So what’s the point of limits and consequences?

To help young people learn safely.

Limits are most often set around behaviours that are believed to compromise the safety, health and future prospects of the young person.  Young people will often complain about limits in their desire for more responsibility than carers are prepared to give.  However, setting limits that are linked with fair consequences provides structure and a sense of containment.  Knowing that someone in their life cares enough about them to look out for them and ride through the bumpy times, creates a sense of security and belonging that comforts most young people.  When the limit setter is believed to be genuine and consistent the young person will have more investment in this relationship. This also promotes staying connected and riding through tough times with the limit-setter when they arise.

Social Learning Principles provide an understanding to young people’s behaviour.

  • Young people behave the way they do because they have learned that behaviour or because they have not learned an alternative.
  • Young people rarely learn from one cycle of doing and receiving consequences.  Repetition over time is a necessary part of learning
  • The more consistent and immediate the carer is in giving consequences, the faster the young person learns
  • There are three primary ways of learning: explaining, rewarding and providing negative consequences
  • Acknowledging positive behaviour is as important as correcting negative behaviour
  • Set a good example for the young person to follow.  Be a good role model
So what are the limits and consequences?

Young people will encounter limits throughout their lives whether at work, school, in relationships or walking down the street.  There limits are in place to provide boundaries and security for both the person and others around them. 

For limits to be followed, there must also be consequences.  Wherever there is a limit there should be a consequence when limits are broken.   Consequences help the young person take responsibility for their behaviour and see the effect on others.  This doesn’t need to be thought of as a punishment.  There is not much point in having a limit that a young person has to be home by a certain time if they learn they can break it and nothing happens. The young person must know you will follow through with any consequences you use – your words lose all impact if they do not believe you will follow though.  If you have been in the habit of making threats that never happen they won’t take you seriously.

Effective Limits need to be:

  • Clear and reasonable – contradictory and confusing messages will only leave the way clear for misinterpretation
  • Appropriate for the young person’s age and maturity
  • Consistent over time and between carers.  Inconsistencies create opening for young people to play limit setters off against  one another in interest of ‘getting their way’
  • Individually tailored to the young person
  • Flexible to change with circumstances, as the young person matures and has a new level of independence, or when no longer relevant
  • Necessary – pick and choose your battles. If they don’t do this, will it really matter?  Will the argument be worth it? Can I really enforce it?  Sometimes it may be more appropriate to change your expectations.  If a young person’s behaviour is extreme maintaining only the important limits such as safety of others is better than trying to also maintain mainor ones such as washing dishes.  Ignore the behaviours you can live with. 

Examples of Limits:

  • How to treat other family members
  • Places they can go
  • People they can spend time with
  • Things they can do
  • Sexual Behaviour
  • Driving young person around or use of cars
  • Having guests in the house
  • Use of telephones or internet
  • Substance use

When making limits some things to consider are:

  • What context or behaviours do the limits apply to?
  • Where are the limits drawn and how is this worked out?
  • How much say, if any, does the young person have?
  • What strategies are used to ensure the young person stays within the limits (what inducements to do so)
  • When a person has gone over the limit what are the consequences, if any?
  • Clearly state the expectations to the young person “I need you to speak to me respectfully if you want me to drive you”

Effective consequences need to be:

  • Related to unacceptable behaviour.  It is best if the consequence has a natural and logical connection to the issue. E.G: removal of access to TV for damage to TV
  • Reasonable, timely and proportionate to the behaviour i.e. not being thrown out of home for using drugs for the first time.
  • Relevant and important to the young person
  • Realistic. They need to be able to be followed through on.  Any impact will be lost if young people do don’t believe consequences will be enacted.  
  • Graduated.  Start with something not too restricting but increase restriction if the limits continue to be broken.  This encourages learning and makes follow through easier.  

The best consequences are natural consequences.  It is better not to protect them from consequences in the outside world.  If they break school rules, let the school deal with it.  If they are caught breaking the law, let the police and courts decide.

When determining consequences consider:

  • How much say does the young person have?
  • How are the particular limits and corresponding consequences communicated to the young person?
  • How prepared is the limit-setter to enact the consequences?
  • What process in place for limits to be reviewed and renegotiated to cater for increased maturity and expanded capabilities as they emerge?
  • What is young person role in this process?
Further Resources