Setting Healthy Limits with Children

A common question among many parents is: “how do I set limits with my child?” It can be a difficult experience determining what limits you have and when and where to draw those lines. However, limits are incredibly important with children. Limit  setting consistently allows children to learn what is expected of them, take responsibility for their actions, and build healthy emotion regulation skills.

Dr. Garry Landreth, a leading figure in play therapy, created a simple and effective tool to use when setting limits with children. It’s called the “ACT Method” and it gives us 3 steps to setting limits. Many parents or caregivers may utilize pieces of this model within their parenting already, but it is important to include each aspect of the model together to both acknowledge your child’s experience and set clear boundaries around expected behavior. Check out the three pieces of the model below:

A: Acknowledge the Feeling: It is important to acknowledge and validate your child’s feelings in moments of distress. This lets your child know you hear them and are attuned to them. Here are a couple examples of what that could sound like:
● “I can see that you are sad that your brother took your toy.”
● “I can tell you don’t want to brush your teeth and may feel frustrated.”
● “I know you were looking forward to playing more with your neighbor and may feel disappointed.”

C: Communicate the Limit: State clearly what needs to be done or what is not allowed.
This could sound like:
● “But people are not for hitting.”
● “But it is time to wind down and get ready for bed.”
● “But it is time to go home.”

T: Target an Alternative Behavior: Provide healthy and acceptable choices for your child to do instead. You can also elicit answers from your child around what could be helpful in the moment. This can sound like:
● “You can choose to squeeze your stress ball or you can choose to do 5 jumping jacks.”
● “You can choose to get into your pajamas first or you can choose to brush your teeth first.”
● “You can choose to hold my hand as we walk back home or you can choose to walk next to me.”
● “You can choose to do something that is helpful right now, is there an activity that may help with your sadness?”

Now, it is totally possible for your child to continue to protest and not choose any of the alternative behaviors you offered. In these moments, it is important to continue setting the limit while providing a consequence. The phrasing of the consequence is best framed as a choice.

Here are some examples:
● “If you choose to continue hitting your brother, you are choosing to lose 30 minutes of play time tonight….If you choose to use your stress ball, you are choosing to keep your 30 minutes of play time.”
● “If you choose to continue watching the iPad instead of getting ready for bed, you are choosing to lose your iPad privileges for tomorrow….If you choose to start getting ready for bed, you are choosing to keep your iPad privileges for tomorrow.”

Ensure you stand firm in the consequences that match your child’s choices. Consistency and staying true to your word is key.

The important messaging children get within the ACT model is the following:
● It is okay to feel your feelings, i.e. sad, mad, frustrated, etc.
● We want to respond to our feelings and upsets in a healthy way that does not harm ourselves or others.
● Limitations are here to protect us.
● We have choices to help us in moments of distress.
● I have my parents to help me respond to my experiences in a positive way.

There are many other factors that influence children’s behavior. This model provides a way to consistently provide limits. If you find you are still struggling, it may be helpful to explore other resources and/or determine if beginning child and family therapy may be beneficial to you and your child.

To gain more information about this model and other parenting resources, please explore more here:


Blog by Lauren Noel, MA, LAMFT
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto via Pexels


Landreth, Garry. (2002). Therapeutic Limit Setting in the Play Therapy Relationship.
Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. 33. 529-535. 10.1037/0735-7028.33.6.529.
Lauren Noel is a mental health therapist in our Hastings office. She sees children, teens, adults, families, concerns around parenting, neurodiversity, and more.