Let’s Talk Family, Column Entry, “Let’s Talk Limit-Setting”

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Column: Let’s Talk Family: Conversations about Faith and Family Flourishing

Column entry: “Let’s Talk Limit-Setting”

By Jonathan Pettigrew, PhD, Arizona State University; Diane Badzinski, PhD, Colorado Christian University

Column Description: Let’s Talk Family: Conversations about Faith and Family Flourishing is a monthly column offering a space to consider research-based, biblically-sound practices for family communication. We all have families. And we all experience messy family communication from time to time. Our column focuses on what works and doesn’t work for helping families be a little less messy and a lot more rewarding. Please join the conversation.

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March 2024

“Let’s Talk Limit-Setting”

“Is that alcohol I smell on your clothes?! Why are you coming home at midnight, an hour past curfew, and you smell like alcohol!”

“It’s not like that, Mom. I was making sure my friends were safe tonight. They wanted to stay late at the party, but I couldn’t leave them to get home alone.”

Ever had an experience like this? Take a minute and pretend you’re the parent in this scenario. What would you do?

A. Yell at the kid that they’re grounded.
B. Apologize for misunderstanding the situation.
C. Administer a breathalyzer to verify the truth of your child’s claims.
D. Table it until breakfast the next morning – send your child to bed and give yourself time to figure out the right response (phone a friend).
E. None of the above.

There could be 1,000 ways to handle this situation. And whatever you choose will have consequences. Yelling might get everyone to bed quickly but might shut off the opportunity to really know what happened (most of us tend to stonewall when people are yelling at us). Giving a sobriety field test may help you know if your child is telling the truth, but it might also alienate him or her, or break the trust you have. And any action will be colored by the relationship you have with your child.

Let’s pretend that for this scene, the parent decides to choose (D) and table it until breakfast the next morning. Let’s pick up on their conversation at 10:00am the next morning, It’s Saturday and the two are eating cereal at their kitchen table.

“Ok [child], we have to talk about last night. Thanks for sharing the full report.”

“I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“I can appreciate that you were helping your friend and showing compassion. That’s a good quality. But we have to address the fact that you skipped curfew. I was up an extra hour, worried about you coming home. And you didn’t answer my texts.”

“I was busy!”

“Ok…let’s just calm down and keep talking. I want to set some rules and consequences for missing curfew. In this house, I feel like it’s disrespectful to me if you break curfew. So, I want to talk it out with you to set some consequences.”

“Ok. Whatever.”

Let’s pause the scene there.  For your family, either when you were a teenager or with your own children, what were family rules around curfews? Were consequences for missing curfew clear in your family?

Diane had an experience once where she had to go to court for her daughter’s curfew violation. It was an innocent issue. Her daughter was participating in a school play and had Diane’s permission to be there. But a police officer pulled her over as she was driving home and gave her a ticket. The regulation at the time was that minors, those under 18 years old, could not be out alone past 11pm during the school year. Diane shared it was the only time she ever had to appear in court besides jury duty.

We want to leave the conversation here. From this point in the conversation, the family might go on to set clear expectations and clear consequences for violating those expectations. Consequences can, and should, include rewards and punishments. For example, being on-time for four weeks will result in setting a curfew an hour later on the weekends. But violating curfew will result in losing an hour. Having these conversations when everyone is rested, and calm makes rules easier to make than when tempers are hot, or situations are stressful. Some people even like to write down these kinds of agreements.

Analyzing the Conversation

But let’s go back and look at the actual messages that were shared. In our last column we talked about the process of setting limits in families, and this week we are trying to illustrate what some of that process (Steps 1-5) might sound like. We want to analyze the conversation to see what communication tactics can lead to positive conversations and clear rule-setting.

First, the parent who had waited up at night past curfew decided that late at night wasn’t the right time to launch into a diatribe about rules. She expressed disappointment, made it clear a rule was broken, but then set a specific time to address the situation, the next morning at breakfast. The mom didn’t wake up the kid at 7am, maybe when she got up, but instead waited until 10:00am when they both were ready to talk. Waiting also gave time for emotions to cool, which leads to a more productive conversation.

Second, when they started the conversation the next morning, the parent/she/he started with a compliment. She emphasized the good impulse and caring nature of her son to take responsibility for his friends. This was a “soft start-up” opposed to a “harsh start-up” which usually puts people in a defensive posture.

Did you notice ways the mom stayed solution-focused? That is an attribute of problem-solving conversations that increases with age. According to lifespan communication researchers Pecchioni, Wright, and Nussbaum, people tend to become more solution-oriented in solving problems than younger people.

She also used I-statements, which we presented in June 2023. I-statements follow the form “I feel [emotion] when you [behavior].” Using I-statements avoids “mind-reading” where one person assumes they know why someone else did what they did. This is another tactic to limit defensiveness in conversations. It also encourages dialogue, not lectures.


Of course, conversations are easy to dissect on paper, but they flow through time all too rapidly. None of us get it right all the time. Plus, using effective communication tactics doesn’t guarantee positive results. Undoubtedly, sometimes a limit-setting conversation will be awkward. Even so, discipline and limit setting are a training opportunity. It gives parents a chance to connect with their kids and emphasize family values, like respect, responsibility, and caring for others. It’s helpful to remember that kids often are trying their wings at taking responsibility. Parents have the chance to coach them in the process.

If you’re comfortable, please email letstalkfamily@proton.me and share one of your stories about curfew. Can anyone top Diane’s experience of having to go to court?

Thanks for joining the conversation.

–Jonathan Pettigrew and Diane M. Badzinski

* The views of any CCSN columnists are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the CCSN. We invite and embrace a wide range of views and critiques on important communication and cultural issues. The CCSN is a community of Jesus followers who study communication. We do not support or promote a particular social, political, or denominational agenda. 


Loretta L. Pecchioni, Kevin B. Wright, and Jon F. Nussbaum, Life-span Communication (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2005),

Jonathan Pettigrew and Diane M. Badzinski, Family Communication and the Christian Faith: An Introduction and Exploration (Pasco, WA: Integratio Press, 2023).

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