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If you ever wondered why setting limits with young kids sometimes just doesn’t work, here are some important things to consider.

I was standing in the middle of the living room watching my son taking some little cars out of a box one by one and throwing them all over the floor. He was looking at me from time to time knowing that he was doing something wrong.

It was the third time this happened that day.  Once again, I tried to be as gentle as I could, even though inside me I was full of anger.

We went together to be the bedroom and talked about it. It was so emotionally exhausting! I felt my patience was running low. Luckily, he seemed to understand and we returned to the living room to clean the mess.

Two hours later, I told him I need some quiet time to write an email. I sat down and before even starting the email I heard a familiar sound coming from the living room: my son throwing the cars again!

Sometimes setting limits is not easy at all! Even if we have an effective system in place, it doesn’t work every single time. The truth is that no matter what method we use, sometimes setting limits will not work smoothly.

And here are some reasons why this is happening.

1. The child is completely disconnected from you.

This is what happened in the situation I mentioned at the beginning of this article. My son was so disconnected from me that he repeated the same behavior over and over again even if he understood it was wrong.

Sometimes kids lose the connection with their parents and they start to engage in a lot of negative behaviors that seems unstoppable.

The only way to fix this is to take the time to reconnect with your child. This will not happen immediately but once it happens, setting limits will become easier again.

2. You haven’t addressed the real reason behind the negative behavior.

For example, a tired child may start misbehaving. We can set a limit to the behavior but most probably the child will repeat it. The best way to stop it is to address the reason behind the behavior and help the child calm down and get some sleep.

The same thing happens when kids are hungry, frustrated, or scared.

Once you address the reason behind the behavior you can help the child overcome it. And the negative behavior will stop.

3. The limit is not age-appropriate.

Asking a two-year old to stay still for hours is unrealistic. Asking a toddler to be quiet for long periods of time also is.

Asking a young child to be understanding when another child is constantly bothering them is something they really can’t do.

When setting a limit you need to ask yourself if the child’s developmental stage allows him to understand and respect it.

4. The child reached another developmental milestone.

Kids instinctively test our limits. And one reason why they do this is because they want to experiment new things. As kids grow parents need to reassess the limits and adjust them to their new abilities.

For example, let’s say you don’t allow a young toddler to climb on a very high slide. This can be a safety limit that is necessary at some point. But as the child grows, they will insist on climbing that slide. This is because they feel they have the ability to do it. At that point, it can be a good idea to reassess the situation and remove the limit (if it’s safe to do this).

This will bring the child the joy of exploring something new. And will bring you the relief of having one less limit to enforce.

5. You are over-controlling (without even realizing it).

Sometimes, without even noticing, we can become over-controlling. Especially when we feel we are losing control. And this usually reflects on setting too many limits.

There is a certain amount of “no” that a child can manage every day.

If you set too many limits kids will become defiant and will no longer listen to you. What you can do in this case is to take a step back and reassess. Are all the limits you set really necessary? Is there something you could do to to set less limits while still making sure that the child follows the rules that are important for your family?

If your child sees that you are willing to give up on the unnecessary limits, you will be more likely to gain their cooperation.

What helps me during a difficult parenting moment is to remind myself that my son is just a child. He doesn’t have my experience, my ability to deal with emotions, my patience. And this is totally normal!

It’s my job as an adult to find out what is going wrong and fix it.

The fact that setting limits in a gentle way sometimes doesn’t work doesn’t mean that gentle parenting is not working. It just means that we need to look at the problem from a different perspective and find a positive solution for guiding our kids.

If you wonder what I did in our car-throwing situation, I stopped writing that email and started a game.

I told my son that we cannot throw cars but we can throw socks. So we took our box of folded socks and threw them one by one into the wall.

It was a great game for tempering his anger and frustration. He started to laugh and we had a great time together . At the end, we hugged for a while.

After the hug, he started to put the cars back into the box without me even mentioning it. Then we still played for a while on the floor. He stopped throwing cars ever since. And I still managed to write that email later that night!

More from Playful Notes

If you ever wondered why setting limits with your kids sometimes just doesn't work, here are some important things to consider to help you find the best solution.
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  1. I would really like to download your free guide, unfortunatalely the link doesn’t work (anymore) – neither here or on your ‘Start Here’ page. Could you maybe send it by e-mail?

    I enjoy reading your articles, it resonates with what I’ve read from Laura Markham and other writers that are commited to peaceful parenting. I still struggle a lot with putting what I’ve read into practice though. I’ve had a very different upbringing and a lot of situations at home trigger automatic responses I wish I could change, for example when the kids are fighting or yelling. But I take it one day at the time… I do my best and that’s all I can do. Once again: thank you for everything you share.

    1. Hanna, I can totally relate to what you wrote about having a different upbringing and struggling when dealing with fighting or yelling, because I struggled with this as well when my first child was a toddler.
      I love what you said about taking it one day at the time, because this is how change happens. Things will get easier in time, and the triggers will no longer feel so powerful!
      Dr. Laura Markham gives excellent advice, and her tips helped me every time I faced a parenting challenge.
      The guide you mentioned is no longer available on the blog, but you can check it out here – I hope you’ll find it helpful!