In my last few posts, I’ve been sharing some of the skills involved in filial therapy, including structuring, empathic listening, and imaginary play. Today I’ll discuss the last skill involved, limit setting.
Why Set Limits?
In thinking about setting limits, the “why” seems like an obvious question. Limits help to keep children safe by protecting the child from dangerous choices. When a child feels safe, they tend to also feel less anxious because they know that their parent is helping to make sure they are safe. However, it can be difficult to know when to set the limits! It’s a fine line to provide enough freedom for a child to explore, but also enough limits to protect the child. In Filial Therapy, parents are asked to set limits only if there is a safety concern, such as hurting someone, breaking a toy intentionally, or running out of the room.
How to Set Limits:
- Once you’ve asked yourself if the limit is necessary (and have decided that it is), the first step is to check and make sure you feel calm. An important key in limit setting is to stay emotionally neutral, using a matter of fact tone.
- Get your child’s attention by stating their name. You might also put a hand up if there is an imminent safety concern, such as an item about to be thrown.
- State the limit clearly. “One of the things you can’t do is throw that marble at me. But you can do just about anything else.” Notice that in this example, the adult did not suggest other choices. The reason for this is that in this method, you really want to teach your child to problem solve. By leaving the solution up to the child, they must then think about their other options and decide on the best one, which essentially takes them through the problem solving process.
- If the limit is about to be broken a second time, I suggest a three strike policy. That is to say, you would remind the child of the limit and then explain the consequence that will happen if they try again. In this example, the adult would state (in that same matter of fact tone), “Remember how I said that you can’t throw the marble? If you choose to try it again, you’re choosing not to play with marbles today.” The consequence will be most effective if it is a natural consequence that is easily connected to the infraction. The child will not clearly learn the lesson if the consequence were, for example, to lose TV for a week after throwing a marble.
- If the limit is broken again, follow through with the consequence. This is key to limit setting! It lets your child know that you mean what you say, and teaches them that next time they really need to follow directions within the first two tries.
Setting limits consistently helps your child understand that you mean what you say and that you’ll work to keep him or her safe. Using a matter of fact tone, especially during the first two infractions, helps to prevent the child from reacting to an emotion rather than the limit, which tends to lower everyone’s emotions in the situation. Furthermore, having a system will help to reduce your energy expenditure during the situation, as it will become automatic over time and therefore less emotional for you as a parent or caregiver.
Emily Herber McLean, LPC is a child and family therapist at The Center for Psychological Services. To learn more about her practice, visit www.centerpsych.com.