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How To Enforce Your Limits Without Force

How To Enforce Your Limits Without Force

“Punishments erode relationships and moral growth.” – Alfie Kohn

The short answer is, force doesn’t actually “work” to “make” kids behave. Sure, it might get your child to comply for this minute. But it doesn’t raise the self-disciplined child you want. And I don’t think you just want obedience (although we all do, sometimes!) You want to raise a good person, who WANTS to cooperate, and to do the right thing.

So force, or the threat of force, works temporarily. Timeouts scare young children into complying because they’re a form of ritual, temporary abandonment.  But they don’t teach kids to regulate the emotions that drove them to behave badly, so the misbehavior continues. Eventually, kids rebel and you have to escalate your force. You can drag your flailing child, but sooner or later you won’t be able to do that, and in the meantime she’s not learning to manage herself.

What’s more, the more often you resort to force, the less your child will WANT to cooperate. I hear frequently from parents of six year olds who have become defiant, now that they can’t be dragged to timeout. The six year olds who were never punished with timeouts (or other punishment) but were instead taught family expectations and emotional regulation are much better behaved and cooperative.

How To Enforce Your Limits Without Force

So force doesn’t actually get kids to behave any better. In fact, research shows that punishment makes kids misbehave more. (There’s a list of studies about this on the Aha! Parenting website: Why Positive Parenting?)

Here’s why. WE know that brushing teeth, not hitting his sister and not sneaking a cookie are for your child’s highest good. But he doesn’t. In fact, he is strongly driven to avoid teeth brushing, demolish his rival, and eat as many cookies as he can. The only reason for him to go against what he thinks will serve him is that he trusts us to always have his best interests at heart.

But when we punish, he feels wronged. Even if we can get him to parrot back to us why he was punished, he still feels wronged inside.  (Don’t you remember feeling this way with your parents?)  What’s more, he doesn’t really see how to control the bad feelings that drove him to behave badly. So he feels all alone with those scary feelings, and we aren’t there to help him. He doesn’t actually know how to make himself behave when he gets upset. He concludes that he’s a bad person. He feels less and less like trying to please us. That’s why punishment destroys our child’s desire to behave.

So we can’t “enforce” our limits, with or without force.  But we CAN make it likely that our child will want to meet our expectations and comply with our limits.  How?

1. Teach appropriate behavior with loving guidance.
If your child doesn’t know the appropriate behavior, help her learn it. If she does know but won’t do it, then help her want to.  With brushing teeth, that means making it fun and giving her control.  To resist hitting her sister, that means helping her develop a competing impulse, like the desire to please you, and the desire to see herself as a good person. Over time, positive interactions outweigh negative ones and she actually feels affection for her sister.  But she’ll also need some tools for emotional regulation.

2. Teach emotional regulation by modeling emotional regulation. 
Kids learn how to handle big emotions by watching how we do it.

Does that mean you can’t get mad?  No. It means you calm down as soon as you can — eventually (hopefully) before you open your mouth.  And you support yourself in every way so you have the internal resources to regulate yourself. Anyone will blow up once they’re pushed over the edge. So your responsibility as the grown-up is to stay away from the edge.

3. Set limits with empathy.  
Want your child to accept your limits? State them clearly, kindly, and with understanding of what your child is feeling. If you need to, get in his face in a friendly way to let him know you aren’t going anywhere until he does what you’re asking.

“Sweetie, you know the rule is that everyone clears their own plate after dinner…I know you can’t wait to watch your show, AND no TV until your plate is cleared.” (Marching child back to dining table) “Let’s go…”

“It’s hard to stop playing and get ready for bed…I bet when you’re a grown-up, you’ll never go to bed, will you?”

4. Help your child manage his emotions by helping him express them.
Even if we’re always calm, children still have big feelings. They learn to regulate those emotions when we accept their feelings, even as we limit their actions.

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“You’re so mad at your sister.  I won’t let you hurt her. Come here, Sweetie, what’s going on that you’re so upset?” 

Young children need to express emotions by laughing, yawning, trembling, or crying. As they get older, their brain development allows them to use words and stories to self-regulate. Of course, even adults need to cry sometimes, so children of any age might need your help to cry about a disappointment or hurt. Some parents are fine with sadness, but when their child gets angry, they get angry back. But your child’s anger is masking his hurt, fear, sadness, or powerlessness. He won’t show those deeper feelings to you unless he feels safe enough; he’ll just keep “acting them out” with “bad” or angry behavior. That’s why creating safety is the best parental response any time big emotions flare up. The more safety, the more he can show you what’s really going on under that anger. (How do you create safety? In the moment, with compassion. The rest of the time, with empathy and playfulness.)

5. Empower your child to make repairs.
Kids feel terrible when they hurt others. They need a way to dig out of the hole they’ve created for themselves, so they can feel (and act) like a good person again. Support your child to find ways to repair relationships and make amends. Can your toddler get the ice pack or his friend’s blankie?  Can your four year old rebuild the tower with his brother?  Can your six year old make her sister a card or do her sister’s chore?

If YOU impose these as consequences, you’re right back to punishment. But if you model this kind of making amends in your family, your child will naturally copy it.  And if you apologize often, your child will learn to do so also.  Note that all humans need to calm down before apologies and amends are sincere and meaningful. First, help your child express her feelings. Then, wonder aloud if there’s a way she could find to make things better again.

6. Above all else, protect the relationship. 
Connection trumps everything else in parenting.  Children “behave” because they love and trust us and never want to disappoint us. But we have to earn that level of devotion.  We earn it by managing our own emotions so we can stay compassionate with our child and help her when she most needs us. Which, if you were wondering, is when she seems to least deserve it. Children need physical snuggling and roughhousing to feel close on a daily basis, and they need our non-reactive compassion to help them through the tough spots. Your child isn’t cooperating? Reconnect.

And you’ll never find yourself reaching for force again.

Choose love,
Dr. Laura

Dr. Laura Markham is the author of the must-read parenting book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How To Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. You can visit her at