Toddlers and limit-testing

By now, you’re probably pretty familiar with this one: your toddler is moving around, exploring, seeing the world, when all of the sudden, he sees something he wants to explore, and knows you won’t let him get into. There’s a look at the place he wants to explore, a glance at you, then back to his goal. Then there’s a reach, a step, or a gesture… he is testing you.

These tests can come in many forms. Common ways your toddler may test the limits of your or other caregivers’ authority include doing something they’ve already been told “no” about, engaging in dangerous behavior, looking directly towards you as they attempt something, asking or demanding for something completely unreasonable, having a total meltdown, or playing “boss” to other children, or even you. Only you know where these limits lie, what you’re comfortable with, and how far you’re comfortable letting him push.

Healthy limit-pushing

Testing the limits of his world is an important part of your toddler’s development as he grows. Frequent “tests” from your toddler don’t mean that he’ll be fighting you all the way through childhood – it just means that he is seeing more and more of the world around him, and wants to carve out a place for themselves in it. Limit-testing is a sign of his growing drive for independence as he makes his way through the world!

Responding to limit-pushing

As you’re working out where the limits it’s important for you to enforce are, during this stage of Baby’s life, when he is always pushing, it’s important to make sure Baby’s other caregivers are on the same page with you. Limits surrounding safety are going to be the most important, and also the most important to be consistent with, no matter whose care Baby is under, but there may be other limits that you, or Baby’s other caregivers, feel are especially important.

Once you’ve worked out which limits your family is going to be working extra hard to enforce, there are a few strategies that can be helpful to use when you’re communicating them.

  • Figure out when to redirect: There are definitely situations where it’s important to say no, when it comes to passing ideas that might never occur to Baby again, or when safety isn’t an issue, often just suggesting to him that it might be more fun to do something else will help the two of you move on from the situation without letting it turn into a conflict. During this time in Baby’s life, it can feel like all you ever say is “no,” and a little redirection can help you feel less like a broken record, and let you save your “no”s for when they really need to count.
  • The benefits of choice: When Baby starts to test you, instead of just stopping him, try offering him a choice of things he could do instead. If he protests at the idea of taking a bath, you can ask him which parent he wants to bathe him (if you’re parenting with a partner) or which bath toy he might want to take into the bathtub with him. It may not be enough to slow him down if he has entered full-on tantrum mode, but if he is just getting started, being offered a choice could help him feel more in control of the situation, to the point that he may be less likely to push when you ask him for something.
  • The trick to consequences: The thing about setting up consequences for your toddler’s actions and behavior is that they really only work if you consistently follow through on them. If consequences are a strategy for modifying your toddler’s behavior that your family has agreed on, it’s important to be consistent about the way you enforce them. Every family has different values, which inform consequences, but in general, consequences that are the logical extension of a toddler’s actions make the most sense to him. If he keeps grabbing the book out of your hands, maybe he gets to go to sleep without a story. If he keeps yelling in the restaurant, maybe you and he should wait outside while the rest of the group keeps eating.
  • Show Baby you sympathize: Toddlers test the world around them and you because they are developing and growing their own voice and personality. This time is a whole mix of emotion, frustration, and excitement. Baby doesn’t test limits to be a jerk, he is just figuring out where his place in this great big world is, and knowing that you feel for him can help him feel more listened-to and understood. Even if you’re not going to do what he wants, it can be helpful to let him know that you understand him. Going out in the yard to play after dark may not be on the table right now, but you can agree with him that playing outside is fun, you know he loves it, and he will have the chance to go out and play again in the morning. Showing him that you understand and can empathize can help him feel heard, validated and more likely to learn how to share his feelings. 

Dealing with a toddler who seems to delight in pushing your buttons can start to get frustrating, but he is only this age for a little while – and when he grows up, he will come up with new and different ways to test your boundaries!

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