How to set limits (children up to 5 years of age)

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It is important to set limits with your child, starting at a young age. Learn about why children need limits, the challenges of limit setting and how to appropriately use consequences and time outs.

Key points

  • Children need set limits for many reasons including to help make sure they are safe, to optimize growth and development and to encourage self-regulation.
  • The use of consequences helps teach children responsibility for their actions.
  • Time outs should only be used as a last resort; if a parent or caregivers uses time outs, they should use them in a consistent and structured way.

Why do children need limits?

Children need set limits for a number of reasons, including:

  • To help make sure they are safe (e.g., don’t run into the road).
  • To help with certain activities (e.g., learning to socialize appropriately with others).
  • To optimize growth and development (e.g., sleeping through the night, eating nutritious meals).
  • To encourage self-regulation, which helps children calm themselves when they become frustrated or angry. Self-regulation helps with both little transitions (e.g., time for a nap) and big transitions (e.g., starting school).

What you teach your child about limits will help them for the rest of their life.


Challenges with limit setting

Limit setting can be a challenge for all parents and may be especially difficult when a child has been hospitalized or has been unwell.

How children and parents react to limits will depend on:

  • individual temperament
  • past relationships
  • the child’s experiences

You can’t control how your child will react or feel about a situation, but you can help them learn how to express frustration and anger in a safe way.

Be comfortable setting limits with your child. You are keeping your child safe and helping to support their development.

Limit setting is most effective when used the same way between care providers (e.g., parents, daycare workers, grandparents). As much as possible, care providers should try to set limits consistently so the child knows what is expected of them.

Using consequences

Consequences help teach our children responsibility for what they do, allowing a method of controlled discipline. When using consequences with your child, consider the following:

  • Give your child a choice to follow your instruction before giving them the consequence
  • Try to stay calm when giving the consequence.
  • Make sure you follow through with the consequence (e.g., taking away a favourite toy for a week is hard to enforce, but a few hours is more realistic).
  • Once the consequence is over, give your child a chance to do something helpful/positive, and praise them for it.
  • Show your child love and trust after a consequence. Remember, the correction is aimed at the behaviour, not the child.

Time-out tips

Time outs should be used as a last resort. If you use time-outs as a consequence for you child, be consistent with how you use them and how the time out is structured. Here are other tips for conducting a time out:

  • Time outs can start at approximately 2-3 years of age.
  • Time out should last approximately one minute per year of age, to a maximum of five minutes.
  • Pick an appropriate place for your child to be during their time out (e.g., not near a television or with their toys).
  • Give a brief explanation of what behaviour led to the time out.
  • Ignore the child during the time out.

When time out is over, consider it a fresh start. Don’t talk about the unwanted behaviour again.

Last updated: June 19th 2020