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Setting Limits: The A.C.T Model

It's not uncommon for children to test limits from time to time, presenting challenges for both parents and children alike. So, how can we minimise these occurrences? The answer lies in setting limits. By setting limits, we impart important lessons about rules, boundaries, responsibility, and self-discipline to our children. While it may seem straightforward, putting this into practice can be more complex than it sounds.


One particularly effective approach to setting limits is the A.C.T. method, comprising three simple steps developed by Dr. Gary Landreth, founder of the Center for Play Therapy. This method offers a structured process for effectively communicating boundaries to children in a manner that resonates with them.


The A.C.T. method involves the following steps:


1. Acknowledge the feeling.

When a child breaches a rule or engages in misbehaviour, it's crucial to first recognise and validate their emotions. By acknowledging their feelings, we demonstrate empathy and understanding without condoning the inappropriate behaviour.


Instead of immediately admonishing the behaviour, take a moment to identify and articulate the underlying emotion. A feelings wheel can be a helpful tool in this regard.


For instance:

  • "I can see that you're feeling really angry right now."

  • "I understand you're hungry and you love cake."

  • "You seem sad; I know you'd prefer to stay up later."


2. Communicate the limit.

After acknowledging the child's emotions, clearly communicate the boundary or limit regarding the behaviour.


Maintain a calm demeanour and avoid using negative commands like "No!" or "Stop that." Instead, articulate the specific behaviour that is unacceptable in neutral terms.


For example:

  • "Hitting is not acceptable behaviour."

  • "Cake is reserved for after dinner."

  • "It's bedtime now."


3. Target acceptable alternatives.

Following the identification of the underlying feeling, offer the child healthy alternative behaviours aligned with the identified emotion.


Present 2-3 options for acceptable expressions of the emotion, empowering the child to make a responsible choice.


Avoid framing these alternatives as questions to prevent the child from simply refusing. Instead, present them as choices.


For instance:

  • "You can choose to hit a pillow or tear up this magazine."

  • "You have the option to eat apple slices or help set the table for dinner."

  • "We can race to your bed or I can give you a piggyback ride."


If a child continues to disregard the established limits, you may introduce a consequence while still offering a choice:


"If you choose to [undesirable behaviour], then you're choosing [consequence]. If you choose [desired behaviour], then you're choosing [reward/absence of consequence]. Which do you choose?"


For example:

  • "If you choose to hit me again, then you're choosing to go to your room. If you choose to be gentle, then you choose to stay on my lap. What's your choice?"

  • "If you choose to whine about the cake now, then you're choosing not to have any cake after dinner. If you choose to wait patiently and eat your dinner, then you choose to have a cake later. What's your choice?"

  • "If you choose to stay out of bed, then you're choosing to give up your TV time tomorrow. If you choose to get in bed now, then you choose to have your TV time tomorrow. What's your choice?"


Remember, implementing effective limit-setting strategies like the A.C.T. method may feel unfamiliar initially, but with practice and consistency, you'll likely notice positive changes in your child's behaviour over time. You've got this.

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