The importance of setting limits and how to do it: children and adolescents

The importance of setting limits and how to do it: children and adolescents

We encounter daily situations of «disobedience» on the part of children. It is normal and necessary that it happens when the child is in the moments of consolidation of his individuality. And even more so when dealing with people with whom the emotional involvement is intense, so we should not feel like victims.

There are always difficulties and contradictions when educating children but let us keep in mind that the lack of consistency and clarity in transmitting the rules makes children insecure and nervous (more crises, tantrums, and whims). Those who live with the child must agree on the rules and educational guidelines that will be asked. 

If disobedience is continuous, we should think that the child is not happy and that he/she is asking for help.

Why do they sometimes provoke us?

The child loses limits easily, which distresses him, so he calls the adult to see if the same thing happens to us and to know with our example how to react. What reassures him/her is to see our security (it is not that he is asking for a spanking to calm down).

As adults, we must adapt our authority to the new individual who is growing up, with his own desires and rights that come up against the limitations corresponding to the desires and rights of others.

What are boundaries for?

Throughout their growth, children need limits and rules that help them know their possibilities, how far they can go, and what is expected of them. It is about providing a frame of reference and not so much about what to do when the child becomes «impossible».

Limits help them grow, while punishments create anxiety and low self-esteem. Through them, you can teach your son or daughter self-discipline; he or she will learn to deal with his or her own responsibilities without being reminded, developing strategies to impose limits on himself or herself.

The first limits have to do with the care provided to the baby in the attention to his basic needs, and allow him to differentiate little by little what he is from what others are, the internal and the external, with which he will be able to advance in the organization of his personality.

Limits will also help the child learn to deal with uncomfortable emotions such as frustration, anger, boredom, or sadness. Every boundary is an opportunity to learn to manage emotions.

Through boundaries, we teach our children that we care about them. Very often, children test limits to see how adults will react. Implementing negative consequences for breaking the rules shows that the adult is not letting the situation get out of control, creating security in the child.

Thanks to limits, he/she will learn to be able to postpone the immediate satisfaction of his desires, which favors coexistence and socialization. They will also be able to advance in their autonomy, from the external control provided by the adult to the development of their own criteria, being responsible for their actions and self-control.

How to set boundaries?

When setting boundaries, we must consider certain factors that will help us to do it correctly:

  • Be clear that limits are necessary for the child.
  • Be calm when we request or prohibit something from the child, so he/she will be more willing to comply with what is asked of him/her. That is to say, do not wait to set limits when they have already exceeded our patience.
  • If the child reacts to a small frustration with a tantrum, we must wait until it passes, restrain him physically if there is a risk of injury, and then put into words what has happened («you got angry because of…»).
  • When we forbid something, we can offer the allowed alternative. Knowing how to give him alternatives helps them learn to decide.
  • It is better to select and establish the highest priority that we are going to ask for and wait until it is achieved, rather than trying to make him respect new rules. Neither wear out our authority in the face of unimportant details nor fall into the extreme of «let them do it» for everything.
  • Offer explanations or reasons to justify the demands («it can break… «you can hurt yourself… «it is not yours…») without trying to justify ourselves. 
  • Do not try to discuss the reason for the limit. It is enough to give a reasoned explanation of the expectation we have, sometimes silence is a powerful tool.
  • Few commands, but clear and expressed in a positive way (negative commands invite rejection, create more resistance and desire to transgress them). In other words, express what you want, not what you don’t want.
  • Make sure that the rules are appropriate to the child’s maturity level (make sure that the child understands them) and that they are coherent, not contradictory or arbitrary. And also, they must be true.
  • The limit must be set in time and the child must be made aware of it, and even know how much time he/she has to react to the proposed rule. We cannot always demand immediate obedience as soon as we try to set a limit since we are not looking for a submission but for learning. 
  • Involve your son or daughter in the creation of limits or house rules. In this way, not only are they motivated to follow the limits and routines by having participated in their creation, but they are also learning problem-solving skills.
  • Let’s try not to mix up the different situations; it’s not the best time to «teach» rules when we spend time having fun through play and conversation.

