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How a Lack of Limits Is Exhausting for Parents and Kids – Find Help Here!

Limits Can Lead to Adapting and More Cooperation,
Peace and Joy in Families

Almost always, the challenges parents are seeking to solve when they come to see me—meltdowns, inflexibility, defiance, or power struggles—are rooted in the absence of an important limit. That is what is causing so much stress for the entire family.⁠

When the limit isn’t clear, and there is a lot of discussion or negotiation about something (more books at bedtime, more things the child says they need to do before they are willing to go to sleep, more treats, more screen time...), it opens up a big, black hole that the child fills with endless attempts to keep parents engaged or to get them to do what they want. This is not just exhausting and maddening for parents; it is exhausting for kids who expend a lot of mental energy making their case and pursuing all angles, getting themselves increasingly wound up and dysregulated. The entire situation escalates, and everyone involved ends up miserable.

One big culprit is that because kids don’t like limits, their reactions—meltdowns, protests, and the like—are often triggering for parents, which makes it hard to stick to them.

Another obstacle to parents being the loving limit-setters their children need them to be is due to a more recent phenomenon: Parents have gotten the message that “gentle,” loving, respectful parenting entails collaboration with kids—making them part of the decision-making process—not telling them what to do, which has become characterized as being harsh and dictatorial. This has translated into parents trying to get kids to agree to limits.

For most of the moms and dads I work with—who have kids who are clever, fierce, feisty, persistent, and have a very strong need to control everything—this philosophy and approach backfires. Once the child susses out that the limit the parent is trying to set is dependent on their agreement and cooperation, they expend an incredible amount of energy throwing up any and all obstacles to prevent said limit from being implemented. Who can blame them?

I haven’t met a child yet who was happy about handing over a tablet, accepting an apple as dessert instead of cookies, or having to end a joyful bedtime. They will negotiate and argue, making some very cohesive and also some very irrational arguments, and use a whole host of delay tactics. This intense focus on exploiting any loophole they detect is exhausting and often sends them into a total tizzy, working them up and getting them increasingly dysregulated. This is exhausting and not healthy for them.

Naturally, this is also extremely exhausting for parents who find themselves getting drawn into constant negotiation and defending or justifying why they are setting these important, necessary limits for their children. They are also very frustrated and annoyed with their kids, which saddens them and is not what leads to the loving connection parents and kids need.

Here are some common examples:


Sameer (4) asks for a cupcake right before dinner. His mom, Fatima, acknowledges how much he loves cupcakes but explains that he can’t have one at that moment—he can have one after dinner. Sameer takes the cupcake anyway.

Fatima cannot believe Sameer’s outright defiance but braces herself and continues: “I know it is so hard when you can’t have a yummy cupcake. You feel so sad about that. I understand. Don’t you want to be sure your belly has room for growing foods?”

Sameer doubles down and hides the cupcake behind his back as he accuses, “It’s not fair. You always give Anya (his sister) cupcakes!”

Fatima starts to feel herself getting very agitated. Defensively, she explains: “I only give them to her as a treat—never before dinner. Please give it back to me right now.”

Sameer runs under the table and starts to gobble the cupcake down. Fatima is apoplectic at this point and roughly grabs the cupcake from Sameer as it crumbles to the floor. Sameer runs off, shouting that Fatima is a mean mommy as he swipes items off the counter in his wake. Fatima is despairing and in tears over this very distressing dynamic with her otherwise very sweet son.

After we process and analyze this common dynamic she experiences with Sameer, Fatima starts to take a different tact that looks like this. Sameer asks for a cupcake right before dinner. Fatima acknowledges how much he loves cupcakes but says it is not a choice at that time. Sameer grabs the cupcake anyway. Fatima calmly says, “I will be a helper,” and takes the cupcake from his hand. When Sameer falls to the floor shrieking, she lovingly responds, “If you would like some carrots and hummus or fruit while you wait for dinner, let me know,” and she moves on.

This shift in approach that is validating, calm, matter-of-fact, and not shaming has resulted in Sameer calming and adapting much more quickly when he can’t have something he wants. It has also significantly reduced their power struggles. Fatima has much more loving feelings toward Sameer, and there is much more peace in the home for all.


Molly (5) has been unbuckling her seat belt on the way home from preschool. Lauren starts by trying to reason with Molly. When that doesn’t work, prolonged battles ensue as Lauren resorts to begging and then threatening to take something away from Molly in order to get her to stay buckled. This results in more resistance from Molly. Lauren is vexed by this battle, which is now happening almost daily. The only strategies that sometimes work but that she doesn’t feel good about are either yelling or bribing Molly with some kind of treat.

After we think this through together, Lauren changes tact; she tells Molly that keeping the seatbelt on is a “have-to”—they can’t drive without her buckled in. Lauren acknowledges that she can’t make Molly cooperate with this rule, as she can’t be in the back seat to ensure she stays buckled. So Molly’s two great choices are: 1) to keep the seatbelt on, which means they will have more time to play at home before dinner, or 2) for every minute that Molly is unbuckled, and Mom has to pull over to the side of the road, one minute is taken away from playtime before dinner because Mom has to use this time to do other things she couldn’t do while they had to wait.

Lauren communicates this matter-of-factly, not as a threat. (Threatening responses only get kids’ haunches up and incite battles. They also convey to the child that the parent is out of control.) After just one day of implementing this strategy, Molly started to keep her seatbelt buckled. All the reinforcement Molly got from this dynamic (big reaction from mom and feelings of supreme power) is gone, and she’s just left with the downside of having less playtime. That’s what results in her making the healthy choice to cooperate.

For more on effective limit-setting with love, check out my other blogs on Psychology Today.

Article Source HERE

Claire Lerner, LCSW-C, is a nationally recognized child developmental and parenting expert with over 30 years of experience collaborating with families to understand and respond most sensitively and effectively to the challenging behaviors they encounter in the early years. Claire is also the author of 
Why Is My Child in Charge? available from Amazon.

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