En español



Quick Links

Family Checkup

Question 4: Setting Limits

Are you able to calmly set limits when your teenager is defiant or disrespectful? Are you able to set limits on more serious problem behavior such as drug use, if or when it occurs?

Setting limits helps parents teach self-control and responsibility, show caring, and provide safe boundaries. It also provides youth with guidelines and teaches them that following rules is important for their success in life.

Defiance/Disrespect and Setting Limits

  • Negative example: Mom argues
  • Positive example: Mom stays in control


Teenage Drug Use and Setting Limits

  • Negative example: Mom overreacts
  • Positive example: Mom stays reasonable


A Two-Step Process

Step 1: Setting Rules

  • Make clear, simple, and specific rules.
  • Make sure your child understands your rules.
  • Have a list of consequences.
  • Be ready to follow through.

Step 2: Following Up

  • Research shows that parents are most effective in setting limits when they follow up right away, giving consequences when rules are broken and offering encouragement when rules are followed. Youth are more likely to follow rules if they know parents are checking up on them and will enforce the consequences consistently.

Extra Tips

  • State the limit and the consequence clearly.
  • Catch the problem early.
  • Avoid arguments and threats.
  • Remember to use a firm and calm tone of voice.
  • Follow through each time a limit is stretched or a rule is broken.
  • Offer encouragement each time a rule is followed.

Testing Limits

Testing limits is a natural part of growing up, but it presents a special challenge for parents. Often our first reactions may come from fear for our child’s safety, or anger at being disobeyed. The SANE guidelines can help parents establish appropriate consequences when youth break rules.

  • Small consequences are better
  • Avoid consequences that punish you
  • Nonabusive responses
  • Effective consequences (are under your control and non-rewarding to your child)

Youth may get angry, act out, or become isolated when parents enforce consequences. Your child is testing you and your limits. Don’t react. Be consistent with your rules.

Practice Skills

Video: Clear Rules


When stating rules:

  • Be calm.
  • Be specific.
  • State only one rule at a time.
  • Remember to stay involved and notice when your child follows the rule.

Video: Privilege Removal


When giving consequences, remember:

  • Label the problem behavior in terms of your rule.
  • State the consequence clearly.
  • Avoid arguing.
  • Ignore trivia.
  • Remember it is normal for kids and teens to react negatively when they receive a consequence.

Video: Making Clear and Effective Requests

To make effective requests:

  • Be specific.
  • Make only one request at a time.
  • Focus on what you want, not what you don’t.
  • Remember to make sure your child does what is asked and give praise when he or she does.

This page was last updated August 2015