Setting boundaries in adolescents

In adolescents, being able to set boundaries is one of the best ways to improve communication and build more trust, thus reducing conflict. At this age, knowing how to set and shape boundaries (perhaps from when they were younger) forces you to recognize the fact that your son or daughter is growing up and needs the control established when they were younger to be loosened and adapted to their new circumstances so they can mature.

It is especially important in adolescents that the limit be very clear; the following formula can be used:

Limit or rule (what is not allowed) + exceptions to the rule + consequences of not complying.

Important points to keep in mind when setting limits for adolescents:

  • Be consistent with the rules, it is especially important to agree with everyone in the house on what the limits are and not to forget to apply the consequences. Adolescence is a period in which it is normal to try to find inconsistencies in the rules we are given in order to break them.
  • Allow them to understand the natural consequences of their actions and decisions. Many times, it is not necessary to set a limit but to make your son or daughter understand that he or she will be responsible for the consequences of his or her actions. For example, if their actions result in a financial cost, they will be responsible for paying for it with their own money, or they will do a chore around the house that is monetarily equivalent.
  • Respect in the same way you want to be respected. Adolescents are beginning to create their own identities and understand their place in the world, and to do so they need to feel respected as individuals by their parents. It is through mutual respect that we manage to set limits that they themselves choose to respect.

At the end of the day, we have to remember that rules and limits are essential, but from the support, affection, and above all the understanding that makes us understand the struggle between complying with certain rules and limits and the child’s need to assert their independence and autonomy. 

We must find a balance between the socialization of our children and their need for affirmation, autonomy, and independence. It is from here that they will be able to face the negative emotions that appear throughout their lives without having to recur to alternative ways (alcohol, drugs, violence…) to manage them.

María José Rubio Alfonso
Division of Psychology, Psychotherapy and Coaching
María José Rubio Alfonso
Adults and adolescents
Languages: English and Spanish
See Resumé

After Lucia: Grief, Bullying, and Violence

After Lucía is a Mexican production that deals with issues such as bullying and violence in the classroom in a raw and cold way, intertwining this main theme with problems such as grief, lack of limits in adolescents, and lack of emotional management skills among many others.

The film tells the story of Alejandra, who moves to Mexico City with her father after the death of her mother in a traffic accident in which she was present. There, a series of events is unleashed that give rise to bullying that escalates until it explodes. The tragic death of Lucia, the mother, has turned Roberto (the father) and Alejandra into vulnerable beings, who have not yet overcome their grief. Hence the title of the film, since this vulnerability is a facilitator for the bullying to occur to such a high degree, the protagonist not being able to count on her father as a source of help and support.

The film takes care of disconcerting the viewer, using a very slow and realistic narrative, in which we slowly get to know Alejandra, and together discover all the hardships she is going through. At times one might think that such coldness in the face of suffering is impossible in young people, but reality can surpass fiction.

Unprocessed grief

In the first half of the film, we see several scenes in which the director subtly reflects the lack of a healthy processing of Lucia’s grief. The first scene shows how Roberto picks up the car from the accident at the mechanic’s shop and leaves it abandoned on the street, with no explanation to the viewer as to what is going on. We also see how Alejandra says that her mother stayed in Porto when asked about her, or how Roberto does not want to use the same things from the old house. Through these examples of avoidance in the face of the impossibility of facing reality, in addition to small details and many walls of silence and sudden explosions of emotion, Michel Franco lays the foundation on which all the subsequent violence is maintained.

The Bullying

Alejandra’s relationship with her classmates begins as normal, a new girl who joins the popular group, they go to a party, drink and do drugs together and she has sex with one of them, who records everything. Here we begin to see Alejandra’s self-injurious behaviors, who agrees to be recorded without imagining what could happen next. The virtualization of the video at school is the trigger of harassment that increases exponentially, going from verbal annoyances to physical and sexual violence and social exclusion, being ignored, while she suffers all kinds of mistreatment. In addition, it is seen how electronic devices facilitate the rapid increase in harassment.

