Parenting a Toddler Through the Testing Boundaries Phase

X was a high needs baby. Very demanding, a light sleeper, very clingy. Those first handful of months were honestly the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But coming out the other side of them, I was so happy with my choices. He’s a curious, brave, friendly, confident, independent toddler. He listens well, he follows directions, he’s helpful and loving.

Until about a week ago. Then he started throwing tantrums. Refusing to get dressed or wear a diaper or go in his chair at dinner. He started throwing toys, climbing on furniture, hitting the cat, throwing massive fits but not showing me or telling me what he wanted. Where did my wonderful toddler go?? Luckily, he’s still in there. He’s just at the developmental stage of testing boundaries. I understood this. I knew he was, in his very loud and destructive way, telling me he needed something. I just wasn’t getting the memo. My normal techniques of explaining why were doing things exp: “We are going to put on your shoes so we can go to the park.” wasn’t working anymore.

So, being me, I researched. And read and read and read, until something made sense. I didn’t make him “cry it out” as a baby- now he sleeps in his own bed. I let him be clingy when he needed it- now he’s independent and confident. I’ve always been patient. It isn’t my style to put him in his room for a time out or yell or get mean. My kind parenting has worked at every stage, there must be a kind way to solve this as well.

The solution, I’ve come to find, is acknowledging his feelings (no matter how irrational they are) but setting firm boundaries and following through quickly. I was giving him too many chances. Asking him stop climbing on the table 500 times was not enough. Telling him twice and then removing the table, was. Acknowledging that he was upset because he couldn’t climb on the table turned what normally would be a 15 minute tantrum into only a couple of minutes. And yes, I hefted my coffee table outside onto the patio. This may seem a little extreme, but it worked. Now the coffee table came back inside and he hasn’t climbed on it since. He was looking for a boundary, not a punishment. Then he was looking for me to understand why he was upset so he could stop being upset and move on. This sounds too easy, but it has changed our household.

Children crave confident and consistent parenting as well as compassionate understanding. You can be firm and kind. This has been a great tactic for my husband who a tendency to get frustrated easily. This way, he makes a rule and if X doesn’t listen, he solves the problem before he gets angry. Then he tells X he understands how he’s feeling which usually calms X down and stops the crying, which in turn eliminates my husbands stress surrounding the crying. Win for everyone!

Here are the things to remember when you’re trying this with your headstrong toddler:

  • No yelling, no frustration. Stay calm and help them work through their feelings. They have enough emotions for the both of you right now.
  • Make a decision quickly and stick to it. You can always change your mind later and implement that adjustment just the same as this. “I’ve decided it’s ok for you to play with the pen, if you use it at the table and only on the paper”. You’re not locked into your decisions forever, so make one quickly and follow through.
  • Follow through. If you make a statement, follow up. “I don’t want you climbing on the table, if you do it again, I’m taking it outside.” If your child climbs on the table again, take it outside.
  • Be consistent. Just because you’re tired or they’re tired or whatever excuse you may have, does not mean you can slack on consistency. Nothing is more confusing then having mommy or daddy follow through with a statement today, but not tomorrow. Confusion leads to more testing, and we don’t need anymore of that!
  • Acknowledge they’re feelings. While staying true to your original statement, acknowledge that they’re upset. “I see you really wanted to stay outside. I know it’s hard to stop when we’re having fun, but we need to stay inside for lunch.”

X has big feelings as well as ideas and a very limited vocabulary to express it with. I would be immensely frustrated if I was in that situation as well. He’s developing his own will power and learning that he can make decisions. This is a great stage of development. To avoid squashing his development of self I give him the opportunity to decide for himself with limited options. “Would you like to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt today?” Too many options is overwhelming. No options is frustrating. If he seems to be having trouble deciding, I will decided for him “I see you’re having a hard time deciding which shirt, they’re both nice. Let’s wear the red shirt today.” If he gets to make small, reasonable decisions daily, it makes agreeing to bigger decisions I need to make for him.

Has your child started testing limits? How did you handle it? What worked for your family?