The world can be an intimidating place for kids, particularly when they're just being exposed to life outside of their immediate family. They look to you, their parents, to tell them what's expected of them, what's OK to do and how they're supposed to act.

In other words, they look to you to set boundaries for them to live their life by. When they're very young, boundaries typically center around safety, but as your kids get older you'll need to introduce a new set of limits that are appropriate for your child's expanding world.

According to the National Association of School Psychologists' (NASP) Position Statement on Effective Parenting, setting limits is one of the parenting practices that "helps children to grow up mentally healthy and socially responsible, and prevents problem behaviors."

Setting limits, says NASP, "can help children feel that the world is predictable, orderly and safe."

Many parents have a hard time setting boundaries for their kids because they don’t want to dampen their creativity, their natural sense of exploration or, often, because they don’t want to appear "mean."

"Parents are people too, and so we sometimes are more concerned about our children liking us than doing what is right, because doing so may feel temporarily uncomfortable," says Hale Dwoskin, CEO and director of Sedona Training Associates.

However, if you neglect to set firm boundaries for your kids, they are most likely going to keep pushing the limits. While this can get frustrating from a behavioral perspective, it also puts the child in a dangerous position of "testing the waters" (drugs, alcohol, sex, talking to strangers, eating poorly, etc.) without knowing whether they're safe.

"Children need to learn the rules of life so that they can deal with the way most people see life with greater ease," Dwoskin says.

How to Set Effective, and Fair, Boundaries - and Keep Them

The idea of setting limits for your child is to love and protect them, not control them. With that in mind, here is what you need to know to set and keep proper limits for your children:
  • Consider the child's age and developmental factors. Boundaries for young kids should be safety-oriented, while those for older kids, while still looking out for their safety, need to give them appropriate opportunities to make mature decisions.
  • Review your child's boundaries regularly. As your child gets older, expand the existing boundaries and introduce new ones as needed (for instance, they may get to stay out an hour later, but need to know that they can only take the car to their friend's house, and nowhere else).
  • Explain the limits to your children. don’t just assume that they'll know what they are. Sit down with them and explain the limits very simply and firmly.
  • Explain the consequences of breaking the boundaries. It's essential that there are consequences for going beyond your set boundaries. Tell your child what they are upfront (for instance, five minutes in their room for a young child, or taking away driving privileges from an older child).
  • Enforce the limits consistently. If your child breaks the rules, you must follow up with the consequence, each and every time. If your child keeps pushing the limits, make the consequences appropriately more severe.

What to do if YOU Have a Hard Time Setting Limits

If you have a hard time saying no to your child because you're afraid he or she won't like you The Sedona Method can help you to release this self-sabotaging feeling.

"If you let go of the feeling of wanting love from your children and focus instead on loving them and doing what is best for them, it makes it much easier to know when to - when not to - boundaries for them to live by," Dwoskin says.

Meanwhile, realize that setting boundaries should always leave room for your child to grow, spiritually, emotionally, physically and independently.

"It is important for children to learn that there are boundaries, but that as they get older they're going to need to make decisions for themselves, and sometimes it's OK to think outside the box," he continues. "As parents we often have a hard time setting boundaries because we were taught too many of them - they where phrased as absolutes by our parents - we try to avoid making the same mistakes in our own children."

"Yet, for most of us whatever we try NOT to do we are drawn to simply do more of," Dwoskin says. "So it is important to release our fears about parenting so we can take what we were taught to a new level and approach our children with more love and understanding."