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Limits Mean Love

Updated: Feb 15, 2020

You know when your child does that one thing that he or she knows is out of line, will push your limits, or at least certainly get your full attention. It comes with a look that just starts working both of you up and leaves you not knowing what to do. Are you saying “no” too much? Should you look away? He is just a kid after all...maybe she’ll grow out of it. How do you stop that behavior?

toddler playing
Photo by Qimono

Every child does this because children NEED to learn from their parents how to set limits. You are the main source for teaching your child how to behave in social interactions. Your child’s job is to push limits. Your job is to hold them. If there is a behavior that is out of line—think slapping you in the face, pushing other kids, running in a no-running environment, high-pitched screaming etc.— the best way you can teach your child is by standing 100% firm. Not looking away, not saying “no” sometimes and ignoring the behavior other times. Your job is to teach them how to be strong and determined by being that way with the limits that you set. That means if you say no to a behavior, no matter how many times it occurs or how sleep deprived you are, if the action is out of line, your job is to not allow it. Not the first time, not the 25th time, not 5 minutes later.

This is profoundly important because the firmer you hold limits and boundaries, the more secure your children will feel when the time comes for them to set boundaries for other people in their adult lives. This is a muscle that needs exercising, so your child is very wise to start practicing at a young age.

Photo by Jordan Whitt

When we talk about saying “no” we mean taking an action to stop the child’s behavior. Whether it is taking them out of a place where they are not supposed to run, or stopping their hands when they are about to hit you, or holding their bodies BEFORE they push another child. The key is holding your children accountable for their actions no matter how young they are. A physical action is key to teaching limits to your children that they will be thankful for in the long term. Even if it means you must leave a place 20 times in a period of 30 minutes, it is worth it!

Being firm sends a clear message to your child’s brain: no means no, no matter how persistent the other person might be at trying to change the “no” into a “yes.” Such a marvelous lesson will pay off 15 years later when your child is inevitably exposed to, invited to and peer pressured into things that might be detrimental to them or their future. Teens that know how to say no to drugs or inappropriate sexual behaviors are those whose parents set clear, unbendable limits from the very beginning. Teens who give in to detrimental behaviors come from households where limits are intermittent, not very clear or never even take place.

In a study mentioned by Brené Brown in her book, The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting, a group of young adults was asked to talk about the limits they grew up with. Every single time, the subjects started a sort of competition between who had the worst limits, like no TV after a certain time, no videogames, no going to questionable parties, etc., always with a certain sense of pride at being the one who had the parents with the strongest limits.

This experiment was repeated several times, and in each group, the exact same thing happened: the researchers noticed a couple of people who simply stayed quiet and looked down. After the discussion, the researchers approached the young men and women who stood back and asked them why they didn’t participate. The answer was very similar among each one of them: “My parents never put very many limits on me; I basically could do whatever I wanted” or “I knew I could push a little and get what I wanted.” These young adults were displaying shame when they shared this information with the researchers.

You see, when parents set limits that are clear and persistent, aka “wall limits”1 (everybody knows you simply cannot walk through a wall no matter what you try) children feel safe. They feel that their parents take care of them; they know, despite the annoyance of the limits, that they care and are trying to protect them. Children know this from a very young age.

Image by Caroline Hernandez

When parents have bendable limits, aka “door limits”2, the kind that only sometimes appear and can be pushed to the point that they break (opening the door), children learn that by pushing just a bit more they can get what they want. They grow up with a sense of insecurity as if the ground is not stable enough, and that feeling will impact their adult decisions and relationships at a very deep and basic level.

It means they won’t be able to be firm against an abusive relationship because they didn’t learn how to stand by their own limits from their parents’ example. Moreover, somewhere along the road, our unconscious learns that love and limits are incompatible, so in order to receive love, we need to not set limits for others. At least not strong, firm ones. This is how deeply important it is for us, as parents and caregivers, to be persistent and to take this matter as seriously as it is.

Here are some tips to remember:

Things to avoid

  • Saying there will be a consequence you don’t really want to enforce.

  • Saying “stop” or “no” without an action form your part to stop or prevent the behavior.

  • Ignoring the behavior. Not talking clearly about it before and after it happens.

  • Physical punishment.

  • Letting your emotions control you.

  • Letting it be and thinking your child might grow out of it. True fact: it will only get worse!

Tools you can use

  • Hug it out. If your child is running or doing something physical that is off limits, try hugging him or massaging his arms. Some children (like mine) need sensory stimulation in order to be able to focus and stay calm. At home we squeeze our child’s arms when we need him to stop moving and he loves it. Sometimes he asks for foot rubs instead…ha!

  • Talk openly about the behaviors that need improvement and figure out loving and healthy ways to deal with them.

  • Read about parenting wisdom. There are many great resources out there and they actually work! Our favorite is How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen.

  • Prepare a plan for yourself about how to deal with the behaviors you are trying to correct. Set some options of limits you know you are comfortable enforcing.

Image by Sai de Silva

Please consider that when we say TAKE ACTION we mean responsible adult LOVING action. Firmness and love are 100% compatible and work best when they are together. We do not support any form of physical punishment, but a good healthy talk and firm loving touch will go a long, long way for your child’s emotional wellness.

Think back to how your parents set limits for you and the implications that has had in your adult life. Think how comfortable or uncomfortable you are around people who attempt to abuse some of your limits. Do you stand firm? Do you doubt yourself? Do you associate limits in any way with love?


1,2 Clever analogy used by Sandy Blackard in her indispensable and super easy to read book Say What You See. Available to borrow for 2 weeks and for sale at a special price in our studio.

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