As a play therapist I follow a certain model of setting limits and expectations. This is the ACT model developed by Gary Landreth.
The model goes like this
A- Acknowledge the feeling
C-Communicate the limit
T-Target the alternative
I use this model so much that recently I found myself doing it while walking my dog. He’s a very sweet black lab named Sam.
My ACT limits with him went something like this “I understand that you want to sniff every bush.” “We are not for sniffing everything we are for walking.” “You can sniff everything you want when we get home.”
As you can imagine Sam does not understand these limits and so this often fails.
However, this is good practice to always first acknowledge the feeling. This makes sure that the individuals feel seen and especially when working with children this validates for them that their feelings are important and that they matter. This also allows them to identify their own feelings which is one of the first steps towards emotional intelligence.
Part of the goal of this identifying the feeling is so that children can be taught from a young age to acknowledge their own feelings so that they are taught that their feelings are important and matter.
This allows them to learn to listen to their own emotions so that as an adult they are able to listen to their feelings and their own gut and set the appropriate limits. Parents and caregivers do this for children as they are growing up in order to teach their children how to do this for themselves as adults.
I have used this ACT limits formula for years as a professional nanny before becoming a therapist. This often looks like saying to the child. “You are really upset. You really want to throw sand on the ground.” “The sand is not for throwing on the ground”. “You can run your hands through it and put it in containers in the sandbox.”
Using this model teaches children appropriate boundaries and limits while honoring their emotions and feelings. We also provide the choices for what the child can do instead. This gives them the ability to make their own choices and thus to feel empowered and in control. Some children may question more and then giving some reasons is often helpful for them. For instance “The sand is not for throwing. It is for staying in the container. If all the sand were thrown out we would not have any sand.”
When the child is still struggling to accept the limit we utilize the IF THEN model and the power of choices. This looks something like this “If you choose to throw the sand on the ground then you will lose the privilege of playing with it next session.” “If you choose to throw a fit at the playground then you are choosing to lose the privilege of coming here tomorrow.” “If you choose to get out of bed after I have tucked you in then you are choosing to go to bed without being tucked in.” This sidesteps the power struggle as the child is making the choice and then experiencing the consequence of that decision.
Holding firm to these limits and boundaries is the key. If you waffle on them then the child will waffle on them as well and try to wear you down leading to nagging. Here is an easy one after limits have been set and a child is still asking. “If you chose to ask me again then you are choosing that the answer is automatically no, it is your choice.”
This gives the power and responsibility back to the individual allowing them to learn to make their own decisions while you provide the guidance and consistency they need.