Stop! 5 Easy Steps To Effective Limit Setting With Toddlers

October 11, 2011 · 38 comments

in Daily Life, Toddlers

Structure, expectations, predictability- all add up to responsibly raising and loving our children. The freedom we all feel deep within ourselves comes once we understand where we stand in the scheme of things.” Magda Gerber

From my mailbox:

“I am 23 years old and have a 3 year old daughter and a 3 month old son. I just recently began researching alternatives to corporal punishment and have come across so much information I am having a hard time sticking with one particular style. I’m trying to pick and choose what I feel is right but it seems that everything I have tried with my little girl isn’t doing much so I revert back to yelling and spanking and threatening corner time. It really really hurts me to treat her that way but that is how I was raised and I am having such a hard time breaking the cycle. Her most used lines are “I don’t want to.” “NO!” “I said NO!”  Where do we begin?”

“I don’t know what to do when my son does something  to hurt his little sister, like hitting, kicking, or grabbing a toy from her. When I see my son act like this, I feel angry at him, and protective towards the baby. I want him to learn to be kind and gentle with his sister, and I don’t understand where this behavior comes from. We are always gentle with him.”

“I’m a single Mom, and sometimes, my daughter just wears me out. I feel like I’m saying the same things again and again, and she just doesn’t hear or listen. After the tenth  time of saying “No!” or asking her to do something, sometimes I just lose it and yell at her, especially at the end of a long day, when I’m tired too.”

“Mornings are the worst for me. It’s always such a busy time. I’m trying to get all of us dressed, fed, and out the door on time, with everything we need for the day, and that’s always the time my youngest chooses to have a meltdown, or cling to my leg. I try to stay calm, but it’s hard. He will be throwing his breakfast on the floor, refusing to get dressed, or chasing the poor dog and pulling her tail, and I just don’t feel like I have the time to deal with it calmly.”

“How do I deal with it when my daughter screams at the top of her lungs, no matter what I say or do?”

“My son is 18 months old and he loves to throw balls and play catch. The problem is he throws everything, and often at someone, and sometimes hurts them! How do I teach him (or can I, at his age)  what’s appropriate to throw, and where?”

“I have trouble getting my son to look me in the eye  when he’s bitten me or his father. And I’m speaking about when he bites for sport / play, not when he’s tired, overstimulated, etc. Traditionally, when he’s bitten us, I simply and neutrally state “No biting” or “I don’t want you to bite” and then move on so I don’t fuel the fire with attention. But over the past few months, this has stopped working. So, I’ve instead started kneeling at his level and tellling him gently that I don’t want him to bite me. It’s at these times that he’s squirmy, looks away, and deliberately avoids eye contact. Any ideas? Or is this the wrong technique? He’s 23 months, by the way.”

Stop Sign

Does any of the above sound familiar? All of the toddlers in these examples are acting in completely normal and age appropriate ways, but their behavior can sometimes be perplexing and exasperating to the adults who love them, and it can be hard for parents  to know how to respond. We want to help young children to learn to behave in socially positive ways. Young  children need to trust we will respond with kindness, and  help them to understand the limits and learn what behavior is expected and accepted. Recent research indicates that if we react with harshness, young children can’t learn anything at all. Young children feel safe and secure, and can cooperate more easily when adults  calmly set clear, consistent and firm limits, when the “rules” don’t change, and when they are told what they can do instead of just hearing “No!”

Here are five easy steps to help you effectively (and calmly) set  limits with your toddler:

1) Begin with empathy and  trust.  Assume your toddler is doing the best she can do in any given situation, and is not just  trying to drive you crazy. Trust this: with your gentle guidance and some time, he can and will  learn to act in more positive ways.

2) Next, observe or notice what is happening, and simply narrate or state what you see or hear.

“You hit your sister, and she is crying.” “You are throwing  the sand.”  “You are throwing your food.” “You are screaming.”  “You are throwing your blocks.” “Ouch, you are biting me!”

3) Briefly explain why you want the behavior to stop.

