Monday, January 10, 2011

The A, B, C's of Limit Setting

Even though my daughter can't talk yet- I have just started talking to her in 'play therapy' language. I figured it was good practice and why not start when she is young, right?

The extent of our conversations, now don't laugh at me, is 'I know you want to put that iPhone in your mouth, but it is not for eating.' She has no clue what I am talking about, but it's good practice for me, and good practice for her to start hearing it now. I don't want to wait too long and hear the 'why are you talking so funny mommy?' when she is 3 or 4.

Yes, play therapy is a strange language. In case I have not mentioned before, Play Therapy 'talk' may sound foreign to you at first when using it, but once you get the hang of it, it will be second nature to you.  Your child may look at you funny when you start stating these limits, but keep using them.

Limit setting is required as a parent. Children rely on us to tell them what they can and can't do. When children have limits, they feel safe! They have boundaries.  They know what is expected of them. Without limits, children will act out, can become aggressive, hyper, and you will start hearing from others that, "Your child is out of control" :)

Limits help teach self-control and with this method they learn all feelings are accepted, positive and negative ones, and that in turn makes them more likely to comply.

The best thing about the ACT Play Therapy limit setting is that your child is not constantly hearing "No!", "Don't" and "Can't". They hear what they are not supposed to do and are told what they can do instead. If you go to my Cookie and Choices post, you can read about alternatives and choice giving too.

I will save parenting styles for another post, but these techniques fall in the middle: not too permissive and not too strict. Permissiveness does not mean acceptance of all behaviors.

So, here are the basics to Play Therapy's Limit Setting that we use in the playrooms and what we teach parents to use at home. We call it the ACT Method : Acknowledge the feeling, Communicate the Limit and Target alternatives.

1. A: Identify and acknowledge the feeling, wish or desire

Example: "I can see how mad you are"  or "You look very frustrated" or "I know you really want to color on the walls"

2. C: Communicate the Limit

Example: "But the table is not for kicking" or "The walls are not for painting on"

3. T: Target the alternative/redirection

Example: "You can hit the pillow if you need to" or "The paper is for coloring on"

Here is an example from A,C to T:

"Sam, I know you really want to color on the wall, but the walls are not for coloring on, you can color on the paper here if you want to."

If it is an emergency and your child is about to paint your kitchen wall and you don't have time to do A and C- quickly state the limit: 'Walls are not for painting on!" and then go back to A and C: I know how fun it would be to do that, but paper is for coloring on and not our walls."

If your child does not listen to you, here is step 4: Give a final choice

Run through 1, 2 and 3 again and after 3, state "If you choose to do ____ again, then you chose not to ____ for the rest of today."

An example from above would be: "If you chose to paint on the walls again, then you chose to put up the paints for the rest of today." (or if your child is really young and that is too long of a day you can tell them they have to put them up until after lunch).

Here is another example:

"Sara I can see you are really angry at your sister and want to hit the TV, but the TV is not for hitting. If you want to hit something, you can hit this pillow...I can see you are still very angry and want to hit the TV, but again, the TV is NOT for hitting. IF you chose to hit the TV again, you chose not to watch it for the rest of today."

AND then if you have to set that final limit, FOLLOW-THROUGH and set that final limit. Yes, your child may throw a temper tantrum but that is okay- it's all a learning experience.  Kids will test limits and it is up to the parents to teach them.


We use a lot of limit setting shortcuts in play therapy and I have started using a lot of them lately with my daughter. Let's face it, we can't always be perfect and use the ACT in order or have time or it may not be needed. Once you have used the ACT method and your child understands, you can abbreviate limits and say in my case: "that shoe is not for eating,"  or "that slide is not for standing on, they are for sitting on" or "toys are not for throwing." It's kind of like a reminder to them.

Let me know what you think and if you have tried these yet. Would love to hear your child's responses, and your child's response to your new language!


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