To understand the film, it is necessary to look at the phenomenon of naturalization of violence in schools, which is becoming more and more established, becoming a «normal», «everyday» violence.

Causes and consequences of bullying in After Lucia

We see how Alejandra’s relationship with her father is apparently good and «relaxed», which is in reality quite fragile and superficial, with no trust and based on lies and cover-ups, making the protagonist more vulnerable. She has no support to defend herself, recently orphaned from her mother, with a father who doesn’t know how to devote quality time to her, being the new girl who needs friends no matter what. There is also latent guilt in Alejandra for the death of her mother, which is never explained to the viewer; this guilt may be the cause of the passive attitude she shows in the face of harassment, almost implying that «I deserve it».

Where are the adults?

Something that is very evident throughout the film is the lack of adult presence, not only on the part of Roberto who does not find out until the end of what is happening to his daughter but also from teachers and parents of other students. There is a scene, in which we see how they mistreat Alejandra on her birthday after a class in which we do not see a single adult intervene in any way, although this happens inside a classroom of the institute. Neither in meetings at classmates’ homes nor on school trips, do we hardly see the presence of adults setting any kind of limits.

The social tribe

One of the greatest complexities in adolescence is the codes generated among peers. One of them, latent in this film, is that denouncing is equivalent to exclusion since the one who takes it «puts up with it». Alejandra abides by these codes fiercely, being the moment in which she lies when asked directly what is happening at the point of no return. Here the aggressors are aware of their impunity and everything begins to unfold at breathtaking speed.

We also observe the establishment of roles and the desperation to get out of the role of the victim. We see at the beginning that one of the boys in the group is the one who fulfilled this role before Alejandra arrived, being an overweight adolescent. As soon as the ban is opened to harass the protagonist, this is one of the characters who harasses more strongly, since he sees the opportunity for someone else to take the role he had been playing until now, and feels that he belongs to the group in a stronger way.

The consequences of bullying that we see in Alejandra are evident: anguish, sadness, isolation, social phobia, learned helplessness, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and depression. The aftermath of bullying usually accompanies people into adulthood, resulting in depressive adults, with a tendency to addiction or prone to develop a psychological disorder.


After Lucía is not an «easy» film but a hurtful, uncomfortable, and raw film that makes you feel the hopelessness of the protagonist and generates feelings of anguish, helplessness, and rejection. The great achievement of this film is that it makes you feel the pain of the characters. The viewer finds himself wanting it to end or for something to happen that generates some kind of justice… and the ending will not leave any viewer indifferent.

María José Rubio Alfonso
Division of Psychology, Psychotherapy and Coaching
María José Rubio Alfonso
Adults and adolescents
Languages: English and Spanish
See Resumé

Different Ways to Limit the Use of Smartphones in Teenagers

Different Ways to Limit the Use of Smartphones in Teenagers

Electronic devices are very useful tools that have become an intrinsic part of our lives today. Used in the right way they become an added value and in the wrong way they become a hindrance.

The first thing we need to understand is the extent of the importance of these devices in our lives. As professional adults, we have integrated them into our daily lives as an indispensable tool to work, socialize, book events, pay, play sports, entertain ourselves, organize our agendas and an infinite etcetera.

Taking this into account, why do we expect that for teenagers this is different? The use of electronic devices is as necessary for the proper functioning of different areas of their lives as it is for adults, arguably even more so, considering the omnipresent role technology has come to play in education in the last couple of years. We know that there are both advantages and disadvantages to the use of these devices and yet, when we see a teenager with a SmartPhone we seem to only remember the latter.

Perhaps this is because we are more afraid of the possible adverse effects than the possible benefits. We know that on the one hand the correct use of electronic devices can help in socialization, create new ways of learning, increase problem-solving skills and frustration tolerance (video games), enable creativity and freedom of expression, and allow unlimited access to information. But on the other hand, technology abuse among young people can lead to addiction and isolation, higher levels of anxiety, behavioral disorders, poor school performance, depression, stress and lack of interest in their surroundings.

