Why Setting Limits is Essential for Children's EQ
Updated: Jul 29
You set a new limit for your child, and now you’re the brunt of their anger. You suffer through the eye roll, the all-out tantrum, and shouts of “You don’t care about me!”
Setting limits is hard.
There are many moments when—because of pure emotional or physical exhaustion—we give in and throw our commitment to setting and maintaining limits to the wind. However, it turns out that how you handle limit setting with your children has a pretty big impact on their EQ.
Here are just a few reasons why setting limits is essential for your child’s emotional intelligence.
Limits Teach Children Responsibility
A “free-for-all” relationship or environment is definitely free of responsibility. While it can take intense emotional effort to set limits and stick to them, each time you do, you give your child an opportunity to exercise their ability to choose. Will she clean her room before playing with her friends, or will she ignore that expectation?
Limits help your child develop decision-making skills as they learn how to think ahead.
What will the outcome be if she chooses not to clean her room before playing with her friends? What will the outcome be if she does clean her room? This is an important skill that is vital to emotional intelligence and helps children problem solve and become logical decision makers.
When setting limits with your children, make sure they recognize that they have a choice.
While breaking a rule has a consequence, it doesn’t mean they can’t make that choice; they just have to be responsible for the outcome. Always set expectations with your child and let them know the consequence of crossing limits. Some parents fear giving consequences, but keep in mind that this is an opportunity for your child to learn in a safe environment before heading out into the real world of greater (and oftentimes harsher) consequences. When your kids do cross limits, help them understand how their decisions impact them and affect others. This is how they’ll learn responsibility.
Limits Teach Children How to Manage their Emotions
Your child comes home from soccer practice angry because he didn’t make a goal. Caught up in his anger, he immediately picks a fight with his brother, yells at you, and refuses to eat dinner. You may have an array of initial reactions: you may want to yell back and set every limit imaginable, you may want to hug him and hear about his anger and forgo any limits, or you may want to do something in between. This is a chance for both of you to dip into your EQ and manage those strong emotions. The truth is that by setting and enforcing limits—especially in a situation of intense emotions—you are teaching him how to manage his big feelings.
So, get on his level, validate his emotion, and state your limit.
“I can see that you’re feeling angry right now, and even though you are angry, you cannot _____ (state boundary). If you choose to _______, then _______ (consequence). I want to hear about why you are so angry. That’s not a fun feeling. Will you please stop yelling and talk to me?”
Remember: validate emotions, not bad behavior.
It can be oh-so-tricky, but it is ever important. If you enforce boundaries without validating emotions, you may send a message to your kids that emotions are to be suppressed. Teach them how to recognize and process their emotions and then make logical decisions. And yes, this requires you to be on your EQ A-game, too. In an article in the Parenting: Science and Practice Journal, researchers laid out the connection between EQ and limit setting, especially for parents:
“Fruitful parental limit setting above all requires that parents can recognize, accept, and regulate their own feelings that arise from interacting with the child while at the same time maintaining emotional contact with the child.”
Limits Provide Safety, Stability, and Structure
Have you ever been in a relationship where you never knew what to expect and when to expect it? Is this person going to be mad or happy today? Kind or unkind? If you have, you’ve probably realized it’s not much of a relationship at all.
Developing meaningful and lasting connections is hard—if not impossible—within a chaotic relationship.
There must be some form of consistency and reliability. This doesn’t mean that each person will show up perfectly all the time, but it does mean that there will be limits (or boundaries) that distinguish what is and isn’t okay within the relationship.
Think of your relationship with your child as the template to which he or she will look when creating and maintaining all future relationships.
The expectations and standards you set within your relationship with your child will teach them what to look for in the future. Setting and keeping limits with your children will not only create an environment of safety, stability, and structure, but will also teach them that each of those are characteristics of a healthy relationship. It’s harder for your child to grow socially and emotionally within a disorganized environment or relationship. Every time you mindfully set and maintain a limit with your child, you are teaching them about healthy relationships and supporting their social and emotional growth.
Setting limits for your children is a research-proven way to teach your child essential EQ skills like responsibility and emotional management and provide the ideal environment in which they can develop these skills.
We know it’s tough, so when you hear the “That’s not fair!” and “I don’t care!” backlash, stay strong.
In the long run, if you can mindfully and respectfully set and maintain limits, you’re doing one of the best possible services to your child for the development of their well-being and EQ!
Research taken from “Reflective Functioning, Limit Setting, and Emotional Availability in Mother–Child Dyads” by Clara Moller, et al. in Parenting: Science and Practice (2017), vol. 17, no. 4, pp. 225–241 and Play Therapy: the Art of the Relationship by Garry Landreth