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Aggression and Children—IV  

This month I address setting limits and expectations with children. Limits and expectations should be clearly communicated. When you have clear boundaries of behavior you want your children to respect, you should clearly state what those boundaries are. If there are particular words you don’t want them to use, state the words rather than just saying “bad language.” The same thing applies to things like curfews, whether they are general or specific to a particular day or activity, places children can be or not be, and other domains of behavior some are concerned about (e.g. physical aggression, name calling).

The other thing that gives a limit power is attaching it to a consequence. Indeed, lack of compliance to commands also need to be attached to consequences. Children need to know that lack of compliance or violating boundaries will end up in a consequence. They should also know what the consequence is. This is a cue to you about what is important in setting up consequences. They should also be clearly communicated, and for the most part, children should know which consequence is attached to which behavior. Everything about limits and expectations should be very predictable for them.

In thinking about consequences, it is important to consider the level of compliance that is required from a child for a consequence to be delivered. You should have consequences they need to comply with as well as consequences that don’t require any compliance. As the latter are generally more difficult to implement and difficult to find, it is often useful to put in place a two tier system of consequences. In the first tier, the child is given a consequence that requires their cooperation. This might be something like going to time out. Then, if they do not cooperate with the consequence, there is a backup consequence that you can implement without their cooperation. This might be something like losing television or access to a video game for the rest of the day.

The emotional tone you adopt when implementing consequences is also important. They should be delivered in an emotionally neutral manner. Sometimes parents try to hold out as long as possible before delivering a consequence, but this is problematic for a number of reasons. One is that it usually means they end up delaying the delivery of the consequence until they lose their cool. The consequence isn’t as powerful when they deliver it in anger. In addition, when parents use their own emotional response for when to deliver consequences the consequences become less predictable for their children. And less predictable is less powerful. I often tell parents they need to make sure they set up to implement consequences at a time before they get upset. It generally helps them feel better about it in the long run as well.

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