“It hurts your sister when you hit her.” If you throw the sand it might get into someone’s eyes, and that hurts.”  “Food is for eating. It makes a big mess when you throw your food, and I don’t like it.” “It hurts my ears when you scream,” or “I can’t understand you when you scream.” ” Blocks are hard and it might hurt someone if you throw blocks at them.” “Biting hurts.”  Notice two things: Most of the time, you want or need to set a limit when your child’s actions might harm them or someone else. Also, it is perfectly acceptable to ask your child not to do something because you don’t like it- your feelings and needs matter. So if you find yourself getting upset because your child is making a big mess that you will have to clean up,  or you just can’t  bear to listen to another moment of screaming,  say so! Sometimes just drawing attention to the behavior and the reason it is inappropriate is enough to stop the unwanted behavior (at least in the moment).

4) Set the limit, while demonstrating the desired behavior or offering an alternative, if possible.

“I won’t let you hit your sister. Please touch her gently.” ( Say this while stroking both children gently.) “If you want to hit, you can hit this doll (or the floor, or these pillows).” “Please keep the sand low in the sandbox” ( demonstrate). ” If you can’t remember to keep the sand low, I’m going to ask you to leave the sandbox.” When you throw your food, that tells me that you’re done eating. If you still want to eat, please keep your food on the table or I will put it away (or ask you to get down).”  “Please don’t scream. I want to understand, and I can’t when you’re screaming. Can you show me (or, tell me  using your regular voice) what you want?”  or “If you want to scream, I will ask you to go in the other room (or outside).”  “If you want to throw something (or play catch) let’s go find a ball. Balls are for throwing. If you keep throwing the blocks I will put them away for today.”  “No biting!” ( Say this firmly, while putting your child down.)  I will move away if you are going to bite me. If you want to bite, you may bite this teether.”

5) Follow through with the limits each and every time (consistency). This is very important.

When you set a limit your child may resist, or express some angry or sad feelings. This is perfectly natural, and fine. Accept, name and acknowledge your child’s feelings, but calmly hold firm to the limit. Your child is entitled to express and have her feelings heard, but that doesn’t mean you have to meet her anger with anger, agree with her, or give in to him.

Help your child if necessary. Stay nearby and supervise closely if your child is prone to hitting his sister. “You are having a hard time remembering to keep the sand low in the box, so I’m going to ask you to leave the sandbox now. Can you do it yourself, or would you like some help?” “You are still throwing your food. I’m going to put it away now.” (You can also hand your toddler a cloth and ask her to help you clean up the  food that was dropped.) “You are still screaming. I’m going to ask you to go get all your screams out in the next room,” or “I can’t help you when you’re screaming.” “I’m going to put these hard toys away, and you can play with these balls and stuffed animals.” (In some cases, it may be necessary or helpful to make changes in your environment or routine that will make it easier for your child to remember and cooperate with the limits. For instance, it may be helpful to put away hard toys for awhile if your child is intent on throwing everything. Maybe providing a gated, safe play area for the baby will protect her from her brother when you can’t be right there to intervene. Maybe changes in the morning routine are needed to make it a less rushed, stressful time, or you can put aside some  special toys that come out just in the morning for your toddler to play with.)

Remember, the attitude with which you approach your child and the tone of voice  you use when setting a limit matters just as much as what you say. The goal is not to punish, but to teach. Children learn just as much (or more) from what we do, as they do from what we say. Magda Gerber always said, “What you teach is yourself.”  What do you think she meant by that?

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janetlansbury October 11, 2011

Lisa, thank you for this clear, straightforward and all-around helpful advice. I read a lot of well-intentioned advice that, to me, complicates the discipline issue for parents and confuses children. When children behave in a manner that bothers us they want and *need* a kind, straight answer. Personally, I’m a fan of honesty and clarity and I know that children need those things, too.

You are so right about the attitude and tone of voice. That is everything. When we speak sentences with a question mark at the end, or feel uncertain and waver, our children are left feeling unsure and less secure.

I think “What you teach is yourself,” reflects the fact that we aren’t going to get away with a thing with our young children.” We can talk about gentleness until the cows come home, but if we ‘enforce’ it abruptly, our babies receive an entirely different message from what we intend. We have to model empathy, patience, manners, gentleness, the whole ball of wax, if we want to teach those things to our children. It’s simple, but certainly not easy!