The important thing to recognize here is the difference between the causes behind the advantages and disadvantages. The advantages associated with the use of electronic devices appear with their correct use, and the disadvantages appear when there is an abuse. It is misuse and abuse, therefore, that we must avoid.


If you’re concerned about excessive use by your teen, you can take action following these advices:

  • Create a family compromise, with space and time rules that you all must abide by. For example, you cannot use the cell phone before 9 a.m. or after 10 p.m.; it is important to propose interesting and fun alternatives to do together such as watching a movie as a family, playing a game, creating something together such as a model or puzzle or sharing any activity that is interesting for them such as learning to play an instrument. With that we will get them to see it not as a restriction but as a change.
  • Let them know the advantages of not being always available, of a complete digital disconnection from time to time. You can plan one or two days a month when they will do a new and rewarding activity away from home (an excursion, a concert, a spa day, a culinary event…).
  • Support them in using apps that expose them to getting outside. If they like to do sports, there are many options that make it easier to do it outdoors, including an app, Caminandum, that helps you find people who practice the same sport or activity to do it together or lend each other equipment.
  • Use educational apps with them to learn together, for example a new language. There are free apps like Memrise and Duolingo that allow you to learn while playing, or paid apps like babbel that are more complete at an academic level. Teach them that they can use the devices to satisfy their curiosity and learn something new about a topic, introducing the question of the veracity of sources and making sure your children are prepared to recognize fake news.
  • Participate in your children’s online activities. If you play online games together or show interest in their favorite group they follow on social networks, they will become shared hobbies. This way, you will have more control over the time spent on these activities.
  • Explain to them the differences in smartphone use and all that it offers in an understanding way. We want them to understand how to properly use the devices so they can fend for themselves, not impose our own judgment.
  • Be an example for them, engaging all adult family members to be one as well. If we ourselves are hooked to the cell phone or tablet whenever we have a free minute, we are validating a wrong behavior. On the contrary, we can teach them how responsible use looks like, sharing with them the utilities that we take out in the day to day. Parents remain the most important role model in a teenager’s life.
  • Make sure you have a way to estimate the number of hours your kids spend online realistically .Android, for example, has a «Digital Wellness» feature that tells you how many times you unlock your phone and how much time you spend on each app. Sometimes looking at the stats helps you realize the problem, and reflecting this back to them in a sympathetic way can lead them to decrease exposure on their own.
  • Try not to go to extremes, such as blocking your kids’ internet or taking away their devices abruptly; you’ll make it even more desirable.

There is only one valid slogan for the use of these devices, and that is equilibrium. To achieve a digital well-being, knowing which devices or applications to use at what time and when to stop. It’s not just the time in front of the screen that matters, but the quality of what they are watching, which means that if we can’t significantly reduce the time they spend in front of the screen, we can make sure they take advantage of these devices in the same way we do.

To summarize:

To limit the use of electronic devices in teens we need to help them find the balance that they themselves fail to achieve. As parents, you can:

  1. Share time online by taking an interest in what they are interested in.
  2. Propose family digital wellness and viable, healthy and fun alternatives.
  3. Be a role model, an example of good use of electronic devices.
  4. Explain in an understanding way the differences between use and abuse
  5. Make sure they understand when use is excessive, teach them statistics
  6. Help them satisfy their need to explore and their curiosity in an adaptive way.

In this new technological age, we are presented with a million possibilities and therefore a million decisions on a daily basis. We have in our hands devices that allow us permanent accessibility; it is up to us to turn them into a helpful tool or a handicap. This is the idea that we must convey to teenagers.

For more information on prevention, differences between use, abuse and addiction, risk and protective factors, and guidelines for appropriate use, the Universidad Complutense de Madrid has prepared a Guide for parents and educators on the safe use of the Internet, cell phones and video games.
Available at the following link:

María José Rubio Alfonso
Division of Psychology, Psychotherapy and Coaching
María José Rubio Alfonso
Adults and adolescents
Languages: English and Spanish
See Resumé

Psychological trauma and its consequences

Psychological trauma and its consequences

What ‘s trauma?

