just this. Kids feel that confidence and positive intention and respond to the certainty and the peace in the parent when it is said and done in their best interest.

To recap: Our beliefs arise from-our personal history, we either relive it or work to demonstrate the direct opposite. We begin to think about the kind of parent we wish to be, long before we become parents. That wish typically involves imaging ourselves to be in rhythm with our child. Those wishes also influence how we interact with our children, and what we expect from them.

Dr. Rosenberg noted that in a well-run democratic government, there is a gathering of information but the head of government makes the decision. The same thing is true in business where are CEO makes the final call. Parents were described as co-CEOs who don’t always have to agree but we must not impact the child in a negative way with differences that might exist between them. It is best to use one voice, rather than one set of rules for mom and another for dad.

The takeaway:

Consider your background issues; be honest with yourself and with who your child is, their strengths and weaknesses. Set limits with the assurance that you do so because it is in the best interest of the child. Look at situation by situation! Remain cognizant of the developmental stage your child is in. Kids appreciate limits being set for them and having someone in charge. And they need to feel that person is confident in their role of being in charge.

Finally, children cannot tolerate that their anger has the ability to destroy the other person. To believe they are that powerful and uncontrollable only produces anxiety.



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