Nardine Rhind October 12, 2011

Thank you Lisa for sharing your words of wisdom! I so wish that someone had shared this with me when my oldest (now almost 8) was little. I have learnt so much since then! I am an Early Childhood teacher in New Zealand I have two centres and feel very strongly about the wonderful work of Magda, I travelled to Seattle in June this year and did my RIE Foundations with Polly, it was fantastic! I am still learning to articulate my thoughts and the reasons behind why we do things the way we do to new teachers and parents and I love the way you and Janet do it with such ease and so clearly, I have a lot to learn but I thank you both for giving me a place to send my teachers and parents for up-to-date easy to read information!

Nina Bunch October 12, 2011

Thank you for these simple but powerful steps for dealing with stressful moments by treating our little ones with respect and honesty. I am printing the five steps out and putting them on fridge as a reminder when the going gets tough!!!

Judith June 6, 2012

What a great idea!!

Catherine October 12, 2011

Thanks for this practical overview. I think for many, well me at least, the first step is the hardest: trust in empathy. I think this is because so much about parenting seems to be based in fear. Fear that we’ll raise rude, insensitive, non- achieving, socially inept, all round failures. My single biggest objective as a parent is to move from fear to empathy and to trust that with all my might. I believe if I can do this then everything else will follow.

Nora Caruso October 12, 2011

Excellent. Thanks, Lisa.

Alex | Perfecting Dad October 14, 2011

Two things that I love about this.

#1: You advocate explaining why. This is perhaps the most critical point because I find that many parents don’t actually have a good reason for a limit, it is more or less “because they said so”. For example, why can’t kids eat candy? “Because you’ll spoil your dinner.” Well what if the child WANTS to spoil their dinner? What kid wouldn’t rather eat candy than dinner? The real reason, if there even is one, is that candy is very unhealthy and people need certain food to grow on but candy ain’t it … the child can’t have unlimited candy because they’ll die or not grow right.

Forcing themselves to properly explain a limit may make a parent realize that the limit may not be necessary. For example, there isn’t really that good a reason for kids to have socks that don’t match .. therefore, the sensitive and empowering parent may leave that choice up to the child saying “I would choose one color or the other, but if you prefer to wear those two different colors then I suppose there isn’t a problem.” This is a huge trust and leadership builder in kids.

#2: You have a follow-up punishment and insist on consistency. Making a mess means cleaning it up. Hurting other kids means we can’t continue to play. These are very very obvious consequences to children, and parents will not get much resistance to them at all. Where the will get resistance is when the kids can get away with breaking limits. So if the child has to clean up sometimes, but when it’s late or parents are in a hurry or the child claims it’s too hard it’s done for them, then the tie between the consequence and the behaviour is immediately broken in the child’s mind and it is very very tough to rebuild that connection. The child forever knows that it’s parent issuing a command, not something that the child caused to happen by their behavior. Clever children who pick this up then begin working on manipulating parents to deal with consequences: “But it’s too hard for me, I’m just little!”, “But I need to take my bath now, I can’t do this!”,

Anyway, very nice piece.

Aunt Annie's Childcare July 17, 2012

I agree with you 100%, Alex. Wonderful to hear a strong male voice in here!

And Lisa, this is a fabulous article- I’m sharing it.

Gillian November 21, 2011

I love this – I’ve got a three year old who’s of course delightful, but is in a boundary testing phases (I feel like I’ve slipped into an unfortunate cycle of him not listening until I say something a third time with a raised voice), and a one year old who would like to think she’s the boss 🙂 and often squeals and hits when things don’t go her way (it’s like the tiniest person in our house is the most aggressive).

I like that what is outlined here will help me calmly (fingers crossed) deal with both of them – something I have been wondering about. I particularly like the idea of narrating then telling them what you don’t like instead of leaping straight into the I don’t like. It is almost like a subtle distraction tactic that helps them step back and see what they are doing.

Nina July 17, 2012

I found this post via Honest Mom and couldn’t agree with it more. I need to do some major work on showing empathy and honoring the impulse first before doling out the “don’t…” and “no…”

I notice that when I empathize , he’s much more likely to listen and feel like I’m on his side, rather than someone attacking him. Me telling him the right way to do something doesn’t feel like a battle between us, but instead both of us working together on a common problem (e.g. not hurting himself or damaging things).

