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Setting limits and boundaries through connection and playfulness

No one likes to hear that they can’t do what they want, when they want to do it. But having boundaries and setting limits is a necessary part of life. We depend on them to help us know what is expected of us, where we should be, what we should do, how we should act. They give us a sense of safety, because without limits and boundaries, things would be chaotic! 

Much like we need lines on the road, our children need our guidance and support in navigating the world. When we set limits and boundaries with our children, we are really working on building their skills and capabilities. Just to name a few… 


  • Increased independence. For example, being able to complete chores more independently with less reminders 
  • Keeps them safe. Stranger danger, staying on the sidewalk, not jumping from the top of the play structure 
  • Keeps them healthy. Limits around screen time, finding balance with snacks, healthy hygiene habits 
  • Shows kids that you care. While children don’t necessarily enjoy rules or boundaries, it shows that you care. Inconsistent or nonexistent limits can be confusing and anxiety provoking for children. Children want to know that their parents are capable and able to help them stay in control. 


Setting limits and having boundaries doesn’t require you to be a drill sergeant. You can follow through with these expectations through connection and playfulness. 


We know, we know… boundaries don’t sound fun. But, they don’t have to be a drag for both parents and children. There are lots of great ways to teach boundaries and expectations, as well as a variety of ways to reinforce them. 


Play is one of the most effective ways to teach and engage children, so it would make sense that being playful would support our expectations. You can use different toys like dolls, collectable figurines, or puppets. 


This kind of play would be guided by you, but the idea would be to practice the language around a new expectation. This is great for trying to teach expectations around social skills, like being a kind friend, playing with others, apologizing, etc. Toys can make it more playful and make a child feel less like they are learning. 


The great thing about pre-teaching and practicing these skills is that it helps set the boundary for your child before they encounter that situation in the real world. Then you can use coaching to remind them of what is expected. “Remember when we played this at home?” “Oh, we practiced this! You can try saying…” 


Another great way to use playfulness is for you to embrace your playful behavior. What does that mean? Next time your child is refusing to clean up their toys, try suggesting a race to cleaning the toys, or maybe we can pretend we’re dinosaurs while we clean up our toys. Make silly faces, use funny voices – not only are you encouraging your child to follow the expectations, you are having fun at the same time! 


So, you’ve been engaging in playful strategies when setting limits, but your child still has a meltdown and experiences some big emotions. What gives? Remember, our children are still learning and need support when life doesn’t go their way. Telling a child that they can't have something they want, or changing up their schedule can be difficult, even when we’ve prepared them to the best of our abilities. 


For true behavior change to occur, we must be responsive to their emotions and teach them appropriate ways to deal with their frustrations. Validate their experience, acknowledge their frustration, but hold the boundary! You can be kind and empathetic, support their emotions and still maintain your expectations. “I can see this is really hard for you. Let’s calm our bodies together, and we can try again later.” 


There are many ways you can support your child when teaching them limits, and support their reactions when they don’t like the boundaries you have set in place. Being playful and using connection is just one great (and often underutilized) tool that can support these tricky moments. So take a deep breath, support those feelings, and hold the boundary! You’ve got this. 


Ashlee and Lisa are child psychologists who created KidsConnect Psychology as a place for children and families to access tools, support and therapy. Check out their website for digital downloads, parenting tool kits, information about their parent counseling, school consultations, daycare consultations and more! Follow them on Facebook and Instagram at @KidsConnect Psychology.


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