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, she sees something she wants to explore, and knows you won’t let her get into. There’s a look at the place she wants to explore, a glance at you, then back to her goal. Then there’s a reach, a step, or a gesture… she 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 her push.

Healthy limit-pushing

Testing the limits of her world is an important part of your toddler’s development as she grows. Frequent “tests” from your toddler don’t mean that she’ll be fighting you all the way through childhood - it just means that she is seeing more and more of the world around her, and wants to carve out a place for herself in it. Limit-testing is a sign of her growing drive for independence as she makes her 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 she 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 her 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 her, try offering her a choice of things she could do instead. If she protests at the idea of taking a bath, you can ask her which parent she wants to bathe her (if you’re parenting with a partner) or which bath toy she might want to take into the bathtub with her. It may not be enough to slow her down if she has entered full-on tantrum mode, but if she is just getting started, being offered a choice could help her feel more in control of the situation, to the point that she may be less likely to push when you ask her 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 her. If she keeps grabbing the book out of your hands, maybe she gets to go to sleep without a story. If she keeps yelling in the restaurant, maybe you and she 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, she is just figuring out where her place in this great big world is, and knowing that you feel for her can help her feel more listened-to and understood. Even if you’re not going to do what she wants, it can be helpful to let her know that you understand her. Going out in the yard to play after dark may not be on the table right now, but you can agree with her that playing outside is fun, you know she loves it, and she will have the chance to go out and play again in the morning. Showing her that you understand and can empathize can help her feel heard, validated and more likely to learn how to share her feelings. 
Dealing with a toddler who seems to delight in pushing your buttons can start to get frustrating, but she is only this age for a little while - and when she grows up, she will come up with new and different ways to test your boundaries!
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