Setting limits is good for children’s mental health

By Amy Steele, LCSW, LAC, RPT-S

Advice from Youth First

In a time when telling children no is often shied away from – and some will do anything to keep a child from becoming upset – we are missing out on the important mental-health and life skills that children need and are comforted by when caring adults set limits with them.

Children who don’t have rules tend to feel out of control and experience anxiety. They are comforted by knowing that adults are taking care of things and are going to help them to not lose control. Boundaries and limits help children feel more secure. Following rules makes life predictable; when they know what the outcome will be, they feel in control. Experiencing consequences when they break rules let kids know that you are not going to let things get out of control. This builds trust and shows them that you are reliable – that you mean what you say and will follow through for them. Consistency and reliability in limit-setting shows that you will also be consistent in other areas where they depend on you, lessening their anxiety.

Avoiding limits to avoid a tantrum or an argument sets our kids up for failure in the long run. If they don’t learn how to feel and cope with feelings at a young age, they will spend their life trying to avoid these feelings. Whereas, if they learn at an early age that feelings are okay – even ones we don’t like – then they learn coping skills and learn to make choices that give them more positive outcomes.

When we avoid letting kids feel negative feelings, we avoid situations where we can help them through it. At some point, they are going to have negative feelings; this is a fact of life. Parents must decide to teach and model positive and healthy ways to handle negative feelings; otherwise, life (e.g. society, social media, video games, peers) will teach them.

One job as a parent is to prepare children for life. A goal is that they grow to be upstanding, responsible people who do good things in the world. Sometimes, we get so overwhelmed by the need to just get through the day that we lose sight of the big picture; they need these skills for life. Each time we set a limit, we are giving kids the opportunity to practice managing their emotions.

The term limit-setting may connect to negative feelings; however, the reverse is actually true for kids. Limit-setting for kids provides comfort, safety, predictability and direction. It keeps them safe and shows that you care enough to exert the energy required. It helps children manage their feelings instead of feeling out of control and without direction. It shows love.

Kids want to know boundaries and parameters. These are life skills. They need parents to set limits on what is appropriate to keep them safe, healthy and rested, so that they are able to achieve the goals in life of being happy, healthy and contributing members of their family and society. What a gift it is to teach a child that life is full of choices; and, under love and guidance, if they make a choice that isn’t the right one, there are consequences – but life goes on and they can do better next time.

Amy Steele serves as Youth First social worker at Evansville’s Resurrection School.