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How to Discourage and Prevent Your Child’s Disruptive Behaviors

Parenting skill: Limit Setting

Kelly Youngby Kelly Young, LMSW
Director of Family Preservation Services for the Kansas City Region, KVC Kansas

This article from the KVC Institute for Health Systems Innovation is the seventh in a 12-part series on parenting skills. See previous articles.


Earlier in our parenting skills blog series, we shared tips to help parents reinforce their child’s good behavior through encouragement, or positive reinforcement. We also discussed how to promote desired behaviors by using the when/then rule. When the child behaves appropriately, then they earn a positive consequence.

The when/then rule also applies when parents try to impose limit setting, which is a skill used to discourage and prevent problem behaviors. When the child behaves inappropriately, then they earn a negative consequence.

Strategies for effective limit setting include:

  1. Maintain a 5:1 balance. Provide five positive consequences for good behavior to every negative consequence for misbehavior.
  2. Plan and establish limit setting strategies in advance. This allows for a more positive parent/child relationship. The parent is consistent in the strategy and the child knows what to expect ahead of time.
  3. Intervene early, act quickly, and disengage quickly. Remember, when it’s over, let it go without a lecture.
  4. Match the limit setting strategy to the child and the misbehavior. 
  5. Be consistent. Limit setting strategies are based on child behavior, not on parent’s mood.

Strategies to avoid:

  1. Lectures. The parent may feel better, but the child doesn’t listen.
  2. Arguments. A power struggle reinforces attention to negative behavior.
  3. Threats. Threats unintentionally create a power struggle and teach a child to push the limits.

Different limit setting strategies should be used based on the age of the child. For example:

  • Time-out is effective for children ages 3-11. Time-out is a short, mild negative consequence used for negative behaviors occurring in front of the parent.
  • Work-chores are effective for youth ages 12-18. Work chores are a mild consequence that creates an opportunity for the child to do something constructive and to experience a “repayment” for their misbehavior.
  • Privilege removal is a negative consequence that can used as a back-up for time-out or work chores. If the child does not go to time-out or complete the work-chore as directed, a privilege can be removed. Consider using privilege removal as a stand alone for very serious problem behaviors.

Want to test out these limit setting strategies? Download this Limit Setting Worksheet!

Limit setting is one of twelve skills taught in the Parent Management Training- Oregon (PMTO) model. PMTO is developed on 40 years of research and practice with the core belief that parents are their children’s best teachers. KVC teaches this empowering evidence-based practice to parents and caregivers involved in the child welfare system, but the lessons learned from this model can be beneficial for any parent or caregiver. To learn about PMTO in Kansas, visit the Kansas Department for Children and Families’ website.

Read the other articles in this parenting skills blog series.

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