Children's Health

Setting limits and establishing effective parent-child communication

As jolly as all parents might try to be throughout the holiday season, it’s a fact: Parents regularly experience feelings of stress from late-November to January.  

With young children off from day care, school, or even young adults home from college, change in schedule and expectations (both yours and theirs) of the “perfect” holiday experience can completely overwhelm parents. 

Finding a balance between making special “exceptions” because it’s the holidays and being guilt-tripped or spoiling can be tricky.

If you ever find yourself in needless battles with your children, particularly while on breaks from school, or if you have ever heard your teen mutter, “You just don’t get it,” you are far from alone. Negative or undesirable behavior in children is often a cause of their inability to communicate anger, frustration, or sadness through words.

Regardless of age, I regularly share the steps described below in my sessions with parents who feel they endlessly or needlessly struggle for control with their children. It is never too late to alter the way that we choose to communicate with our children, and this holiday season is the perfect experimental period to see how this works within your family and regain control of the way you communicate.

The ACT model, developed by Dr. Garry Landreth, is beneficial and effective for several reasons. These steps can be applied to children, adolescents and young adults when dealing with minor issues or greater conflicts that arise. The model allows parents to relate to their children and provide reasoning behind limits or restrictions. Below, I provide examples of how this limit-setting technique can be applied to varying age groups to manage conflicts that may arise over the coming month.

A: Acknowledge the feeling. When children hear that you know how they feel, they are more likely to feel seen and understood. It is important to connect the feeling to the behavior.

Child example: “I know that you want to open the presents from Grandma right now.”

Young adult example: “I know that you could stay out as late as you wanted to for the past semester,  and it must feel somewhat stifling having our rules placed on you again while you are home.”

C: Communicate the limit.
Children have a right to their feelings, but they don’t have a right to behave destructively or disrespectfully.

Child example: “But we need to wait until she gets here, because she wants to see you open it.”

Young adult example: “But the curfew time is 12 p.m. while you are under our roof.”  

T: Target Alternatives. There’s nothing wrong with the impulse/desire, but it needs to be expressed safely/responsibly.

Child example: “So, you can choose to look at the present and pretend to guess what is in it, or you can choose to place the present in a special place under the tree (or wherever presents are placed in your home) until Grandma gets here. Which do you choose? ”

Young adult example: “So you can choose to go out and return home by 12 p.m. tonight and have permission to attend Dana’s New Year’s Eve party, or you can choose to return home by 1 a.m. and not attend Dana’s New Year’s Eve party. Which do you choose?”

In both examples, the child is still given a choice in the matter and that returns the responsibility of making decisions to them. It further allows you to set two parameters that you feel comfortable that your child can choose from. In the above examples they both require a slight bit of compromise on the parent’s part; however, both also elicit a response from the child that would be acceptable by the parent.   Remember, you must be OK with the two choices you give your child, so think about them before throwing out the options.

Dr. Tina Paone is the clinical director of the Counseling Center at Heritage in Montgomeryville, Pa. A mother of three, Dr. Paone also serves as associate professor at a New Jersey university.