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By: Josef Cladwell, L.M.S.W.-A.C.P.

Limit Setting

Discipline: A Positive ApproachParenting is a constant challenge of limit setting. The task is to set limits that are clear, fair and easily managed.

One way of organizing the limits for your child or young person is to visualize the family as a busy traffic intersection. Signal lights are alternately flashing red, amber, and green. These signals are there for safety and the efficient flow of traffic. In the family, there are activities that need to be given signals: "Go", "Caution", or "Stop." Sometimes these signals are dictated by safety. Sometimes they are dictated by family values.

Decisions to permit certain activities can be grouped by the parents under a more or less smoothly functioning series of signals to the kids, like the following:

RED- This signal means that a certain activity is an absolutely "NO!" (One example would be to say to younger children, "Stay in your yard, don go in the street.") This message is: "NO NEGOTIATION." The general rule for this signal is (particularly for teenagers):Have as few of these red light, "Stop! No further" limits as is possible. Why? Too many "No" can interfere with kids learning responsibility and good judgement.

AMBER- This signal means the activity is negotiable. (On example would be staying out past the usual curfew if there is a special event.) In effect, this signal means there can be more cautious flexibility in limit setting.

GREEN- This signal means "Go." Very little discussion, if any, is needed. Unless there are some basic family rules such as "Call us and let us know where you will be," etc,. then the child or young person is allowed the freedom and responsibility for a certain activity


Natural and logical consequences are part of the positive approach to discipline.

Kids learn responsibility. Parents teach "respect for children" choices. Both save a lot of energy that otherwise would go into parents pushing passive-rebellious kids in a certain direction.

The following steps are recommended:

  1. Parents set the limits.
  2. Parents set consequences if these limits are transgressed. Let them be natural consequences, if at all possible. (e.g., "Since you didn lock your bicycle last night, and it was stolen, you are without a bike for some time.")
  3. If your consequences cannot be natural then let them be logical. (e.g., If the child dies not put his dirty clothes in the laundry hamper, he does not get laundry done that week.)
  4. Be consistent in enforcing these consequences (e.g., "Remember what was said if you did this behavior?")
  5. Give time limits for the consequences that are age appropriate. (e.g., Six weeds without a toy or activity for a six-year old is probably too long.)
  6. Be firm, calm and stay out of power struggles with your children. Don argue. Merely remind them of previously stated limits.
  7. Give opportunities to try again. (e.g., "Since I had to pick up your toys, they will stay locked up for a day. You may try again tomorrow.")
  8. Set consequences that you as parents can enforce and thus be successful. (e.g., "No TV for a week". When you have neither the time nor energy to monitor, this consequence can lead to weakened discipline.)

Josef Caldwell, LMSW-ACP, LPC, LMFT, is a member of the adjunct Faculty at PCEC. He is also an approved supervisor for Social Workers; Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist; Licensed Professional Counselor, and member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.

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