According to the World Health Organization, trauma occurs when: The person has been exposed to a stressful event or situation (both brief and prolonged) of an exceptionally threatening or catastrophic nature, which could cause profound discomfort in almost everyone (W.H.O.: ICD-10).

Trauma is a psychological reaction, following a negative and highly stressful event that appears unexpectedly and uncontrollably. By compromising the physical or psychological integrity of the person who suffers it, and being unable to cope with it, it creates a very intense discomfort in him/her.

The high psychological impact of traumatic events occurs due to the intensity of the event along with the absence of adequate psychological responses to cope with something unknown and unexpected.

To consider an event as traumatic it has to be of a negative character, unexpected and sudden.

A large part of the individuals who face a traumatic situation suffer psychological consequences afterwards, which can be acute or chronic. In the first post-traumatic moments there are symptoms that can be considered normal and very often, these symptoms remit spontaneously, but sometimes the consequences last in time or increase affecting mental health.

Symptoms associated with trauma

Once the initial shock is overcome, responses to a traumatic event may vary. The most common responses are:

  • Flashbacks and nightmares.
  • Anxiety and constant nervousness.
  • Anger.
  • Denial of the event.
  • Changes in thought patterns.
  • Increased difficulty concentrating.
  • Avoidance behaviors towards memories of the event.
  • Intense fear of a recurrence of the traumatic event, especially on anniversaries of the event or when returning to the site of the original event.
  • Withdrawal and isolation in daily activities.
  • Decline in general health or worsening of an existing illness.
  • Changes in mood.
  • Dissociation.
  • Irritability and sudden mood changes.
  • Physical symptomatology of stress, such as sweating, headache and nausea.
  • Sleep disturbance or inability to sleep (insomnia).

For the most part, those affected will not develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety or depressive disorders or dissociative identity disorder, but normal manifestations of post-traumatic syndrome, even in situations of high psychological impact.

Traumatic disorders

After exposure to a traumatic or stressful event, severe psychological reactions may develop, leading to one of the disorders related to trauma and stress.
The diagnoses included in this category of disorders are:

PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)

Probably the most common and studied, with a prevalence of 1-4% of the population. It is especially common in people with professions that involve a risk of exposure to traumatic events (police, health, military…). Symptoms such as persistent and recurrent nightmares and insomnia, flashbacks, isolation and high reactivity (aggressiveness, hypervigilance…), irrational fears, derealization (feeling that the world is not real) and depersonalization (feeling like an external observer of oneself) and dazedness are common.

ASD (acute stress disorder)

It is characterized by PTSD-like symptoms that occur after the traumatic event. Such symptoms may last from two days to 4 weeks after the traumatic event. What differentiates it most from PTSD is that the symptoms must appear almost immediately after the event.

Adjustment disorder

Symptomatology appears after a clear and definite traumatic event, within three months of onset, but cannot be classified as PTSD. There is intense distress disproportionate to the severity or intensity of the stressor and significant impairment in normal functioning. Distress manifests with decreased work or school performance, changes in social relationships, complications in an existing illness, problems in a partner or family, and financial difficulties.

Reactive attachment disorder (RAD) (diagnosed only in children)

It is characterized by a distortion and lack of development in the ability to relate socially. Common symptoms include sadness or fearful reactions for no apparent reason, emotionally poor reactions to others, episodes of high irritability, and limited expression of positive affect.

Disinhibited social engagement disorder (DSED) (diagnosed only in children)

Appears a lack of selectivity to attachment figures of choice, being overly familiar with unfamiliar people and seeking affectionate contact outside the close social circle

Other specified disorder related to trauma and stress

Symptomatology characteristic of trauma- and stress-related disorders appears, causing significant distress and impairment in all areas, but criteria for any of the above diagnoses are not met. In this case, it is specified which other disorder might be influencing the symptomatology

Trauma and stress-related disorder not specified

The same as the previous disorder, but without specifying any other disorder.

