Easier Said than Done?

Setting limits and responding to them when they are breeched can be tiresome and is often difficult when a young person is not around much.  There are some things that can help make the process easier and potentially more effective.

1. Develop the ability to communicate with the young person and understand their perspective. Listen to them and ask questions – good communication will help them feel ‘heard’

2. Involve the young person in a process of consultation and negotiation over what the limits and corresponding consequences might be.  Asking them to nominate consequences or giving them options, can be a productive strategy.  They are more likely to respect a decision they have been involved in making. 

3. Decide on consequences that help the young person develop.  Graduated consequences encourage learning to take place i.e. means starting off not being too restrictive but increasing the restriction if the limits continue to be broken. 

4. Be clear and consistent in applying the limits and consequences.  Once limits and consequences have been agreed you really need to follow through. 

Always treat the young person with respect no matter how angry, frustrated or disappointed you are

5. Be prepared to continually review and renegotiate new limits as the young person matures.  Allowing more freedom is a great way to show you have noticed how a young person has respected previous limits.  Allowing space for young person to take on new challenges and grow are vital as young people mature.

6. Share positive experiences with the young person outside the limit setting role.  Celebrate any achievements – acknowledging positive behaviour is as important as correcting negative behaviour.  Find ways to reward the young person for respecting limits and displaying maturity.  It is really important to focus on the young person’s responsibility for what has happened “you must be proud of yourself”.

7. Ensure the young person maintains strong links with others (complimentary enablers) who share an interest in their safety, health and development. 

8. Acknowledge yourself within the situation. Always treat the young person with respect no matter how angry, frustrated or disappointed you are.  Think about your own behaviour – how you respond to the young person – does it make them angrier or clam down?  You cannot expect them to change if you swear or use violence. 

9. Avoid a Power Struggle.  Everyone loses.  Sometimes boundaries become the focus of a power struggle between the young person and carer.  The young person refuses to comply.  The carer get angry and insist.  The focus becomes on who is in charge here.  Try and listen to their request and see if you can find middle ground.

10. Mistakes.  We all make mistakes.  You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t!  You will probably make mistakes in the limits or consequences you set.  This is nothing to be ashamed of.  It is great if you can acknowledge mistakes, this can be important modelling for young people.

Things will often get harder first…

If this is something new, it is often difficult to start using a different approach and it might take some time to implement.  The young person may rebel against the new approach, so for a time things may become worse before improvement becomes evident.  Be patient, young people rarely learn from one cycle of doing and receiving consequences.  Repetition over time is a necessary part of learning.

An example of when limit-setting helps a young person develop

A young man who was 17 living in residential care took the unit car for the joy ride after the keys were left in it one morning.  Considering the safety of the young person the police were contacted, as were the insurance company.  Later in the afternoon the young person called the unit, telling them the car wasn’t damaged but wanted to know “what are you gonna do?”.  An arrangement was made to pick up the young person and if there was no damage to the car, no charges would be laid.  After this they would talk about consequences.  The young person agreed to this, he didn’t want to be charged and trusted this worker.

When they got back to the unit the workers decided that they needed to let the young person know it was not alright to steal cars or anything from the unit or anyone else. They also wanted to find the best way to get this message across and ensure the young person understood why.

Instead of excluding or rejecting him, they bought him into the process.  This surprised the young person.  The workers gave him a chance to explain his reasons which he wasn’t able to give.  The worker then explained why they were so concerned, highlighting his and others safety, the need for the car for other young people at the unit and limited resources to replace the car. After some time of silence, the young person apologised.

The workers then asked the young person what he thought they should do.  He told them to “call the Police”.  They explained they didn’t think it was necessary and wouldn’t be helpful.  The three of them worked out the consequences together but the final decision was made by workers.  It was agreed that if the young person didn’t follow through with the consequences, he would be banned from outings.

The young person followed through on the consequences to wash the car and help the worker with grocery shopping for that week and the workers followed through by not calling the police.

This response was useful as:

  • The workers stayed in control of the process
  • The young person learnt some good skills through the consequences i.e. budgeting
  • Relationships and connection to the unit were maintained
  • The young person appeared to have a better understanding of the consequences of his actions
  • The process focused on behaviour change rather than ‘teaching the young person a lesson’
  • The process also challenged some negative beliefs and perceptions of the young person rather than reiterating his own such as “I’m trouble, I’m no good, no-one cares, you can’t trust adults, I deserve it”
Further Resources