Setting and communicating limits

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Setting and communicating limits

When we are setting limits with our young children, we need to be short and clear. If they don't have a choice in the matter, we need to be clear about that. We often add the word "okay" after we set a limit. What we mean is, do you understand? For a child, that gives them a false message that they have a choice or we are asking permission. "I have to go to work now. I have to say goodbye, okay?" If a child answers that question with a "no," the parent is caught in a bind. They have to go to work anyway, which often leaves the child confused and pretty powerless. Instead, to avoid that confusion, we can say, "I want to make sure you heard me." Another reason why we say "okay," after we set a limit, is we want our child to agree with us to avoid big feelings. In this way, the child also doesn't feel supported. We don't ask permission from our children when we are setting limits, and if big feelings come up, we can support them in their big feelings and the limit stays the same.

Watch Video: Setting and communicating limits by Barbara Olinger, MSW, ...


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Barbara Olinger, MSW

Family Consultant

Barbara Olinger has her Masters in Social Work and has worked with children and families in both educational and therapeutic settings for over 35 years. This has included being a Child and Family Therapist, the Supervising Clinician in an outpatient mental health clinic, a co-founder of a co-operative preschool, and Director of Family Development at the YWCA Santa Monica / Westside. In her current private practice, Barbara focuses on parent education and support for parents of children ages 1-10 years old and preschool teacher training. She offers on-going groups, individual/couples sessions, a monthly Dads Group, workshops on a variety of parenting topics, and phone consultations. Barbara has two sons, 29 and 26 years old.

The roots of healthy development begins with having our needs met. This is a requirement for growth: to separate, to feel confident physically, emotionally and socially, to gain a healthy sense of self, to be able to become compassionate. When our needs are supported, we develop from a foundation of trust- in our relationships and in our exploration of the world.

Strong families are built on a foundation in which development is understood and celebrated, mistakes are allowed, feelings are validated and connecting with others is emphasized. Parents can set limits with behavior while supporting needs in a way which promotes learning and self-esteem.

During this whole parenting journey, it is crucial to be conscious of our own needs and to take care of ourselves. Sharing our fears and anxieties about parenting with others can help us realize we all feel vulnerable at times and this can provide a space for growth and connection. Every parent need support!

Barbara’s parenting book “Growing From the Roots” and two DVDs (“Growing From the Roots” and “Welcoming Your Second Child”) are available through

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