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Limit setting

Beverley Sutton

The use of limits is essential to prepare a child for the reality of life. Parents should encourage a child to work out his own solutions to problems posed by a limit, and give him understanding and guidance in finding alternative behaviour. Limit setting is involved in the weaning process, toilet training, sexual expression and gratification, excessive dependency and independence, and aggressive impulses that exploit others.

Setting limits
Limits have value in that they

  1. help the infant establish identity apart from his surroundings;

  2. provide control for external stimuli as well as internal tensions and feelings;

  3. stimulate the urge toward mastery of functions normal to a developmental period;

  4. develop character through identification with the fair use of strength and firmness of the parents and

  5. promote personality development in areas such as values, standards, and conscience formation.

People who try to make things easy for children by not limiting their actions may produce children who are slaves to their own impulses, and they then have to test each situation anew to find limits and controls. True choice is a fatiguing process and the experience on which a child bases his choice is often insufficient, thus the child must depend on adults to teach him discipline and shortcuts for the formation of good habits.

Punitiveness as an adult attitude, on the other hand, is one in which there is consistent and excessive ventilation of personal aggressions on the child and this is sometimes confused with discipline. In some cultures the parents may feel that in order to correctly rear a child it is necessary to hurt him. Henry IV in his letter to his son's tutor stated that it had come to his attention that the child had not been spanked and that from personal experience he knew it was necessary to spank them frequently in order to correctly rear children. The French are sometimes referred to as the most spanking people on earth and their word "fuesseur" comes from this. A child's response to punitiveness is usually some combination of the following: 1) behaviour that invites punishment; 2) longing for retaliation which may or may not be directly expressed; and 3) self-judgement. In the pre-school years children occasionally need punishment such as spanking to condition them against potential physical danger that may be very traumatic - such as busy streets. Except for these relatively rare occasions, children respond better to limits that are firm but not punitive. Such limits can be enforced by a temporary isolation from the group, taking away a privilege, or giving extra work to make restitution.

Inducing guilt-feelings
One very subtle form of punitiveness is the deliberate stimulation of the child's guilt feelings or feelings of worthlessness, by saying such things as "Aren't you ashamed? Are you so dumb that you can't understand this?"

The ideal attitude balance between a parent and child is defined as a situation of mutual respect. The mutual respect balance exists when each person is respected in his right to achieve the masteries and pursue the satisfactions of a particular developmental level, until that pursuit infringes upon the rights of another person to do the same. At the point of infringement limits are set which are sufficiently firm to insure the rights of each person on an on-going basis. According to the Johnson-Czurek equation, children will live up to the expectations of others to their biological capacity.

The following are some common limit infringements:

Over-submission: the adult gives in to the child's immature demands without sufficient regard for his own rights and needs. The child will then usually be excessively demanding, have temper outbursts when his demands are not met, and have little consideration for others.

Over-coercion: the adult directs and redirects the child's activity without regard for the child's right to initiate and pursue his own interests and activities. The child will usually show undue reliance on outside directions, dawdle, forget, day-dream, and present active or passive resistance

Perfectionism: parent withholds acceptance of the child's behaviour, expecting the child to be more mature than can be comfortably achieved at the child's developmental level. This child will usually be striving, preoccupied with physical, intellectual, and social accomplishments, and because of the discrepancy between expectations and abilities at that developmental level, will often feel a low self-esteem.

Neglect: parents or adults who have little time for consideration of the child's right for attention and assistance at each level of development. The child will usually be incapable of forming close, meaningful relationships or to get satisfaction from them. He may be impulsive, and because of his lack of close relationships fail to learn self-control through this relationship.

Hypochondriasis: the adult is consistently fixing attention on the functions of the child's body and judging each minor ailment and sensation with a great deal of exaggerated anxiety. The child will tend to be excessively complaining and anxious about all body sensations.

Over-indulgence: adults constantly showering a child with goods and services irrespective of a child's needs, will produce a response of boredom, lack of initiative or capacity for persistent efforts.

Distrust: if an adult anticipates failure or inadequacy on the child's part, the child will fulfil this anticipation to his biological capacity.

Rejection: an adult who allows no acceptance of a child within a group will produce bitter, hostile, anxious feelings in the child with low self-esteem.

Punitiveness: adults who excessively inflict personal aggressions on a child thinking this represents 'discipline' will produce behaviour in a child that invites punishment, longing for retaliation and low self-esteem.

Seductiveness: adults who consciously or unconsciously stimulate the child's sexual feelings will produce a child who is prematurely and excessively preoccupied with sex, hostility and guilt.

Multiple infringements
Children are resilient and can absorb some infringements without manifesting symptoms. And most adults are flexible enough to correct themselves if the relationship deviates from a mutual respect. However, the infringements discussed above rarely occur singly, and two or more may be operating in the same relationship producing compound symptoms in a child. It is very necessary to correct these relationship imbalances for the sake of the mental health of the members involved. As the child grows into adulthood he will become a parent himself, and will tend to repeat the adult-child reactions he experienced in his own childhood.

Written by Dr Beverly Sutton, while Director of the Children's Psychiatric Unit, Austin State Hospital, Texas. From Child Care Work in Focus copyright Academy for Child and Youth Care Practice.