Setting boundaries with your verbal toddler

Baby’s growing verbal skills are definitely impressive, and as you watch her communicate like a champ, it’s easy to start to expect more and more from her behavior and rule-following as time goes on, too. After all, she can understand so much more of what you’re telling her, right? It’s not always so simple, though. Just because your toddler can repeat your words back to you, and maybe even understand what they mean, that doesn’t mean that she is capable of following many more, or more complicated, rules than before.

Following rules doesn’t just come down to language skills – it also involves impulse-control, which can be a hard thing to learn, and which toddlers don’t have very much of yet. Memory plays a part in rule-following, too, and while Baby’s memory is a lot more robust than it used to be, too, there’s a good chance that even the rules you’ve “told her a hundred times” haven’t quite sunk in in a way that has gotten them filed away in the long-term memory bank.

Baby’s growing understanding of the things you say, including boundaries you set involving rules and safety, will only improve over time, but in the meantime, the best way to make sure Baby follows the rules and guidelines you set is to make sure you’re setting age-appropriate boundaries while she learns, so you’re not asking her to do more than she is able to yet.

Strategies for setting boundaries

When you’re setting boundaries and guidelines to keep Baby safe, and teach her how to act out in the world, there’s no way to avoid a few frustrating moments as she learns, but there are a few ways to help ensure that the transition goes as smoothly as possible.

  • Body language: Language isn’t all about words – Baby is learning about how your body speaks to her, too. If your voice goes into a sing-song cadence when you’re setting out rules about what she shouldn’t do, she might not take your “no” as seriously as you want her to. On the other hand, if you get agitated or upset when you and Baby run into a conflict, it can frighten her, which can get in the way of her growing rule-following skills. Keeping a calm, firm voice isn’t always easy when you and your toddler run into a conflict, but it is the best way to communicate your message to her in a way she can grasp and maybe try to follow.
  • Plan ahead: Knowing what to expect about which rules you’re going to make sure to enforce is important for both you and Baby. For you, it’s important because as much as you’d like to be totally rational all the time, toddlers can have a way of bringing out other people’s inner-toddler, too. If you know which rules you feel it’s important to enforce ahead of time, especially rules that involve Baby’s safety, it’ll be easier to stick to what you meant to say and how you meant to enforce them, even if you start to get a little less calm as time goes on. On the other hand, knowing what to expect helps Baby follow rules because it offers her stability, and gives her the chance to build her confidence in her ability to do the right thing. If dinner always happens at the same time of day, and she is always expected to stay at the table until it’s over, she is more likely to stick around and make polite – if a little limited – conversation than she is if you want her to stay at the table when guests are around, but she is used to being able to run off and play as soon as she is finished eating. Having routines gives toddlers a framework for following rules that can help them figure out new boundaries as time goes on.
  • Set Baby up for success: At Baby’s age, the best way to ensure that she doesn’t break your rules is not to give her the chance to. If you don’t want her to touch something breakable, putting it somewhere that she can’t reach it is a much better bet than telling her not to touch the shiny thing on the coffee table, no matter how firmly or decisively you say it.

Finally, while consistency is definitely a golden rule of discipline, decisiveness is more valuable still – toddlers can learn that sometimes they’re allowed to do certain things, but only under certain circumstances. It might take a little longer to figure out, but toddlers are smart people, they’ll get there. Decisiveness, on the other hand, helps toddlers feel secure in the fact that you’re in control.

  • D’Arcy Lyness. “Disciplining Your Toddler.” KidsHealth. The Nemours Foundation, January 2013. Web.
  • Carla Poole. “Ages & Stages: Helping Children Adjust to Rules & Routines.” Scholastic. Scholastic Inc. Web.
  • Department of Pediatrics: Boston Medical Center. “How Can I Begin Setting Limits With My Child?” American Academy of Pediatrics, 2010. Web.
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