June 3, 2023

Setting limits with compassion

Should my teenager be using social media - group of teenagers smiling outdoors

When is it ok to set limits?

The short answer is, when not doing so is likely to cause harm. Parenting can feel like a delicate balancing act, between being too loose and “anything goes” and keeping things tightly controlled like an angry general.  Sometimes one style can lead to the other, for example, laissez faire parenting might involve overriding your boundaries which, over time, is likely to make you angry. Not setting appropriate limits could have consequences for your child’s health – some children need extra help regulating their sugar intake or screen use for example. 

Setting limits with compassion - a unicyclist rides a tightrope holding an umbrella

Learn to tune in to your innate sense of where the limits should be.

When we fail to set appropriate boundaries our brain/gut often gives us subtle signals that something isn’t ok. Pushing away that feeling usually only works for a certain amount of time: Under the surface the pressure might start to build until it bursts out of us like a cork out of a champagne bottle. I experienced this in lock down; my guilt about my son being deprived of social interaction led me to let go of a few things which felt important. The pandemic was a challenging time and letting go of boundaries definitely contributed to an increase in anger within me. When I noticed my mood was having a negative impact on my relationship with my son we sat down to have a talk and a cry together. We renegotiated to find ways of being which worked for us both, for example, him helping more with chores and both of us finding activities we could do together away from screens. It was an important lesson for us both in harmonious living!

Boundaries create compassion.

A study by Brene Brown discovered that a trait all compassionate people shared was cast iron boundaries! But how do you know what your boundaries are? I recommend starting to take notice of background feelings that something isn’t right – is there something you are saying yes to which creates a tightening in your stomach or gives you a sinking feeling? This could be a sign that you are not truly ok with it. I understand how hard it can be to say no – as a caring person I often feel harsh or mean because “no” is still a little unfamiliar to me. Unfortunately however, saying yes to something when we don’t really mean it can often cause greater harm in the long term and leave us feeling disconnected from ourselves.

How to say no gently:


  • Pause and connect to yourself
  • Approach your child with a feeling of warmth and connect emotionally with them
  • Acknowledge their need eg. I can see you really want a biscuit or I know you were having fun playing football in the living room
  • Offer a reason eg. it’s important that we eat a balanced diet and you have already had ice cream today or I am worried my paintings might get damaged
  • Soothe any hurt feelings while sticking to your boundary
  • If appropriate, find alternatives/solutions together (this article on finding win win solutions contains some helpful ideas).

Appropriate limits…

…can increase your child’s well being and overall self esteem. I see parenting as a gradual process of handing responsibility over to your child as they grow and mature. It can be a burden to young people to give them too much responsibility too soon.

Involving them in decision making can help them to develop the skills needed to be self responsible – it can also be an opportunity to educate them about the risks and benefits of certain activities. I would recommend agreeing limits on the consumption of processed food and time spent in front of a screen as there is a large body of evidence to suggest that these activities can cause harm when done excessively. 

According to a 20 year study carried out in the Bristol area, teenagers with the highest levels of well being were those who had parents who showed high levels of warmth while maintaining clear boundaries. I experienced first hand what growing up in a household with very few boundaries was like. For various reasons I struggled to feel safe and envied friends with families which seemed stable and dependable.

At the same time it is important for young people to be allowed to contribute and demonstrate their competence, for example by learning new skill or helping with household chores. If your children are old enough to go out alone, maintaining relationships with the parents of their friends can be an effective way of keeping them safe.

Healthy versus toxic shame

When setting limits, it is important that we avoid creating toxic shame in our children. Toxic shame arises within us when we are told we are not enough, when we are called lazy, stubborn, stupid, a scaredy cat, selfish, a wimp, below average. Labels like these stick and can become part of who we believe we are, causing us to dislike or punish ourselves. If you were called any of these names or worse by your parents or caregivers, working with a therapist or coach can be beneficial to unpick the damage and heal the child within you who was hurt. If you have called your child these kinds of names, healing may need to take place for you both.

According the Gottman Institute, who have carried out decades of research on parenting, healthy shame guides toward self-correction, making amends, and growth. It is the feeling which can arise when we face up to our mistakes and how they may have hurt others or put ourselves at risk. It is appropriate for our children to feel this sometimes – experiencing the effects of their actions on others helps them to become compassionate adults. It is important that we support our child when they are experiencing healthy shame. They may need our guidance to forgive themselves and also need to take active steps to make amends if the situation calls for it, for example repairing something which has been broken, whether this is a friendship or an object.

If you are struggling to know whether, or when to set a limit, I invite you to pause and ask yourself if it is in your child’s highest good or if it is coming from a fearful or anxious place within you. Sometimes it can be hard to let go and allow our young people to step out into the world even when we know they are ready. Thank you for reading this article, feel free to email me if you have questions or would like some support,

If you have enjoyed this article, please also check out my free screen time workbook

Leave a Reply