6 Steps to Setting and Holding Limits

Let’s talk about setting and holding limits when parenting young children. Your child will at some point “test the boundaries” and “test your limits” at around the time they become a toddler. And toddlerhood is also the time you will see them try to be more independent and asking to do things themselves (“No! I do it!!” – does this sound familiar?) This is no coincidence and it is actually where your toddler is supposed to be developmentally. Let me say this again: it is entirely normal for your toddler to want independence AND to test limits. It is their job and their responsibility to do this.

The challenge is that young children lack the ability to fully understand when and where they can have control and independence, and when it is simply unsafe for them to do so. Your toddler wants to put on their own shoes – great! Your toddler wants to run to the car in a parking lot by themselves – that’s not okay.

This is why as parents, we need to set and hold limits effectively. However, other than out of necessity, there are many benefits to setting limits:

  • It helps children feel safe and secure when they have consistent boundaries. It’s confusing to them if they are left without boundaries in the world. It’s like being left out in the wild to fend for themselves!
  • It helps children learn patience, delay gratification, and tolerate frustration.
  • It will mean you will have to do less ‘policing’ of limits in the future because your child will police themselves more and more as they grow in an environment where limits are respectfully set and consistently held for them.

Sounds lovely, right? Without further delay, here it is:


6 Steps to Setting and Holding (Effective) Limits:

1) Consider if a limit is truly needed.

As parents, it can feel like we are constantly saying no. We say no so often that our toddlers have caught on that sometimes the ‘no’ is actually a ‘maybe’ which can become a ‘yes’. So, before you set a boundary, consider if you actually need to say no. When possible, say yes!

Sometimes we really do have to say no. There are limits that are non-negotiable. The rule of thumb is to say ‘no’ to behaviours or actions that:

  • harms the child
  • harms others
  • harms things around the child

Non-negotiables are your baseline. But often parents are met with behaviours that are in the gray area. Your child might not behave in a way you prefer, but it’s not exactly harmful either. Having a lot of limits in the gray area is where you get yourself into trouble. This is where the power struggles happen and things start feeling exhausting for both parent and child. When possible, move a gray-area “no” to a “yes” by really asking yourself if you need to set this limit and why you are setting this limit in the first place.

For example, it’s cold outside and you insist that your child wear a jacket but they refuse. It’s not cold enough to harm them but you would prefer that they wear a jacket. Now ask yourself – why? If they say they are comfortable, then it’s not about to prevent them from discomfort. Is it because you worry about what other’s might think if your child does not have a jacket on? Maybe? Is this worth the power struggle? Value your relationship with your child above other reasons that might cause you to feel like you need to set a limit. You will see things going smoother in the household as a result.


 2) Set reasonable expectations

Young children are exceptionally bad at impulse control. They simply lack the higher cognitive planning and awareness to delay what they want to do now. They need time and modeling and opportunity to learn this skill.

So, knowing that they are no good at stopping their impulses, ask yourself if your limit is reasonable for a toddler to follow. If you put a favoured treat out on the table in front of them, you can expect them to try to eat it no matter how many times you have told them they can’t. If you tell a young child that they must hold onto your purse while you put away the groceries in the car, there’s a high probability that they will let go if something interesting catches their eye.

In both scenarios, your child KNOWS your limit and what you expect of them but it is beyond their capability to stop their impulse. You can help them! You can remove the temptation such as putting a treat out of reach and out of sight. You can make it impossible to act on their impulses such as having strapped your child into the car seat first so they can’t put themselves in harms way.

The good news is that like any skill, your child WILL get better at controlling their impulses. How? By having parents set and hold limits for them that they can succeed at! Read on.


3) Set your child up for success

It’s hard for us adults to fully control our impulses and behaviours when we aren’t at our best. If you go grocery shopping while hungry, you will be more likely to buy treats and junk food, and buy more food, than you planned. For toddlers, unmet needs will absolutely shut down all of their cognitive power and impulse control.

Here’s a list of triggers that make it more challenging for them to respect your limit:

  • hungry
  • tired
  • overstimulated
  • overwhelmed
  • not having enough physical activities
  • feeling disconnected with their primary caregiver
  • not having enough quality time with primary caregiver
  • growth spurt or mental developmental changes
  • significant change to their daily life like having a new sibling or moving houses or a friend or family moving away
  • having lots of limits to follow
  • being in school or daycare for a long period of the day

It should be clear now that there can be many triggers to causes an imbalance in young children. Meet as many of their needs as you can to help your child succeed at following limits and boundaries.


4) Use Natural and Logical Consequences, not threats or punishment.

Communicate to your child what the consequences will be if they cannot follow your limit. There are two types of consequences: Natural and Logical consequence.