It’s so easy to “just say no” (ha!) without helping them understand the reason, and feeling like we’re in this together.

Lisa July 20, 2012

Hi Nina,

Thanks for your comment! I do understand the impulse adults have to “just say no”, and stop the offending behavior, but as you’ve noticed, even though it takes a little more time and effort in the short run, staying conscious of how you’re imparting guidance and starting with empathy pays off in the long run, in terms of the relationship you are building with your child, and the co-operation that ensues, as he learns and grows to become a more and more socially adept young child. Empowering as opposed to employing power over is how I like to think about it.

Erin December 7, 2012

This is an excellent post, so many great ideas that I’m going to try with my almost 3 year old, who definitely is into boundary testing big time right now!

I know one of the examples you gave at the beginning of the post was about needing to get out the door in the morning, and needing cooperation, but I didn’t see any specific strategies to help with that – we have a very consistent routine with limited steps in the morning, and we try to narrate that she doesn’t want to get dressed, go potty, (or do anything really) and to offer choices but so often it is literally a battle or meltdown from the moment she wakes up until we get to her daycare and that is draining for everyone. I find it much easier to set limits with regards to STOPPING undesirable behaviors than in getting toddlers to START doing something on their own, especially when the mere suggestion of anything is enough to set her off some days. I checked through the archives to see if there was anything about this topic but didn’t see anything. Any advice would be much appreciated!

Alex | Perfecting Dad December 7, 2012

If you are thinking about STOPPING and STARTING behaviours, then the behaviour you want to STOP is failure to be ready in the morning. You are very astute to notice that limits and consequence/punishment is not that useful for teaching children to DO or LEARN something. perhaps your child is old enough and perhaps knows the morning routine already. I think it will be tough to teach a morning routine with limits and consequences but I am eager to hear the response.

For me, my kids know the outcomes they are trying to achieve. Get on the school bus. If they don’t feel like eating breakfast or having a lunch or showing up naked, well that’s up to them at this point. But it rarely happens 🙂 Sometimes the morning is more rushed that others, but it’s more-or-less their choice as to how they get onto the bus. But they’re older than toddlers too. Grade 3 and 1. I have a 3 year old who also runs his own morning, but a 1 year old who does not.

Valeria May 4, 2013

Hi Lisa,

I am only planning to have a child and hence preparing to be a mum! 🙂 I very appreciate your examples in the beginning of the post (they give you an idea of what may happen with your toddler). The text is very clear and concise too.

Having no experience with my own children yet, I can’t really comment on the strategy you suggest. But it seems to be that of respect and appreciation of your child and its developmental phase. The only thing that bothers me is the necessity to maintain a calm and stable voice and face expression. I am very much against screaming and snapping at children. But it always seems to me a little bit unnatural to stay perfectly calm and not to show anxiety, concerns or agitation when your child crosses a boundary. As you suggest in the post, it is perfectly fine to refer to your feelings as a reason why something is not allowed. However, to stay congruous we also need to communicate how we feel in voice, body language, etc. Does our child need our emotions (of course, up to a certain limit)? Or calm voice and cool face is the best way to proceed?

Many thanks!


Malissa November 27, 2013

A great Post to read. I will also be putting this on my refrigerator!

I feel that “what you teach is yourself” means that through this respectful way of parenting you are becoming an even more conscious person, a person more aware. Changing the ways in which you, yourself have been raised, breaking out of old patterns from the past. Basically a decoding of old programs that are no longer useful today.

At least this is what I experience.

Before I became a parent I was already evolving further into more awareness. Yet once my son was born, only then did other issues surface. Confrontation with myself, things I wasn’t yet aware of (that I never imagined I could feel: never thought I would react like my dad) and there was no shutting my eyes to it. …..

Amanda June 6, 2014

You may not be checking this anymore but just in case…

I am working hard at this approach but find that when my 2.5 year old son is being particularly defiant, following through with some consequences can be challenging – e.g. if helping clean up is the consequence of throwing food, how do I manage it if he then refuses to help clean up!

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