How to Set Limits Using Positive Discipline

Positive discipline is a parenting paradigm based on listening, respect, and communication. Learn to set limits using positive discipline.
How to Set Limits Using Positive Discipline

Last update: 16 August, 2022

“I try to talk, but they don’t listen to me”… “When I tell them no, they throw tantrums and I can’t control them”… “It doesn’t work the easy way, so I go the hard way”. These phrases are typical of the situations that overwhelm adults who accompany the upbringing of children. They reflect the moments in which setting limits and telling a child that they can’t do something becomes an impossible mission. However, from positive discipline, it’s possible to make children learn to accept a no, develop social skills, and have respectful and appropriate behavior. Let’s see what it’s all about.

What is positive discipline?

For many, it seems obvious that positive discipline is based on respect and recognition of children, their feelings, and their needs, but not everyone understands this. Ageist and adult-centric parenting methods still prevail, which are based on authoritarian statements such as “Children must obey because they’re children, because I’m the parent, and because I say so”.

Positive discipline is based on the theories of Alfred Adler and Rudolf Dreikurs, who postulated that people behave according to their need to belong. Therefore, the objective of this parenting paradigm is to educate through values so that children don’t need their parents to be present in order to know what’s right and how they should act.

To summarize, this discipline promotes the development of self-control, regulation, self-esteem, and autonomy. It seeks to teach children skills and believes in their innate abilities to learn them. Moreover, it provides lessons for life.

It’s very important to clarify that positive discipline is neither positive nor overprotective. It’s not synonymous with a lack of limits, nor is positive discipline overprotection. This type of parenting is opposed to authoritarian styles, according to which the child obeys only out of fear or to comply with authority, but without understanding the meaning of what they’re doing.

Finally, we mustn’t forget that adults are always role models: Children learn through imitation. Therefore, it’s important to analyze our own behavior before correcting theirs.

A mother having an eye-to-eye conversation with her daughter.
Knowing how to correct children with affection and discipline when they have poor attitudes or display inappropriate behavior is key to establishing unbreakable limits. This will make them aware of the boundaries that they shouldn’t overstep and the consequences that their actions may entail.

How to tell a child “no” through positive discipline

When we think we want to dissuade the child from doing something, “telling him no” isn’t the only alternative. Here are some important guidelines to keep in mind.

It’s important to know that setting limits requires adults to be consistent, coherent, and timely (act in time). For example, avoid those actions that confuse the child: Today we allow them not to brush their teeth before bedtime, but tomorrow we get angry when they want the same thing.

We must be clear about the behavior we’re looking for, and we can involve the children in the rules that are established at home. There are some issues that are non-negotiable, such as washing hands before eating, but in others, we can think differently and seek a balance.

Positive discipline takes communication and exchange as one of its fundamental pillars. Dialoguing and negotiating with children is a way to exercise these social skills.

At the same time, we must keep in mind that the limits must be in accordance with the age of the child. Modulating the behavior of a child who is learning to understand no is different than modulating the behavior of a school-aged child who seeks greater autonomy.

At the same time, a very interesting way to say no is to reinforce the desired behaviors. That is, you can seek to shift the focus of attention to what we do allow to be done. “It makes me feel really good when I go into your room and see that you’ve tidied up your toys” reinforces the importance of order and not disorder.

Finally, we have to be prepared to encounter anger or “tantrums”, because we’re not always going to get the response we want. It’s important to be patient and learn to respect our children’s time. What does this mean? That if the child gets angry because they can’t get something, we’re not going to get frustrated or angry as well. Instead, we’ll try to connect with them, help them to be calm, and explain the reason for our decision.

Madre intentando calmar la rabieta de su niño según Montessori.
An angry child’s brain is dominated by their emotions, as they haven’t yet developed their frontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functions (organization, control, inhibition of impulses).

What to avoid if you want to apply positive discipline?

Besides the fact that hitting and spanking are forms of violence and shouldn’t be applied at any time or to anyone, they’re not a source of effective learning. Children don’t learn the behavior we want this way, but rather develop fear and learn to defend themselves.

At the same time, “isolating” the child or using punishments aren’t recommended forms of discipline either, as they’re generally not linked to a specific value or consequence. In other words, if I want my child not to hit their little brother and I send them to their room for doing so, I don’t allow them to assimilate the “logic” between one action and another. I simply ignore the reason for their actions, invalidate their emotions, and make them suffer for the way they externalize them. What positive learning can possibly come from this?

Each child is unique

In addition to all the previous considerations, it’s very important to remember that each child has different desires and needs. Therefore, if positive discipline is a paradigm that we want to apply in parenting, we’ll have to find the right way for our children and make sure that their learning is truly positive.

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  • Santa Cruz, F. F., & D’Angelo, G. (2020). Disciplina positiva para el desarrollo de las habilidades emocionales. Revista de Investigacion Psicologica, (24), 53-74.
  • Castellanos, S. A. P. (2015). Disciplina positiva una estrategia de amor para la promoción de pautas de crianza y manejo de las emociones. Reflexiones sobre la Educacion en Iberoamerica., 24.