Setting Limits: No, not for your child….for you!

no--PAIDRead any magazine article or book about parenting and the author will advise the necessity of setting limits for children. “Set limits and stick to them,” parents are counseled. Limits create the structure and discipline that every child needs for healthy upbringing.  Or as I like to phrase it, “Give your child the freedom of a clearly defined limit.”

But for adults—especially those who tend to view other people’s needs and wants as more important than their own—setting limits is more than an exercise in discipline; it’s a vital component for healthy self-care.

Consider Evelyn. Her calendar is filled with one family event after another. A niece’s graduation followed by a great-uncle’s 75th birthday party followed by a tea her mother planned for an old family friend. Much as she loves her family, enough is enough. After a day at work and meeting her immediate family’s needs, she has hardly any time left for herself.

Or Ted whose boss scarcely gives him time to complete one project before he lays on another. Then another. Work is so backlogged Ted stays at the office almost every night till past seven and goes in on weekends as well.

By not setting limits, Evelyn and Ted are letting the needs and wants of others come before their own well-being…and the well-being of their families.  When we are stretched so thinly, our children end up receiving the worn-out grumpy impatient versions of Mom or Dad.

Sometimes it’s difficult to learn to care for ourselves as much as we care for others. Especially if we feel uncomfortable or guilty saying “no.” We may fear losing someone or something if we set limits on how much time we can give or work we can handle. But always giving in to the requests or demands of others is plowing a field where resentments take seed. And failing to assert our needs and wants or to stand up for ourselves is disregarding our physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.

Far from being selfish and mean, setting limits is a healthy act of self-respect.  

It’s helpful, before you give a “no,” to get clear on what you’re saying “yes” to instead.  A “no” to a party invitation may be a “yes” to some down time spent with a latte and a book.  A “no” to another school committee may be a “yes” to having the time to take that painting class you’ve been wanting to take.

Taking a firm stand might be difficult at first. But by being calm, clear and direct—and without intentionally stepping on anybody’s toes—you can learn how to set limits and create the kind of balance in your life that honors your own needs and wants.

For Evelyn, it meant coming up with compromises—she’d attend the great-uncle’s birthday party but drew the line at the niece’s graduation and her mother’s tea. Ted had to explain to his boss that it was impossible to do the kind of job the boss expected if he wasn’t allowed ample time to complete a project.

In each of these scenarios, far from losing something or someone they valued, by setting limits Evelyn and Ted got what they wanted or needed, took good care of themselves and in the process gained a healthy amount of self-respect.  And their children gained a Mom or a Dad who was less stressed and more energetic and happy to be with them.


In what areas are you overextending yourself?  Where can you say “no” to an activity/event that saps your energy and “yes” to something that brings you joy and vitality?

I invite you to practice saying “no” this week.  Identify something you are doing that doesn’t bring you joy and may even be breeding resentment.  In a loving way, just say “no”.  Free yourself up a bit to do what nurtures you and gives you energy.

Don’t your kids deserve more than the worn-out bits and pieces of you?  When you set limits that allow you to fill your own love cup, it will naturally overflow onto those around you.