Child & Family Development Child & Family Development

September 3, 2021

Setting Limits: The A.C.T Method

By: Alyssa White, MS, LCMHCA, NCC

Most children will misbehave at one time or another. However, misbehavior can be extremely stressful for both the parent and the child. So, what do we do to decrease it? We set limits. By setting limits, we are teaching our children about rules, boundaries, responsibility, and self-control. Of course, this might sound like common sense, but we know it is much easier said than done.

One effective method of limit setting that comes with 3 easy-to-follow steps is the A.C.T. method. The A.C.T. method was created by Dr. Gary Landreth (the founder of the Center for Play Therapy) and it is a step-by-step process for communicating limits in a way children will understand.

The 3 steps of the A.C.T. method are:

Acknowledge the feeling.

  • When your child breaks a rule or otherwise misbehaves, the first thing you want to do is identify and reflect on your child’s feelings.
  • By acknowledging your child’s feelings, you are supporting them and their emotions without supporting the undesired behavior.
  • If you need some help coming up with feelings words, check out this feelings wheel:

Example 1: “I can see that you are really angry right now.”

Example 2: “I know you want to eat cookies right now. You are hungry and you love cookies.”

Example 3: “You are sad. I know you would really like to stay up later”

Communicate the limit.

  • After you validate your child’s feelings, let them know that what they are doing is not
  • Instead of saying “No!”, Don’t”, or “Stop that”, stay calm and be clear about the exact behavior that is unacceptable.
  • Use neutral statements such as “this is not for that” (“Toys are not for throwing”, “Mommy is not for hitting”). This helps reduce defensiveness and does not emphasize fault or blame.

Example 1: “I am not for hitting.”

Example 2: “It is almost dinner time. Cookies are for after dinner.”

Example 3: “It is time for bed”.

Target acceptable alternatives.

  • Based on the feeling you identified in the first step, you can brainstorm some healthy alternative behaviors. Offer your child 2-3 choices of how they can express that feeling in ways that are acceptable to you.
  • Giving options in this step allows your child to feel some control over the situation and helps them learn responsibility and problem-solving.
  • It is important not to phrase these alternatives as a question. Instead of saying “Would you like to do ____ or ____?” say “You can choose to ____ or _____”. When this step is phrased as a question, it gives the child the opportunity to say no.

Example 1: “You can decide to hit the pillow or rip up this magazine”

Example 2: “You can choose to eat some apple slices or you can help me set the table for dinner”

Example 3: “We can race to your bed or I can give you a piggyback ride!”

Now you might be thinking “What if my child STILL doesn’t listen after I do these 3 steps?”. If that is the case, you can add a consequence. While still providing a choice, you may say…

“If you choose to _____ [unwanted behavior], then you are choosing to _____ [consequence]. If you choose to ______ [desired behavior], then you are choosing to ______ [reward/absence of consequence]. Which do you choose?”

  • Example 1: “If you choose to hit me again, then you are choosing to go to your room. If you choose to be gentle, then you choose to get to stay on my lap. Which do you choose?”
  • Example 2: “If you choose to whine about the cookies now, then you are choosing to not have any cookies after dinner. If you choose to wait patiently and eat your dinner, then you choose to have a cookie later. Which do you choose?”
  • Example 3: “If you choose to stay out of bed, then you are 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. Which do you choose?”

Again, limit setting is easier said than done! This method may feel unnatural at first and it definitely takes some time and practice, but if you can follow these steps and enforce consequences consistently (when needed), you should see a difference in your child’s misbehavior.

If you’d like more information or a safe space to practice this style of discipline with a professional, reach out to a C&FD counselor!