What if You Set a Limit and Your Child Ignores It?

The secret to setting limits effectively is to empathize as you do it.

Posted Sep 08, 2016

“I took your pledge of Yellibacy, but when I try to set limits my children just ignore me -- so I end up yelling." - Chris 

Most of the time when kids feel understood, they're willing to do what you ask, even if they don't like it. That's why the secret to setting limits effectively is to empathize as you do it. It's a three step process.

  • Set the limit:  "No pushing. Pushing hurts." 
  • Offer empathy, or understanding of why the child is doing the behavior:  "It looks like you want your brother to move, so you can get your truck."
  • Tell the child what he CAN do, instead:  "You can tell your brother, 'Move please!'"

But what if you state an expectation and your child ignores it? It's hard to stay empathic then. This is where most of us start yelling, or casting about for some threat to get our child to do what we want. Luckily, there's a better way.

1. Be sure your limit is reasonable. Sometimes when we listen to our child, we learn something important that helps us re-evaluate our limit. For instance, if your child doesn't want to hold your hand when you cross the street, talk about it. Maybe your child is ready to walk across the street without holding your hand? Or maybe she's ready to hold onto your bag instead of holding your hand, so she feels a bit more autonomous?

2. If your limit is essential to you, insist on it. If you let your child have a cookie at the grocery store today, naturally he'll want one next time. It's their job to test the limits; how else will they know what they really are? If you waffle, naturally he'll keep pushing. If you're clear about your limit, your child has the freedom to rail against the limit, to cry and grieve about it, and finally to accept it and move on to a better solution for everyone.

3. Connect. Don't try to give instructions or requests from across the room. Move in close. Touch her arm, make a comment on what she's doing to connect with her, then set your limit. "That looks like fun! But I'm afraid something could break when you throw that in the house."

4. Say it once. If you keep repeating yourself, you're training your child to ignore you until you raise your voice! If your child doesn't respond to your first request, you haven't connected and gotten his attention. Go back to Step 3 and look him in the eye. Remember, kids WANT to connect with parents who are warmly reaching out. If you're on the warpath, any child in his right mind will resist you. 

5. Don't give up and don't give in. If you're serious about this limit, then act like it. (If you aren't, then state that you see how much this means to your child and you're willing to be flexible for another ten minutes, or whatever.) But if you think it's an important limit and you give in ("Ok, I guess you can keep playing that game, but don't come crying to me when someone gets hurt! "), you're training your child to ignore your requests. That will just make your next limit harder to set. Instead, keep your sense of humor and get in your child's face in a friendly way to show you aren't going to change your expectation: "Whoa, Buddy! Didn't you hear me? I said this is too dangerous a game to play in the house!"

6. Empathize. Acknowledge her perspective: "You wish you could stay up later...I hear you. It's so hard to stop playing and go to bed. I bet when you grow up, you'll play all night, every night, won't you?"  Your child may well cry and rage. She has to do what you ask, but she's allowed to have her feelings about it. Your goal is to stay firm about your limit while empathizing with the feelings. Sometimes kids know we're right, but they still need us to understand their big feelings about the issue.

7. Manage your own emotions so you can stay calm and kind. Resist the temptation to be punitive in any way. Kindly, calmly, insisting on the limit teaches the lesson. Anything more backfires. If you insist angrily, naturally your child will resist. Kids accept, and even adopt, our expectations when we regulate our own emotions and support our child as he struggles to manage his. Find a way to support him so he can work with you: "You're so disappointed that we have to go home now. It wasn't enough for you that I gave you a ten minute warning; it's still hard to leave.  Let's find a way to make it a little easier. Do you want to skip putting on your shoes, and we'll just bring them in the car?" 

Is there ever a transgression that deserves punishment? No. The bigger the transgression, the bigger the disconnection your child is feeling, and the more help he needs from you to resolve what's eating at him inside. However, there might well be a need for repair of a relationship or replacement of something damaged. Helping your child find that solution empowers him, but only once he's calm and can choose it himself.

8. Maintain a strong emotional bond and make sure your child knows you're on her side. If she experiences you as sabotaging her happiness by creating arbitrary or unfair limits, she won’t accept your attempts to empathize. But if your child experiences you as looking out for her best interests, and -- when you can -- her happiness, she'll accept your empathy, which will help her accept your limit, and internalize it as her own limit.

Now you have a child who regulates his own emotions, because you regulate yours. He takes your expectations seriously, because you do. He feels connected to you, even while you're guiding his behavior, so he WANTS to cooperate. And of course he listens when you set limits -- so it's easier for you to keep your pledge of Yellibacy!