Natural consequences… are naturally occurring. Your child refuses to wear a jacket. They get cold. This is a natural consequence.

Logical consequences… are enacted by you, the limit setter. Your child refuses to wear a jacket but you insist that they do. The logical consequence is that the more they delay putting on the jacket, the less time they will have at the park to play.

Allow safe natural consequences to occur whenever possible. Natural consequences promotes deeper learning for your child. Use a logical consequence to enforce a boundary when it isn’t safe to allow a natural one to happen.

A note: consequences are NOT threats or punishment. Threats or punishments are arbitrary and does not teach the reason behind an enforced limit. Often you will need a bigger threat or punishment each time to wrangle continued obedience from your child. The goal here is self-motivated learning and cooperation in the future when this limit pops up again.

Still unsure about the differences between the three? You’re not alone. Most parents get these mixed up but over time, you will get the hang of it. Robin Einzig over at Visible Child has a great article further explaining the difference, but here’s another example to help wrap your brain around these:

Limit: Your toddler needs to hold your hand in the parking lot
If they can’t/won’t do this, then:
Natural Consequence: they run off and end up getting badly hurt. (Since this is harmful to your child, we use a logical consequence instead).
Logical Consequence: you say they can’t be trusted to walk in a parking lot so you will carry them or push them in a stroller
Threat/Punishment: you take away their favourite car toy for the ride home

Your child now knows that if they cannot follow your limit to hold hands in a parking lot, they will be carried to the car or put into a stroller. Reinforced over time, it will be clear to your child that this always happens and it is to keep them safe. If you use a punishment like taking away a toy in the car, your child learns nothing about parking lot safety, but picks up that things that he favours can be used against him or that people in authority can take things away from here. Neither is connected the limit!

So, being consistent with your limits and using natural and/or logical consequences to enforce these limits will help your child stick to them!

BONUS TIP:  Say “I can’t” instead of “I won’t’

Your job as the parent is to keep your child safe. It is not a choice of yours. How ridiculous would it be to think “well, should I keep you from running into the parking lot, or should I not?” Again, it is not a choice – it is your responsibility. Therefore, say explicitly that it is not that you WON’T allow them to run away, it is that you CAN’T. I guarantee that you can say “I can’t” in a much more neutral tone than “I won’t”, since it’s not about a power struggle but simply the situation demands this action to occur.

Also, if you can get into the practice of saying “I can’t” instead of “I won’t”, then you set the stage with your child that you and them are on the same team (team keep-everyone-safe!) instead of feeling like you are against your child all the time (team mom-doesn’t-let-me-do-anything). It feels like such a small change, but this alone will help you feel more at ease with holding limits in the long run.


5) Consistency is KEY!

Once you’ve set the limit, stick to it! There is nothing more confusing to a toddler than a wishy-washy limit. Going back on a limit or not following through with a logical consequence will promote even more limit testing. After all, why should they believe you that you mean what you say?

I get it. It’s hard to hold firm. When your toddler is melting down and showing big emotions, it is easier to give in and throw in the towel. Giving up does zero good for anyone. Your child needs you to be confident. They need you to take lead. And since you have gone through steps 1-4 and really determined that this is a necessary limit, you need to stick to your guns about it for the both of you.


6) Be empathetic and hold space for big emotions

You’ve held the limit and I can guarantee that your child isn’t too pleased about it. That’s normal. Think of the reverse, “Oh yes mommy, you’re right in carrying me to the car even though I wanted to walk. You need to keep me safe.” No child can respond like this when they have just tried and failed to push a limit.

There are many things in this adult world that goes against a child’s desire to do things independently. Put yourself in their shoes and empathize how frustrating it must be to not have all the information but have a deep desire to explore. They don’t know what they don’t know and they don’t yet understand all the reasons to not do something nor do they have a solid self-control pathway in their brain strong enough to fight their impulses.

That constant conflict causes a big build up of frustration and it is HEALTHY for our toddlers to release this pent up negative energy. Not every limit testing will end up in a meltdown but any release of negative emotions should be acknowledged, accepted, and welcomed.


And one last note…

Like anything in parenting, setting and holding limit effectively requires practice. Be graceful to yourself and your child while you learn together how to navigate this new part of your relationship.

Accept your child’s natural desire for independence and their big emotions when they can’t have it. Accept your own struggles with this by taking each situation as a practice and learning opportunity. If it didn’t work that time, reflect and move on. Trust me, your toddler will give you plenty of opportunity to practice!

If you can respectfully and lovingly navigate this together, you will reap the benefit soon as your child gets this amazing gift of becoming authentically themselves while learning to respect boundaries and limits.

Embrace the imperfection. You can do this!