Setting Limits the Problem-Solving Way
By Eleanor Reynolds, Children and Families Expert

What is the problem-solving approach to parenting? It is a way to approach your child’s inappropriate or undesirable behavior as a problem to be solved. When siblings fight, the problem-solving approach helps the children solve their conflict through negotiation. When a child is upset or fearful, the problem-solving approach uses active listening to help the child express his feelings. When a child’s behavior is unsafe, destructive, irresponsible, or disrespectful, the problem-solving approach provides strategies for setting limits. Setting limits the problem-solving way considers the need behind the behavior and helps the child fill that need responsibly.


Benefits of the Problem-Solving Approach

Teaching through problem solving instead of by punishing enhances and enriches the parent-child relationship. The problem-solving approach does not use “discipline,” because that term represents rules and punishment. The goal of problem solving is to teach. By teaching your child the appropriate and responsible way to behave, you give your child the gift of a lifetime, not a punishment for the moment.


How and When Do You Set Limits?

First, ask yourself, “Is a limit really needed or is there a satisfactory alternative?” “Could my child learn something positive by continuing this behavior?” “Is there a better way to help my child fill his needs?” If you decide a limit is needed, here are the problem-solving ways to set limits:


The I-Message (a three-part statement). State your feelings, what is happening, and why you are concerned. I-Messages teach your child how to respond to your concerns. When using an I-message, bend down to your child’s level and make eye contact. Keep your voice and facial expression pleasant, with a sense of expectation. Show that you trust and expect your child to respond responsibly. If safety is involved, remove your child from danger as you speak. Examples: When I see you running indoors, I get scared because you could slip and hit your head. I feel irritated when I’m on the phone and you make so much noise that I can’t hear Grandma. It upsets me to see your books on the floor because they can get torn.


Giving Information. Ask yourself, “What does my child need to know about this problem?” Give information in a conversational, nonconfrontive way and wait for the response. Add information as needed; children seldom react instantly to any request. Examples: Time to put away your toys (wait)... The toys get put away (wait)...I’ll sit with you while you put them away (Stay until they are put away. With toddlers, offer a little help). Time to get dressed (wait)...Your shirt goes on first (wait)...Let me know if you need help.


Natural or Logical Consequences. Consequences are the results of your child’s behavior. A natural consequence happens without your help, such as pain when a child runs and trips. A logical consequence is one you arrange to fit the behavior, but it should not be used as a punishment. Ask yourself, “What would be a logical result of this behavior?” Examples: You didn’t get dressed in time so I’ll have to take you to preschool in your pajamas. You watched TV too long, so we’ll have to skip our bedtime story. Your juice spilled on the floor. Here’s a paper towel to wipe it up.


Contingencies. Your child must complete one action before she can perform a second action. Ask yourself, “What should she finish before she can start something else?” Your presence may be required to assure that she finishes the first task. Examples: When your toys are put away, we can go to the playground. When your pajamas are on, you can watch TV.


Choices. These should always be real choices between two fairly equal options, not between something desirable and punishment. Present a choice in a neutral way, not favoring either. Make sure that the choice is acceptable to you. Ask yourself, “How can I avoid a power struggle over this?” Always provide your child and yourself a way out. This works well with strong-willed, confrontational children. Examples: Here are three outfits: You may pick the one to wear. Would you rather have peas, carrots, or corn?



Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers and the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach. She can be reached by email at