When Your Toddler Starts Testing His Limits
Your child desperately wants to declare his independence. And you can let him -- while staying in control.
As a baby your child was happy to follow your lead. But now that he's a toddler he realizes that he doesn't have to stay by your side, let you change a dirty diaper, or do pretty much anything else you ask. Take a bath? How about I just run around naked and squealing? Eat one more carrot? No, I think I'll toss it on the floor, along with my turkey meatballs and this fork right here.
As maddening as his defiance may be, it's also a positive sign of his development. "Kids this age see themselves as separate beings from their parents, free to make their own decisions," says Tovah Klein, Ph.D., author of How Toddlers Thrive. Your child is also gauging what he can (and can't) get away with. These tactics will encourage his cooperation while also helping you keep your cool during this challenging stage.
Don't Take It Personally
You gently tell your toddler, "Please stop throwing toys." She gives you a smirk, then keeps on flinging them. It may seem like she's aggravating you on purpose, but she's not. A short time ago she was being carried around and given objects to play with. Now she can get them -- and control them -- herself. "Every day your toddler is developing skills and greater awareness, and she wants to explore her newfound power," says Heather Wittenberg, Psy.D., a child psychologist on Maui. Try to view her defiance as a means of experimenting and learning. A child this age tends to act out with the person she feels the safest with and trusts the most (you!). That doesn't make her rebelliousness any less frustrating, but it should help you maintain your patience rather than viewing her actions as a personal affront.
Let Him Be the Boss (Sometimes)
Kids this age push boundaries because they're attempting to assert their authority. That's why your child's new favorite phrase may be, "Me do it!" or "No! Mine!" Experts suggest giving him some sway when you can safely do so. This strategy will make him feel respected and might also make him less resistant at other moments. The key is to give him only two acceptable choices. When he's getting into the tub, for instance, ask if he wants bubbles or squirt toys. And when you're leaving the playground, see if he'd prefer to carry the sidewalk chalk or the sand toys on the way home. That way, the only option is to leave the park, but he gets to decide how you leave.
It's challenging for a toddler to cooperate under ideal circumstances. So do what you can to remove the obstacles to good behavior. Dragging your child to the store when she's hungry, tired, or restless is setting her up for failure. Likewise, it's a better strategy to redirect her than to explain why she isn't allowed to do something, notes Dr. Wittenberg. If she won't stop pulling up the flowers in your backyard, try taking her for a walk or bringing her inside. You might also suggest permissible alternatives to bad behaviors, like giving her a bag of soft balls to throw (instead of her plate) or bringing a play slide indoors to stop her from climbing on the furniture.
Focus on Positive Behavior
When you tell your child, "Don't bang the cabinet door!" all he hears is the action: "Bang door." A more effective approach: "Tell him what you'd like him to do," says Carrie Contey, Ph.D., a human-development specialist and parenting coach in Austin, Texas. If he's resting his feet on the table during dinner, say, "Please put your feet down. Can you wiggle your toes under the table?" Keep in mind that any attention you give to negative behavior is still, well, attention. Stay calm -- the louder and more energetic your response, the more likely he is to act out. Also look for opportunities to make your child feel loved and valued. Simply giving him regular cuddle time may preemptively damp down his defiance.
Pick Your Battles
Limits-testing behavior is only an issue when you make it so. If you constantly tell your child "no" or reprimand or bargain with her, it might be time to reevaluate your rules, says Dana Entin, a pediatric nurse practitioner and parent educator in Los Angeles. Does it really matter if your toddler wears her princess dress to bed? So what if you're ten minutes late to a playdate because she refused to put on her boots? Letting the little things go not only reduces your stress level but also makes your child more inclined to cooperate when it truly matters.
Originally published in the February 2015 issue of Parents magazine.