Limit Setting with the A-C-T Model

For most parents, limits are usually set with one of these three words:
NO.
DON’T.
STOP.

You Can Set Limits Without Saying no.

I am not advocating for permissive parenting where children get everything they want at the moment that they want it. What I am talking about is an ILLUSION of getting everything that they want. Or at least having the ability to feel some sense of control in their life when they are a young people.

One of the most common concerns that parents and caregivers bring up to a counselor is how to manage a child’s misbehavior. Some children act out more than others, but it is always stressful for both the adult and the child when misbehavior occurs.

It is important to address the child’s behavior in a way that he or she can understand. Children’s brains are different from adult brains, so we need to be able to communicate limits and consequences in a child-appropriate manner.

Setting limits involves three simple, adaptable steps: Acknowledge the feeling, Communicate the limit, and Target acceptable alternatives, or A-C-T.

All three steps are important but as parents, we usually start with the limit.   No, you cannot have my drink. You see how this sets up a power struggle and a disappointed child.

Automatically, the child is angry with you as the parent. YOU won’t give me what I need/want.   By starting with the feeling, you automatically connect with the need and soften the blow of the limit.

A: Acknowledge the feeling. 

Letting a child know that you know how they are feeling helps them to feel heard and understood. Acknowledging emotions also helps an upset child address their feelings and can help them calm down faster. By acknowledging the child’s feeling, you support your child’s emotion even if you cannot support your child’s behavior. Reflecting feelings and intentions helps children learn feeling vocabulary and feel supported.

Actively listen to what your child says. Withhold Judgment. Provide validation through mirroring (repeating what they’ve said in your own words to ensure you understand) and give appropriate support to show that you value them as a person with their own thoughts and experiences. When you skip this step, you run the risk of your child feeling unheard.   Validate first.  When a person feels validated, they are much more likely to listen to what you have to say. This is essential when you are trying to communicate a limit.

So, in the example about the drink, you may start by saying, “You are thirsty.”

C: Communicate the limit. 

It is alright for a child to have feelings, but it is not appropriate for them to behave destructively or inappropriately. After validating their emotions, let them know that what they are doing is not OK. Be sure to word the limit so that you are saying “no” to the behavior and not to the child themselves. It is important to use statements that make sense and do not emphasize blame or fault. 

When you remind your child of the limits and consequences, be mindful of your tone and nonverbal body language. Remain calm and keep statements objective.

If your verbal and nonverbal messages don’t align, you will be sending confusing signals to your child and they will likely respond to the negative message. This is only human.

In our example, you could say, “This is my drink and it’s not for sharing.”

T: Target acceptable alternatives. 

Simply telling a child “no” can lead them to feeling frustrated. They are trying to deal with their emotions and need to learn how to handle them safely. Offer other ways they can express themselves that are acceptable to you. It is also important that the child feels they have the ability to make their own choice, which helps them learn responsibility and problem solving.

Offer one choice for younger children and 2-3 choices for older children and teens. Over time, children start to memorize the options too and then you have to do less limit setting. The A-C-T method also grows with your child. It works for 2-year-olds and it works for 16-year-olds.

Once you have identified your child’s feeling or intent, you will be able to identify a healthy alternative. Direct your child’s attention away from the original object by looking, pointing, and stating new alternatives. Be creative in offering choices with which you are comfortable and proceed.

State alternative ways of handling situations that could still result in meeting the identified needs of your child. Consider creative solutions or compromises when appropriate. Brainstorm possible solutions for future situations so that your child has ideas for handling similar situations better next time. This helps your child to see that you are approachable when they need support.

It is important that you do not offer a choice that you can’t deliver.

To complete our example, “You may have your own glass of water or milk.”

If the child persists in the inappropriate behavior, stay firm and consistent with the limit. You can first repeat what you initially said. Some choose to repeat this more than once, with a bit of space in between the information giving. If there is still no movement toward the desired result, you can then make the choice for the child or follow-up with a natural consequence.

Another example might be when a child throws a toy. You could say, “You are frustrated that the toy is not working the way you want it to work. Toys are not for throwing. You can ask for help or play with a different toy.”

An example for older children could be when they want to go out on a school night. “You are disappointed you cannot go out tonight. School nights are for homework and family time. You can go out on Friday night or have friends over on Saturday.”

This type of limit setting can take some getting used to. Practice the three parts and soon it will become natural to respond to your child with the A-C-T method.

Part of making it effective is REALLY listening to your child and reflecting what they are feeling. Then respectfully letting them know the boundary, with a follow-up of “what they can do”.

This system works because children like to do what they CAN DO.  If they know that something is always allowed, they become more likely to just choose that thing in the first place.  Over time, this makes your job easier.

This method is positive and helps children to develop self-discipline. To be able to regulate their emotions and behaviors is what we ultimately want for our children. In addition, we want them to be capable of setting healthy boundaries for themselves and others. For those who use it consistently, that is what I feel this kind of limit setting model can do.

It is simple, but effective. It is respectful of children and gives parents the needed skills to set healthy limits with their children. By using the A-C-T model, you ensure that your child feels heard, limits are more likely to be maintained, and peace returns to your household.

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