Setting and Sticking to Limits With Kids and Teens

Teen girl laying on her bed playing on her phone

We all know what it’s like to test a limit: to stay out past curfew, spend too much time in front of the TV or negotiate household chores.

It’s normal for kids and teens to push boundaries, especially around parents and caregivers who make them feel safe. And although they may not like them, kids actually thrive when parents and caregivers set healthy limits. They help kids learn appropriate boundaries and expectations, and ultimately build resilience (the ability to handle life’s ups and downs). Read on to learn when and how to set limits with kids, and how to stick to them.

Download these tips for setting limits as a printable PDF.

Set everyone up for success by proactively communicating expectations around limits

What’s our No. 1 tip for setting limits? Set them long before there’s a problem. When expectations for kids and teens aren’t clear, it’s natural for them (and us) to become frustrated. But we can set everyone up for success by proactively communicating expectations around limits. Here’s how:

  • Be specific about expectations. Different situations (e.g., places, people) may have different rules, so it’s important to be specific about what’s expected depending on the situation.
  • Be on the same page (as best you can) with other adults in your child’s life so that the expectations around positive behavior are consistent, regardless of who they’re with.
  • Explain the “why” behind a limit, especially when safety is concerned.
  • Be open to revisiting and revising limits as kids grow and develop.

We should always use limits to teach kids and teens—never to punish or control them. But they won’t know our expectations around limits unless we teach them. Here are some examples of how to teach by setting limits:

What to say to younger kids What to say to older kids or teens
Empathize by acknowledging how they’re feeling and why. “I understand you want to help me cook.” “I understand why you’re feeling upset when I call you in at curfew and your friends are still hanging out.”
Calmly state the rule or limit. “But hot pans on the stove are not for touching because they could burn you.” “My job is to keep you safe, and that means setting some limits after dark. You must by home by 8:30 p.m.”
Provide limited choices of what they can do or have instead. “You can help by scrambling the eggs in this bowl. Would you like to use a fork or a whisk?” “At that time, you can invite a friend to come inside with you, or you can FaceTime a friend on my phone.”
Deliver a relevant, age-appropriate consequence if they don’t adhere to the limit. If they continue reaching for the pan: “To keep you safe, I need you to play with your pots and pans outside of the kitchen where I can see you.” If they don’t stay within the limit, a logical consequence is that they lose the privilege for a few days. Then, when you’re ready, try it again.

How many times per day do we all say “No!,” “Don’t!” or “Stop!”? It’s natural to fall into this trap when there’s a lot going on, but these words don’t teach kids what we want them to do, and they can leave everyone feeling stuck.

Instead, we can shift our language to teach kids what they can do rather than what they can’t. This technique can help end the power struggle by calmly redirecting them. Try giving kids clear guidance for how they can change their behavior to something acceptable. Here are a few examples:

  • “You can’t jump on the couch, but you can play in the basement or go outside.”
  • “It’s never OK to hit your brother. You can squeeze a pillow or try taking some deep breaths if you feel frustrated.”
  • “The walls aren’t for drawing. You can write in a notebook or color on a piece of paper.”
  • “We’re done with screens for the day. You can play a board game or find another activity to do.”

Sometimes kids and teens don’t respond appropriately to a limit. When this happens, it’s OK to give a consequence—as long as it’s age-appropriate, reasonable and helps them learn. Before giving a consequence, ask yourself:

  • Is this consequence appropriate and reasonable? Sometimes, in the heat of the moment, we can lose sight of what we’re trying to teach and react with unreasonable consequences. For example, grounding your teen for a month for staying up late playing video games after you told them not to, when you’d likely forget about it after a week.
  • Is this consequence related to what’s happening right now? Being timely with consequences helps kids understand the consequence is connected to their behavior. For example, if a child continues to run around with scissors after you’ve told them not to, they immediately lose the privilege of using the scissors.
  • Can I follow through with this? For example, if you say you’re going to take away electronics for the rest of the day, is that something you can follow through with? If they have homework to do on the computer, taking away electronics might not be the best consequence.
  • Can I be consistent with this? When a certain behavior only leads to consequences some of the time, kids and teens are more likely to keep testing the limit.

It can be difficult to separate kids and teens from their behavior. But behavior is almost always a result of an underlying feeling, unmet need or skill they haven’t mastered yet. So when setting a limit, try to focus on the behavior (or what they’re doing) rather than defining them by their behavior. For example, try saying, “What you’re doing is unkind,” instead of, “You’re unkind.” This can help them learn expectations about behavior without teaching them negative and unhelpful things about themselves.

When limits feel challenging, keep in mind that we're all still learning

When it feels challenging to set and enforce limits, keep in mind that kids and teens (and ourselves!) are still learning. It takes practice for everyone.

It can be hard to come up with the most appropriate response when we’re overwhelmed with emotions. As best as possible, try to make a plan and practice what to say ahead of time. Then, before responding in the heat of the moment, try to take a few deep breaths to calm your body and mind. When we pause and breathe, not only are we calming ourselves to help us respond more effectively, but we're also teaching kids a healthy coping skill.

We won’t always respond the way we want, and that’s OK. When this happens, own the mistake by role modeling how to take responsibility and apologizing. Not only does this help repair the relationship, but it also teaches kids how to do it themselves.

Research shows that spanking, yelling at or hitting kids isn’t effective in the long term and can lead to more aggressive behaviors. If you ever feel you’re at risk of harming a child in any way, step away, take a deep breath and ask for help from another trusted caregiver or adult.