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What to say when your toddler tests the limits

It doesn't always have to be 'no.'

What to say when your toddler tests the limits

"No, no!" you say. "I said NO."


Sound familiar? Toddlers. Oh-so trying, testing and totally terrific, too.

Their job?

  • To be increasingly in charge of themselves (think: Future independent young adult).
  • To try things on for size—over and over and over again.
  • To see—truly SEE—if they can count on you to act upon what you say.
  • To ask us to be clear about what it is we want from them.

And boy, does this often get a rise out of us. Just behave. Do what I say and without a fuss. We say "no" and "stop" and "come here" over and over again, hoping to avoid that fuss, because it requires even more time and honestly, it can be so embarrassing.

And it begins to ramp up. We wonder why they keep testing us...why these often adorable, delightful, joyful little ones look us in the eye and hit or bite or ignore us once again.

Here's the deal with toddlers: They need us to be calm. Consistent. Clear. They need us to communicate with our words very clearly. They need us to show them—patiently and often—just what it is we are wanting them to do, and learn, and how to be.

Here are a few ideas for you as you work on guiding your toddler in positive and productive ways:

First, describe what you see: "You are busy pulling all the clothes out of the drawer! (This, after you spent all day just trying to get the laundry put away!)."

Then you head over next to your toddler who is wonderfully practicing just the opposite of what she saw you doing as you put laundry away and say, "Mama just finished getting all these shirts and socks into the drawer! Can you plunk them back in with me? One, two, three...in they go."

What if your toddler looks at you with that impish twinkle and runs away in circles to just come back and take armfuls back out of the drawer? Instead of the "No!" or the "I told you to stop!" try this:

"It's too hard for you to keep the clothes where they belong right now. I'm going to scoop them up and put them away." And you can physically insert your body between drawers and toddler as you (cheerfully—or as cheerfully as possible) dump the clothes back in (to be folded once again at a later date).

Then turn to your tot and say, "Up you go and let's check on kitty...or something outside...or a book, etc."

Now you've followed through with what you've said—that the clothes belong in the drawer. You've given a choice for them to join in with you, and keeping it light-hearted you are staying connected in a way that speaks loudly to a young child.

You've stopped them without punishment and instead helped them through one of their testing moments (remember, testing is really all about us as parents—whether we can pass their test by being calm and consistent and clear).

Now they can learn a bit more about managing themselves. Now you've just stepped in as the guide they need, rather than the rather harried disciplinarian who is really more concerned about control and losing control.

Okay. So what about the more extreme moments? Hitting, biting, big tears and screams.

Stop the hurting behavior with, "I will stop you from hitting/biting me, it hurts." Then affirm feelings involved and describe what you see, "You are really frustrated because you'd like me to play with you and I'm so busy talking to Papa."

Offer up what it is you want, and how they can participate in that: "It's so hard to wait when I'm busy, isn't it? Would you like me to pick you up while you wait for Papa and me to be done?" It's okay to pause your conversation with your spouse and to give your full attention to your tot as you work at settling them down.

Then: "Papa and I need to finish talking now. Do you want me to keep holding you, or are you ready to get down and find a book to look at while you wait?"

With less attention on the "mis" behavior and much more on how you'd like them to move through upsetting times, you will discover the real growth to occur. This is guiding at its best. Which means in the long run, having a "disciplined" child—someone who can manage themselves, who knows what to do and how to be, who will more likely listen and respond and cooperate or collaborate.

It takes time. It takes pause. It takes deep breathing, encouraging self-talk, the ability to let go and step alongside and be fully present. It is hard.

And yet, it is even harder when we don't do this, for all the yuck ramps up and as your child gets older, it gets way more difficult. So today, when you find yourself talking across the room to your toddler trying to get them to stop, come and do it differently, pause first. Consider what words to use to help your child know clearly what it is you want, instead of what you don't want. Then go to them and show them.

It will pay dividends. Huge ones. And it will, most definitely, make your job easier.

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