Toddler Limit Tesing

Toddlers test limits seemingly just to mess with the grown ups in their life! They know they aren't allowed to turn the oven knobs. You know they know, and you know they know you know. So why does it happen?

Toddlers are naturally curious. They are changing from passively experiencing their environment to being an active participant. This ability is exciting, but also overwhelming and scary. Think of how it felt to go from a teenager in your parents home, off to college or living on your own. The freedom is exciting, but also intimidating. I remember asking my parents if they would just make some decisions for me, because I didn't think I could handle having to make another adult decision that day.

Although they don't often admit it (or truly recognize the feeling), toddlers like having firm limits. They like knowing what is and is not allowed. It gives them order, and their brains recognize and are soothed by patterns and schedules. You don't have to live a rigid life, but having some kind of consistency in your child's life is healthy. Some children can have anxiety due to the ever changing environment. They never know what to expect.

Don't be Wishy Washy

Consistency is key. Children are on a mission to organize the world. Those scoopy things are spoons. Spoons are for eating. Spoons are silverware. Spoons can be big and small. Spoons can be wooden or metal or plastic. They do this with everything they encounter, there is so much information to take in and sort.

When children understand the world and know what to expect they feel safe. When something changes they feel anxious. In order to find the order again, they will often test every limit to make sure they are still safe. Think of when a new baby is added to the family or when a move happens. Young children often act out in an attempt to test every limit to find their safety net again. If you remain calm, understanding, and hold those firm limits they will quickly settle back down. If you are inconsistent, they will act out even more until you finally put a firm limit in place.


It's as if they are thinking, "Oh no! This is new. I don't understand new. What if I don't like it? What if everything changes? I better check to make sure all the rules are the same. Can I still not touch the stove? Is it ok for me to jump on the couch? Mom isn't telling me no. Oh no this has changed. I better keep checking. Everything is changing. What is this world? What do I do?"

We all know the family with children that run the home. The caregivers complain that the children run wild and don't listen, but if you take a closer look what you usually see is a permissive parenting style. The limits are weak and the children don't feel safe. This can often happen with a caregiver that is too ill to discipline or feels unsure of themselves as a parent. If you feel your child is constantly limit testing (and their basic needs are met, and environment is well set up), look back and think over if you have been consistent.

How to Hold a Limit

Well this is all well and good, but how do you hold a firm limit? There are many strategies, and to have success the most important point is to be consistent in your parenting style. Here is some of the language I use.

State the Limit

"You may not touch the stove" said firmly, in a deeper, clear voice.

Change the Subject

"Here. Do you want to play with the salad spinner? Wow look at it go!"

Acknowledge the Emotion

If your child gets upset, acknowledge that! "You are mad. You want to touch the stove. I can not let you touch the stove."

Remove Them from the Situation if Needed

"You are having a hard time listening. I am going to help you listen. You are very angry. You are screaming. I am moving you to the living room."

Hold the Space

If your child is showing they need help processing the emotion, walk them through the steps. Start at their level of emotion or a couple steps down, "You are feeling so angry! You are mad, mad, mad! You want to touch the stove. I hear you."


Gradually step down your response to a neutral, and the child will usually follow your example. Hug them, walk them through deep breathing, encourage foot stomping, sing a song, give them a calm down jar, or otherwise take them through your calm down routine.

Find a Different Outlet

In other situations, where the behavior is showing a need I will try to fulfill it in a more productive way. "It looks like your body is telling you to climb. Instead of the couch, go climb on your Pikler triangle."

"Yelling is fun, but we use indoor voices when we are inside. If you want to yell go outside." And then if they don't move and continue yelling, "I am going to take you outside to get all your yells out."

It's OK to be Wrong

I know it will surprise people to hear me say, but I am not a perfect person. If you set a limit and then realize you were wrong, you don't have to hold the limit just to be 100% consistent. Apologize to your child and explain what happened. "I'm sorry, Sally. I said you were not allowed to play trucks right now but I had the time wrong. We do have time for you to play if you'd still like to." Humility is a virtue, and it is healthy for children to see adults work through problems, that is how they learn.

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