There are several factors that can make traumatic experiences more negative. On the one hand, factors associated with the person him/herself such as the way he/she perceives and experiences the situation, resilience or mental health history. On the other hand, there are the factors associated with the situation itself: human and material losses, extension in time or chronicity, age at which it begins (in case of abuse). Finally, factors associated with the place where the event occurs; the presence of social support, the existence of preventive measures, the community culture itself, or the existing mental health care in that society.

Trauma in childhood

Considering that during childhood a child is dependent on his or her caregivers, any abusive or neglectful behavior can have a traumatic effect, being experienced as a threat to his or her own integrity.

In addition, in childhood it is common for mistreatment to be continuous, being a chronic situation for them. It is important to highlight that abandonment is another form of maltreatment, being as psychologically harmful as physical or sexual abuse.

Consequences of childhood trauma: When to seek professional help?

The reactions shown by children and adolescents who have been exposed to traumatic events can be summarized as:

  1. Development of new fears.
  2. Separation anxiety (especially in young children).
  3. Sleep disturbances.
  4. Nightmares.
  5. Sadness.
  6. Loss of interest in normal activities.
  7. Decreased concentration.
  8. Deterioration of school work.
  9. Anger.
  10. Somatic complaints.
  11. Irritability.

The functioning in the family, group of friends or school can be affected by these symptoms, putting at risk the mental stability of the youngest.

Dissociative disorders: response to chronic trauma

What is dissociation?

The term dissociation refers to a disconnection between mind and body; a disruption in the way the mind handles information. You may feel disconnected from your feelings, thoughts, memories and the environment around you and it can affect your sense of identity and perception of time.

Dissociation is a human defense mechanism against trauma, which allows us to blur and even eliminate experiences that are too painful to assimilate, especially when we are children and we are developing. Thus, in the face of abuse or maltreatment (especially in childhood and adolescence), dissociative symptoms are a lifesaver for many victims; the problem is that this reaction, in principle adaptive, becomes dysfunctional very quickly, affecting the mental health of the victims.

Dissociative symptoms

Dissociative symptoms are divided into three blocks: amnesia, derealization/depersonalization and confusion/alteration of identity (Steinberg, 1995).

Amnesia serves the function of allowing the patient to go on with life by selectively forgetting the distressing situation and intolerable emotion; in Dissociative Identity Disorder for example, the parts dealing with everyday life situations usually present amnesia for previous traumas.

Depersonalization disconnects the body from consciousness so that the individual can detach the traumatic experience from his or her own emotions; often when there is severe trauma we do not perceive the emotional part of the experience to defend ourselves against the degree of emotional arousal it provokes.

The alteration of identity alternates one mental state with another without creating a meta-consciousness that encompasses both.

Dissociative disorders

Dissociative disorders include several syndromes with the common core of an alteration in consciousness that affects both identity and memory:

  • Dissociative amnesia, in which patients lose autobiographical memory of certain events, usually events of a traumatic or stressful nature.
  • Dissociative Fugue, in which amnesia covers all (or at least a very large part) of the patient’s life and is accompanied by loss of personal identity and in many cases a physical relocation (hence the name). Dissociative amnesia can be diagnosed with or without dissociative fugue.
  • Dissociative identity disorder or DID (formerly multiple personality disorder), in which the patient appears to possess and manifest two or more identities (a «host» personality and one or more «alter egos» ) that alternate control over conscious experience, thought and action and are usually separated by some degree of amnesia.
  • Depersonalization disorder, in which patients feel that they have changed in some way or are somehow no longer real.
  • Dissociative disorders not otherwise specified, in which the patient manifests some dissociative symptoms to some degree but falls short of qualifying for a diagnosis of the above.

Although the effects of trauma can impact areas of functioning that seem remote from the trauma, considering trauma as the primary causal influence of symptoms can help empower individuals to heal themselves with support, and validation in a safe environment.

María José Rubio Alfonso
Division of Psychology, Psychotherapy and Coaching
María José Rubio Alfonso
Adults and adolescents
Languages: English and Spanish
See Resumé