When setting limits, the emotional state of the parent almost always dictates the child’s reaction. If we lack clarity and confidence, lose our temper or are unsure, tense, frazzled, or frustrated — this will unsettle our kids and very likely lead to more undesirable behavior.
Why would our sweet darling throw her toy at us when we’ve just asked her not to, and then add insult to injury by smirking? Is she evil? Does she have a pressing need to practice throwing skills? Maybe she just hates us…
When parents say more than a sentence or two about the limit-pushing behavior, even while remaining calm, they risk creating a tale about a child with a problem (perhaps he hugs his baby sister too forcefully), which then causes the child to identify with this as his story and problem, when it was just an impulsive, momentary behavior he tried out a couple of times.
If the comfort and validation of our attention has been in short supply, or if there have been compelling mini-stories and dramas created around our child’s limit-pushing behavior, she might end up repeating them to seek this negative attention.
For example, if we snatch toys away from our child, she may persistently snatch from friends
Deciding between two options is usually all a toddler needs, as long as the question is an easy one.
The sooner a caregiver can establish those limits, the easier it will be for the child to relinquish ‘testing’ and return to playing. Parents sometimes fear they will crush a child’s spirit if they are firm and consistent about rules. Truthfully, it is the other way around. A child does not feel free unless boundaries are clearly established.
Children raised without firm, consistent boundaries are insecure and world-weary. Burdened with too many decisions and too much power, they miss out on the joyful freedom every child deserves.
A toddler also acts out when there is a blatant failure to draw clear boundaries at home. Sometimes, the child is exposed to adults or older children who do not respect the toddler’s boundaries; they grab and tickle him, for example, depriving him of a sense of secure space. When a young child is overpowered and assaulted in this way, he becomes confused about physical boundaries with other people.
I asked Wendy if anything was different at home, and she mentioned that she was frustrated while getting Henry to sit in his car seat when it was time to go somewhere. She was allowing Henry to do it in his own time, waiting while he played around inside the car. Wendy said she finally became impatient, and after telling him what she would do, she placed him in his seat. She could not believe that Henry cried anyway, even after she had tried to be respectful, giving him so much time to sit in the seat himself!
I advised Wendy to give Henry the option of climbing into his seat by himself, but if he did not climb in right away, she should place him in his seat, even if he cried.
Respect your child’s play and other chosen activities. Don’t interrupt unless absolutely necessary.
Children need our undivided attention during these cooperative activities. Pay attention, connect, and encourage children to do the same.
Unfortunately, this perspective makes it next to impossible to stay unruffled with toddlers, who (as I explained above) need to disagree with us and feel safe expressing their strong emotions.
Occasionally, though it’s pretty rare, my superhero perspective even allows me to recognize the romance in these moments. I’m able to time travel at hyper-speed into the future, look back, and realize that this was prime time together. It didn’t look pretty, but we were close. I’ll remember how hard it was to love my child when she was at her very worst and feel super proud that I did it anyway.
Help fulfill her healthy needs for autonomy, competence, and participation by asking for her assistance with the baby (and anything else) whenever possible.