ACT Limit Setting for Children

I love the ACT Therapeutic Limit Setting method for children. This is a wonderfully positive and helps children to begin to develop self-discipline. This is what we ultimately want for our children – to be able to regulate their emotions and behavior; in addition, being able to set healthy boundaries for themselves and others. That is what I feel this kind of limit setting model can do for those who use it consistently.  I had an opportunity to present to a group of therapists last week and part of this training was presenting this model to them.  It is simple, but effective.  I find it to be respectful of children and gives parents the needed skills to set healthy limits with their children.

Here are the Basics for the ACT Therapeutic Limit Setting, which were developed by Dr. Garry Landreth, University of North Texas and author of  “The Art of the Relationship” and co-founder of Child Parent Relationship Therapy.

ACT Limit Setting 

  1. Acknowledge the Feeling – Example: “I know you want to eat some cookies right now. You are hungry and you like cookies.
  2. Communicate the Limit – Example: “It is almost time for supper. Cookies are for after supper.
  3. Target the Alternative – Example: “You can have some carrot sticks or you can help me set the napkins on the dinner table.”

This is simple, but effective. Part of making it effective is REALLY listening to your child and reflecting what they are feeling. And then respectfully letting them know the boundary, with a follow-up of “what they can do”. This last part is so important in giving the child something to move toward that is acceptable.

You might ask what do you do when the child will not comply? You can first repeat what you initially said. Some choose to repeat this a couple of times, with a bit a space in between the information giving. If there is still no movement toward what is needed, you can then make the choice for the child or follow-up with a natural consequence. With the child in the above example you might simply put the cookies up high out of reach or ask that they go to another part of the home as they are getting into things that are off-limits. Of course standing by the limit you have set is important as well. This all said in a calm, matter of fact voice is best.

For more information about this method you can go to Dr. Garry Landreth’s book “The Art of the Relationship”.

I highly recommend the following video on the ACT Model of Therapeutic Limit Setting. This video is done by Dr. Theresa Kellam. She is one of the co-authors of the Treatment Manual for Child Parent Relationship Therapy. This video is of her own personal experience with her own child when she first learned this method of limit setting and what happened afterwards with her child as she grew older.     Go to: ACT Limit Setting by drkellam.

I encourage you to try this model of limit setting. I think it is a healthy interaction in helping children to learn to self regulate and in learning how to accept and set boundaries themselves when needed.



Here I am presenting a workshop on Family Play Therapy, in which I cover ACT Therapeutic Limit Setting.


Disclosure: This blog is offered as educational information and is not offered as professional therapeutic services. This is not intended to serve as treatment. For professional help contact a local mental health professional . Strom Individual & Family Therapy is not liable for any action or non action you take in regard to this article.


Creating the Balance of Nurturing and Limit Setting with Your Child

Woman and young girl embracing outdoors smiling

Balancing helping your child to feel loved and nurtured AND setting limits can feel challenging. At first look they can feel like opposites. But they are not. I see nurturing and limit setting as the two sides of the same coin. Both are needed to make a whole. One without the other does not work. If it is all nurturing and no limit setting, the results may be children who have difficulties with self control. If it all limit setting and no nurturing , the results may be children who may feel they cannot do anything right or have a low self esteem or who do not feel loved by their parent. Let’s look at what we can do  to make sure both of these sides are covered in our families.

Strategies to Create a Well Rounded Parenting Style of Nurturing and Limit Setting     + (  ) = Ÿ

  1. In families sometimes parents get stuck in playing out one of these roles as the other parent plays out the other role. For example one is the nurturing, listening and I’m here for you parent and the other is the limit setter / enforcer parent. It has a bit of a good cop / bad cop feel to it. And it can cause some problems and issues to evolve. For the parent who is only the limit setter, it can feel like they are the “meanie” to the kids as they are only seeing this one side of the parent. And for the parent who is only playing the nurturing role they appear to be the “fun” or “nice” one. There are lots of pieces to this dynamic. One is that one parent may see a strong role being played by the other parent, so they take on the other to balance things out. Understandable, but it gives a one sided view to the child of each of the parents. It is so much more healthy to share in these two roles, each nurturing and limit setting.
  2. Communication as parents is critical in the balancing of the roles that the parents play and in making sure in general that both parents are nurturing and limit setting.  Really seeing the pattern in your family can help to assess and shift if need be to create a more healthy balance.
  3. Listen to what your children are saying to you. Are they calling you “mean”? Are they saying something like “Daddy always lets me.” or “You never listen to me.” We can learn a lot from what our children say as to how they view us. Really tuning in to what your children say to you can help you to see if you are balanced and covering both roles. Of course, children are not always happy with a limit, even if they are getting lots of nurturing. But the intensity of upset and the depth of feeling will be very different. And the ability to accept a limit will be more apparent with a child who feels nurtured and loved.
  4. If you catch yourself feeling like you only are playing one or the other role, then you can shift and change that. If you are more of the disciplinarian, then you can purposefully do more engaging,  relationship building with your child.  If you notice your spouse is the one who sets all the limits and you hang back as it looks like it is being taken care of,  you can change this by on purpose being more involved in setting limits or boundaries.
  5. If you are a family in transition, with a separation or divorce in process, it is very important to try to communicate and create a healthy balance with these roles. So many times the parent who has the children in their physical care the most, tend to fall into more of the limit setting role and the other may fill the weekend “let’s have fun” role. I might note, it is the opposite in some cases.  Both is needed of course, but if only one role is played at the one house, then there is a missing piece to the puzzle and an in-balance that is not healthy.
  6. Let children know why you limit set or have boundaries or ask that they do a particular thing. It can help when they know that you limit set to protect and you do this because you love them. You might look at an earlier post I did on May 8, 2014, Setting Boundaries with Love.  It has some example of how you can combine limit setting with words of love. This makes limits and boundaries so much easier for children to accept.

Last of all I feel I should say limit and boundary setting is a topic of it’s own. Positive guidance and discipline and how we do this as parents does make a difference. Future blog posts will feature some key ideas in regard to positive guidance and discipline.


Just remember you are providing a solid foundation for a child who feels unconditionally loved with a high self esteem and a child who can self regulate and care for others when you act both as a nurturer and a limit setter. This is one of the reasons why being a parent is one of the most important roles you will ever hold.