Setting Limits and Staying Sane

Updated: May 15, 2019
Get tips from moms and other experts on setting limits with your children.
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Setting Limits and Staying Sane

Too Strict or Too Lenient?

Here's a surefire recipe for conflict: Mix together one parent (whose job is to make rules) and one child (whose job is to question rules). The resulting power struggle can turn a happy home into a war zone in seconds flat and drive a formerly rational person to the brink of insanity. Sometimes it's tempting to enact martial law -- or go to the other extreme and dispense with rules altogether.

But, we all know what happens when parents don't set limits. They end up with unruly kids that everyone hates to be around. And what about the parents who strictly enforce ironclad rules with no room for compromise? I hate to break it to them, but guess whose daughter is sneaking out of the house with a skimpy belly shirt hidden in her pocketbook?

Setting fair rules and consistently enforcing them are two of those most difficult -- and most important -- things a parent can do for a child. But often parents will conscientiously set up rules, only to have their little limit-testers wheedle, threaten, cry, and, ultimately, accuse them of ruining their lives. Because each family and situation is unique, parents often feel like there's nowhere to turn for answers. This can lead to waffling.

The Challenges

Consider these real-life situations that will ring familiar to even the best of parents:

  • "I sometimes get in the arguing cycle with my daughter. Then I get disgusted with myself for not sticking to my guns, and letting her attitude influence me! Unfortunately, sometimes it ends up with me getting so frustrated, I lay down the law in anger. It sticks for a few days, then I let it slide again! I have been a single parent (widowed) for 10 years. I always figured I was trying to make up for something."
  • "There are many times when I know in my heart that I should have said 'No' and held fast to my decision. But, when you have a bright kid and they sling back several reasons why your answer should be 'yes,' it is hard to say 'no.'"
  • "If I ever dare say 'No' and stick to my decision, I am then the 'meanest mom' in our whole community. I get the list verbally thrown at me of all the other moms who said 'yes' and how I am the 'only' mom who says 'no'..."
  • "My 17-year-old daughter can make me feel so out of sorts sometimes. 'Other parents are not so controlling' is what I hear, or, 'I'm on vacation, why can't I sleep all day and chat with my friends during the night?' It makes me feel like I'm the only mom who worries about her kid, since 'the other parents don't care...'"
Parents Must Walk a Fine Line

What's a parent to do? You don't want to be an authoritarian bully, but once you open that door to arguing, you're sunk. Experts tell parents to be firm and consistent, yet they also stress the importance of being flexible and willing to negotiate with their children. Isn't this contradictory? Not according to Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein, authors of "Raising Resilient Children":

"Consistency is not synonymous with rigidity or inflexibility. A consistent approach to discipline invites thoughtful modification of rules and consequences, such as when a child reaches adolescence and is permitted to stay out later on weekends. When modifications are necessary, they should be discussed with your children so that they understand the reasons for the changes and can offer input."

Setting rules that kids will adhere to is an age-old struggle. But, with creativity, love, and infinite patience, you'll come out of it alive! Parent educator and author Nancy Samalin says:

"It is normal for children to test our limits -- both in words and actions. Establishing independence from adult authority is a healthy way for children to find their own styles. The question is how can parents walk the tricky line between allowing their children to express their feelings while still asserting their authority as parents, and setting necessary limits."

The bottom line is, parents need to be in charge, but they must also be willing to listen to their children and prepared to make changes to rules when it's warranted.

Tips from Moms

Fortunately, the mothers who confessed their real-life struggles didn't give up. They developed strategies to deal with their unique situations. Here are some suggestions that may work for other parents:

  • "One lesson I learned was to replace the indecisive 'Well...' with a very firm 'Mum has to think about it. Wait until I make a decision.' You can only give a wholehearted 'yes' or 'no' if you've had time to think about it. "
  • "When I find that I'm in that cycle with my two kids (again!) I do something they both consider quite rash: I simply declare that there has been a misunderstanding of what was going to happen. When I hear the moans and complaints that "It isn't fair Mom!" I look them in the eye and say: "We can work on this together to come to an agreement or we can simply cancel the whole event; what would you like to do?" We usually come to an acceptable agreement -- and quick! (It may take a few times of canceling the event before the child realizes you mean business!)"
  • "Stop giving in! That is the absolute worst action a parent can take when trying to establish limits with their child(ren). Be firm, consistent, kind, and direct. Aren't those attributes you want your child to have? They need to learn them somewhere! Why not from you?"
  • "One method I learned is called the 'broken record' response. For example, if your kid wants to go somewhere and you say no, they throw a reason why you should say yes. You say, 'Nevertheless, I said no.' Then they throw back another reason why you should say yes, and you say, 'Regardless, I am still saying no.' Basically you keep coming back with 'nevertheless,' and 'regardless,' and they really do give up on the arguing.

  • "I begin with the words, 'Wait one minute. You push, all bets are off.' If they argue, I say "Do you want a firm 'no' now, or do you want to discuss this at a later time?" I also make sure I talk to other parents. You'd be amazed at how sane, strong, and supported you suddenly feel!"
  • "Too many parents let the kids rule the roost. We cater to them, and life isn't like that. Parents need to teach responsibility to children by giving them responsibility. Family life should be teamwork, and everyone on the team has a job."
  • "For every minute my son is past his curfew time, he is accessed a $5 fee. He must pay his fine at the time he walks in the door."

  • "Wear your 'mean Mom' hat proudly! My two grown children look back and laugh now at what they thought was 'mean' as they watch their 12-year-old little brother 'grow' through it, too."
  • "My 10-year-old daughter likes to put me on the spot in the parking lot after school and ask to have friends over while they are standing right there. I developed a plan. It's an automatic 'No' if I am not given enough warning (which roughly means a couple of days) and she may not ask in front of her friends. If she breaks the rule it's 'No' now and 'No' for the next time."

Recommended reading:

  • Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen
  • A Little Secret for Dealing with Teens by Jennie Hernandez Hanks
  • "I'm Not Mad, I Just Hate You!" by Roni Cohen
  • The Roller Coaster Years by Charlene Giannetti and Margaret Sagarese
  • Raising Resilient Children by Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein
  • Yes, Your Teen is Crazy! Loving Your Kid without Losing Your Mind by Michael J. Bradley