• EQ Explorers Team

How a Play Therapist Sets Limits with Children, And How You Should Too

Gary Landreth is a well-known expert in the field of play therapy. In his book, Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship, Dr. Landreth gives play therapists—and parents alike—helpful advice about how to effectively set limits with kids. His strategies help your child responsibly recognize and manage their emotions and give you the tools you need to parent in an emotionally intelligent way.

Always give your child a choice.

Help your child understand that they always have a choice. While you may set limits, they still have the ability to choose whether or not to comply.

The way that you communicate the limit can help your child understand their choice.

For example, give your child options instead of always saying no in order to help them feel capable and responsible. Look for ways to use the words “choose,” and “choice,” instead of “no,” and “you can’t.”

“You can choose to eat lunch now or you can choose to eat it after we go to the park.”

“You can choose to go to your room or you can choose to stop hitting your brother.”

This way, you’ll teach your child that they can choose the action and the outcome of that action. Giving your child responsibility will show your trust in them and their ability to make smart choices. By giving them choices, you help them understand that their actions and the result of those actions are their responsibility—not yours.

Accept all of your child’s feelings—but not their behavior.

Your child needs to feel loved and cared for. They need to feel that you, as their parent, are a safe person they can trust with all of their feelings.

When you scold, shame, or ignore your child’s emotions, you send a clear message that their emotions don’t matter.

Parents who respond like this, sometimes unbeknownst to them, encourage their children to suppress and ignore emotions, which completely undermines their ability to develop emotional intelligence. Focus instead on validating your child’s feelings and not always their behavior.

For example, if your child throws a fit at the store because you won’t buy them a toy, validate their feelings—anger, disappointment, frustration—and set a clear limit. This will teach your child that their emotions are meant to be recognized and managed in responsible and acceptable ways. As a parent, your job is to boundary any destructive behaviors and validate all emotions.

Do this for your child so they can eventually do this for themselves.

Give total limits, not conditional ones.

Your child is outside playing in the sandbox. He runs inside and asks, “Can I turn the hose on and put water in the sandbox?” Wanting to give him some room to play, but also feeling uncomfortable with the request, you respond, “Yes, but only a little bit.” So, he goes back to the sandbox and runs the hose until the entire box is overflowing. “Didn’t I tell you “only a little bit?!” you say in frustration. “It was a little bit,” he responds.

So who’s right? The answer is: who knows.

Your idea of “a little bit” is very different from his idea of “a little bit.” That is an example of a conditional limit. A conditional limit is debatable and, as Dr. Landreth says, often turns into an argument.

Conditional limits are confusing for children because of their ambiguity.

When you tell your child, “Don’t punch him that hard,” or “Don’t come home late,” how do they know what “hard” and “late” mean?

On the other hand, total limits are not debatable.

They are clear and precise and there is little room for argument or confusion. A total limit sounds like, “Your brother is not for hitting,” or “the door is not for kicking.”

Are you setting total or conditional limits with your children? Do you say things like, “That probably isn’t a good idea,” or “Maybe don’t do that”?

Your child is exploring their world and, in a very real sense, testing the limits of what is and isn’t okay. Some of their behaviors may make you uncomfortable.

Remember: you are your child’s guide.

When you feel uncomfortable and unsure, take time to think of an appropriate limit and then deliberately set it with your children. Clearly teach them appropriate ways to behave by setting total limits, not conditional ones.

It’s all about the way you set the limit.

When your child misbehaves, usually the last thing you feel is calm. Whether they’re screaming in the store or spitting on their friend, this kind of behavior can leave you feeling anxious, frustrated, and uncomfortable. It’s difficult to handle the situation calmly. After all, our child’s behavior can feel very personal.

The reality is that children often misbehave. Otherwise, how would they learn how to behave?

Their misbehavior doesn’t mean you’re a terrible parent, and it isn’t proof that you have no idea what you’re doing. When you stop taking your child’s misbehavior personally, you’ll find you have more space to respond in an emotionally intelligent way.

Dr. Landreth talks about the importance of having a foundation of trust in the relationship between adult and child. When you respond in an anxious and maybe blown-up fashion to your child’s misbehavior, Dr. Landreth suggests that you are communicating mistrust in your child. Your fear that you cannot control the situation is apparent.

Instead, let go of the idea that you can control your child’s behavior.

Have trust in your child; believe that they are capable of making a responsible choice. When setting limits, remain calm and patient. Communicate in a firm and straightforward way.

Setting limits as a parent is a constant challenge.

How should you set the limit? When should you set the limit? What limit should you even set? Approach the challenge with confidence and try implementing Dr. Landreth’s strategies into the way you set limits. Above all else, show your child that you trust and believe in them. By doing so, you’ll eventually teach them that they are capable of making responsible, smart choices.


Landreth, Garry L. Play Therapy the Art of the Relationship. Routledge, 2012.