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  • May 5th, 2012

How to Set Limits in Five Very Difficult Steps: The Internal Process

Setting limits with children and adolescents is HARD. It is a difficult process and for most of us, we don’t like to have to respond to limits, nor do we want to have to set them with our children and adolescents. Here are some steps to follow.

First, setting limits starts with an internal process, which involves setting a limit on ourselves. By this I mean our body and psyche, either gradually or abruptly, tells us that we can no longer tolerate a certain behavior or “attitude” from the other person. Listen to your body and mind. We may find ourselves gritting our teeth, raising our voices, obsessively thinking about the other person, or notice our stomach growling, as we ruminate about “what to do”.  Please pay attention to these signs or signals. They all indicate that you cannot tolerate a certain behavior any longer. So we must take action: “I cannot tolerate this any longer and I must do something.” Step one is complete by setting your limit from within.

Second, THINK, and target the behavior or attitude you want to address. For example, “You may not curse at me. I will not tolerate that language any longer.” Before you set the limit, pause, reflect, target the behavior you want to address, and state it to yourself and another supportive person, if available.

Third, calm and soothe yourself. Setting a limit is a very difficult process. Walk, pace, pray, meditate, and do whatever it takes to avoid being angry before you confront and set your limit. In this process, you are soothing the signals your body and psyche experienced and that emerged during the unpleasant interactions that occurred, which resulted in your need to set a limit.

Fourth, prepare yourself to mean what you say when you say it. Therefore, it is imperative to know beforehand what the consequence and directive will be. For instance, if you are going to remove a privilege, make sure you have control over the resource. Hint: we cannot control other people; however, we can control a resource. For example, “I will no longer tolerate cursing at me, and I am removing your privilege to have a cell phone.”

Please be confident that your child will give you the phone, and be prepared to remove the device and/or eliminate the service. Be confident and prepared that you will do whatever it takes to ensure that this will happen. Fortunately, most children know or sense that you mean what you say and what action you are willing to take. This is the benefit and result of your preparation in the previous steps of listening to your body and psyche, calming and soothing yourself, and targeting the behavior to confront and the action you are taking.

Fifth, follow through with your limit AND allow for restitution. You have control of the resource (e.g., cell phone), and will return it when appropriate language is used for a certain length of time. “When you use only appropriate language for three days, I will return your phone. However, if you help me wash the car (directive) this afternoon and have a good attitude, you may have the phone back in two days.”

Washing the car is allowing for restitution to be made, gives the child some “control” in the situation, and enables your child to alleviate some guilt and shame they necessarily carry for behaving in offensive ways.

Setting limits is almost always a difficult process, as they (the limits) are almost always challenged. It is inherent in a child to test; therefore, it is essential to prepare and to be calm before you confront and take action.

I learned a long time ago that we cannot control other people, however, we can learn how to set limits when someone else’s behavior is inappropriate or offensive.

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My Services

In my private practice, I provide psychotherapy for individuals, couples, and families. I also provide parent consultation, assessment, parenting skills, and discipline techniques, as well as determining whether individual, group, or family therapy would be beneficial.

In addition, my co-facilitator Robert Rowland and I provide groups for adolescents and young adults.

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From Theory into Practice: Combining Experiential and Talk Group Psychotherapy for Adolescents

http://www.austinamft.org/2014/02/interview-with-mark-white-lcsw-lmft/ Mark White, LCSW, LMFT, is a seasoned group and family psychotherapist who has worked in private practice in the Austin area for over 25 years. He presented at the February meeting of the Austin Chapter of the Texas Association for Marriage and Family Therapy on both the theory of group psychotherapy with families, specifically adolescent boys, […]

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