In the previous article we talked about the importance of setting healthy boundaries and what overly permissive or overly strict parenting leads to.

But how does setting boundaries look like in practice? What to do and what not to do if you want your child to stop climbing on furniture, throwing food on the floor or making a mess everywhere - and in general, to behave in the way you think they're supposed to?

The following sounds familiar to many parents: you explain, yell, and get angry, and yet your child continues misbehaving, as if anything you sa goes in one ear and out the other. Effective boundary setting is not an easy thing to do and there is no universal formula for success. Still experts advise parents to follow a few basic steps and rules, which with a little practice could help them keep stress levels down and make children happier and more responsible in the long run.

Step 1: Connect with your child

When a child acts naughty, parents usually react by giving orders and consequences. Before that, however, there is one important step that is often missed, even though it makes our next actions more effective. Instead of directly telling the child to stop running or to put on their socks right now, it's important to first establish a connection with your child - with your body and words.

This means approaching your child, kneeling down to their level (or even lower), making eye contact, putting your arm on their shoulders or hugging them. When a child starts acting out or has a temper tantrum, the only part of their brain still functioning is the impulsive emotional centre, which reacts best to physical contact.

It's also important to show understanding for your child's feelings. For example, if they want to watch more TV although they've already had too much screen time, you can start with empathetic statements like "I know how much you like this character..." or "This episode was really great". This way your child is more likely to hear the next thing which you have to say.

Step 2: State the limit  

Once you've established a connection with the child, it's time to clearly state your expectations. Instead of directly proceeding with the word "but" ("I know how much you like that show, but it's time to go to bed") it's better to make a short pause, followed by your rule in a calm voice.

It's important to be clear and concise, because long explanations only make it harder for children. A common parenting mistake is to go into long explanations, but in moments of strong emotions the child's brain is unable to understand rational arguments. In case you do want to provide an explanation, it shouldn't be longer than one or two sentences, for example "It's 8 o'clock already and it's time to go to bed. You have to get up early tomorrow morning." If you use too many words with a toddler whose language skills are still developing, you run the risk of confusing and frustrating them even more. The older the child is, the more reasoning and explaining they will be able to handle.

Another important rule is to formulate your expectations with positive statements, i.e. to tell the child what they not do, instead of what they shouldn't do. When a child hears "Don't run!" their overexcited brain recognizes only the word "run" and they continue to do just that. Instead of "No…" and "Don't…" you can say what exactly the acceptable behavior is, like "Let's walk calmly." or "Hold my hand."

Instead of the negative     Use the positive  
"Don't shout!""Talk quietly."
"Don't jump on the bed!""I expect you to lie under the covers and get ready for sleep."
"Don't go in the puddles!""Jump over the puddles or walk around them."

Step 3: Redirect

Once you have clearly stated your expectations, it's time to direct your child's attention to something else they like, or to offer them a choice. It's best to give 2 options - for example, "You can't have cake now, because it's for dessert. I can offer you fruit now - would you like an apple or an orange?" By giving the child a choice (which still follows by the rules) you demonstrate that you respect their dignity and need for autonomy. You give them the opportunity to exert the authority they strive for, as well as to exercise their decision-making skills.

Another effective method for redirecting inappropriate behaviour is giving an acceptable alternative (for example, letting your child throw soft toys on the floor instead of something breakable) or engaging your child in helping out (for example, putting groceries on the belt in the supermarket). In fact, children love to cooperate and be of help to adults, but often don't know how to and so need guidance and support.

Older children (4 years and above) can be involved in finding a solution to the problem. Thus parents can connect with and develop that part of the children's brain which is responsible for logical thinking and reasoning. For example: "I see you really want that piece of cake. The problem is that if you have it now you won't be able to eat your healthy dinner. How do you think we should solve this problem?"

Step 4: Praise

Praise is often overlooked in parenting, while parents are too busy reprimanding. However, there is a great power in praise and it can be the key to good behavior, self-confidence and motivation. When you "catch" your child being good, and communicate how happy that makes you, it's much more likely to have a cooperative child next time as well.

In order to have the proper effect though, praise should be specific and sincere. This means that instead of "Good boy/girl" or "You're the best in the world", it's better to say "I'm so glad that you put all the toys in their places. The room looks so tidy and cozy now." or "I really liked it when you managed to show some patience and left the cake for dessert."

And don't forget these helpful tips:

1. Pick your battles...  

Imagine hearing "You don't" and "You can't" all the time and being repeatedly told what you're doing wrong. Rules are beneficial for children, but it could be a problem when they are too many (and their constant repetition and observance is not healthy for parents either). Children need to feel that they have freedom of choice and autonomy, even if this could have negative consequences. And is it really such a big deal if your child gets dirty in the mud or wears their vest over the sweater? If you realise that you're giving out orders all the time, maybe it's time to rethink the rules. This will also make children more willing to cooperate in times that really matter.

2. ... and stick to them.

Once you pick out the important rules, you must stand behind them firmly. Being consistent is indeed one of the biggest challenges in boundary setting. There are just so many difficult situations, like when you're in a hurry to leave the house and there's no time to pick up the toys. Or like when at the end of the day you're so tired and your child is crying so loud about one more episode that you just cave in and overdo screen time.

Crying, shouting and other loud outbursts from your child can make you back away from your words, especially when it's the easier way out. That kind of inconsistency, however, will eventually turn on you, as it gives the child a sign that rules are not so important. If you'd like to gain your child's trust and give them a feeling of security and predictability, then saying something should mean doing it. Moreover, your child should ideally see you follow the rules as well (related to screen time, for example). It also helps if adults in the household have relatively unanimous opinions about what's allowed and what's not.

3. Don't take it personally

As exasperating as it is to try to put on your child's PJs while they're running away and hiding from you, you should remember that such moments are completely normal for child development. They're not an attack on your personality, but a "rebellious" phase, which every child has to go through in order to build important life skills. It's actually a sign of healthy development when toddlers become increasingly daring, stubborn and self-willed after their first birthday. All you are expected to do is take a deep breath, try to remain calm and accept these moments as valuable opportunities to support your child's development.

Expect more information about the typical mistakes parents make when setting boundaries.


"No-Drama Discipline" by Daniel J. Siegel, MD and Tina Payne Bryson, PhD, Originally published in 2014.

4 Steps to Setting Limits with Your Kids, Dr. Kim DeMarchi, MEd

"This publication was created with the financial support of the Active Citizens Fund Bulgaria under the Financial Mechanism of the European Economic Area. The entire responsibility for the content of this publication lies with the Health and Social Development Foundation and under no circumstances can it be assumed that this publication reflects the official opinion of the Financial Mechanism of the European Economic Area and the Operator of the Active Citizens Fund Bulgaria."