Discipline and Setting Limits

disciplineSetting limits for one’s child is one of the most challenging tasks in parenting. The profusion of books and techniques on the subject bespeaks parents’ need for guidance and support. Although many books lay out sound principals about discipline and limit setting, a book cannot tailor an approach specifically for you and your child. Often parents come to us at their wits’ end because they feel they have tried every possible approach and none of them has worked. At UWS Parenting Support we listen and observe carefully in order to figure out what is interfering with each specific mother being able to set effective limits with her child.

Our belief is that limits, presented in a firm and neutral way, are protective, loving, and necessary for healthy development.

Some underlying principles and ideas of our limit setting approach:

  • Discipline means “to teach”. Knowing that limits are always for a reason, not arbitrary, can empower parents to believe that they are helping and not hurting their child.
  • Limits help a child regulate his/her emotions, develop frustration tolerance, and appreciate the needs of others.
  • Appropriate limits can only be set if the developmental level of your child is taken into account. Often unrealistic expectations create a feeling of frustration and failure in both parent and child.
  • Limits are only effective when presented in a firm and neutral way, i.e. when they are neither punitive nor retaliatory, yet communicating that the parent is unapologetic and in charge.
  • In order to effectively address “bad behavior”, the parent must understand the feelings, wishes, and intentions manifested through the child’s behavior.
  • Parents must become aware of the feelings engendered in them by their child’s behaviors and understand the links between these emotions and their own childhood experiences with discipline.

For parents who were themselves disciplined in an angry, punitive way, setting neutral limits can be harder to do.  Sometimes such a parent might feel she is being harsh if she thwarts her child at all. A parent might end up getting into constant power struggles with her child, the very situation she or he vowed to avoid.  On the other hand, if a parent grew up without firm, protective limits, discipline can feel like uncharted territory.

“Neutral and firm limits” is easier said than done. How do you remain neutral when you are angry, in fact infuriated, with your child? How do you feel in charge when your child’s demanding, bereft reactions make you doubt the very limits you have set? How do you differentiate between what your child needs or seems to desperately want? When do you compromise and when do you absolutely draw the line?

For many adults, the word “discipline” evokes associations to punishments. It can help to understand the differences between limit setting and punitiveness.

Limit Setting is for the child’s benefit. The child learns to:

  • modulate and master his/her feelings
  • differentiate between words and actions
  • develop internal controls of his/her actions and
  • feel safe

Punitiveness is for the adult’s benefit. It is a:

  • reaction of frustration
  • way to blow off steam
  • way for the parent to overcome feelings of powerlessness and retaliate when the child has ‘really gotten’ to him/her, i.e. hit a raw nerve

At UWS Parenting Support, parents begin to distinguish their own feelings from those of their child. They learn to differentiate between feelings evoked from their own childhoods and their present situation with their child. We help parents understand the underlying meaning of their child’s behavior, which informs how to set each limit. Together we decide on an approach for a parent to try with her child around a specific issue and then follow up week after week with questions and reactions.

Because of the unique physical set up of the Side-by-Side Model in the Mother-Child Groups and in Family Consultations, mothers and fathers can observe how the child development specialist talks to the children and sets neutral limits. As the children grow, new issues arise and of course new limit setting techniques need to be devised.  At UWS Parenting Support we all live through these phases together.

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