Losing your patience with your toddler testing limits? Learn how to set boundaries and ground rules while nurturing your child’s spirit.
It started when I asked my son to stop tapping his fork on the bowl (Oh why must they always tap things on the dining table?!). He “stopped,” but started tapping the fork again, this time quietly, looking at me all the while to see my reaction.
Now, if these scenarios were rare, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. But when toddler testing happens throughout the day—for every little thing—it’s enough to make me lose my patience.
Maybe your toddler—who is generally well-behaved—has been testing her limits recently.
She puts the dirty towel in her mouth even though you’ve already asked her not to (and even explained why). Bedtime is a fiasco when she refuses to sleep, grabbing books off the shelves and making a mess instead. At one point, she even put your toothbrush in the trash and her toys in the toilet.
What do you do when you ask your toddler to do something (or not) and she completely disregards you?
How to respond to toddler testing
We can all agree that toddlers will naturally test our limits—that they’re even supposed to. This is the time when they develop their sense of self and learn how to express themselves in their limited capacities.
Still… that doesn’t make it easier when you can’t get your 2 year old to listen and stay in the shopping cart, or to stop pushing the baby for no reason.
How can you set the boundaries she needs and respond to her constant testing?
After three kids, I’ve had my share of toddler testing and learned that there is a better way to handle these situations. Where you’re not sucked into a back-and-forth power struggle or raising your voice just to get her to listen.
I’ll start with mindset shifts we need to make, followed with tactical ways to respond to your child’s behavior:
1. Work with your toddler’s strong-willed personality
One mistake we make with toddler testing is seeing the behavior as “bad.” But dig deep and you’ll realize that many of their choices and actions aren’t necessarily bad, but impulses and traits that are more appropriate in other situations.
Don’t fight her natural desires to have fun, explore, or seek pleasure. Instead, engage and encourage her to use those traits in other ways.
Let’s say you catch her playing with slime, except she’s dangerously close to the carpet—not exactly where you want the slime to end up. Start by asking questions rather than directives. “What are you trying to do?” can work much better than a stern “Put that slime away!”
Other times, you simply need to ask her to think of a more appropriate activity: “Can you show me where to play with slime?”
Your enthusiasm honors her impulses while allowing you to guide her to a more appropriate way to explore (like playing with slime in the kitchen).
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2. Show empathy
Toddler testing is especially rough because we feel personally attacked. We ask our kids to stop a particular behavior, but they outright refuse to. The ensuing power struggle only builds up our defensiveness, which makes them up the ante.
But what if you started the conversation by first showing empathy?
You can describe the situation and the emotion she must be feeling (“It’s hard to share the swing with your brother when you’re having so much fun…”). Appeal to the reasons that might be driving her behavior (“I know it’s hard to stand in line for such a long time…”).
You’re letting her know you understand her point of view, even if you don’t agree with the behavior. She feels heard, and that extra empathy can be all she needs to stop the behavior completely.
As hard as it is to show empathy when she’s crying nonstop or outright defying your requests, it can be one of the simplest ways to connect. Remind yourself that she’s not giving you a hard time—she’s having a hard time.
3. Look for deeper reasons
Many parents resort to typical punishments because they seem to “work.” Time outs can curb toddler testing quickly, but… at what cost?
You see, what we label as negative behavior is often a result of a toddler’s internal needs she can’t express just yet. She might be jealous of the new baby, sad about moving to a new house or apprehensive about going back to school.
She can’t articulate her deeper feelings, such as that she’s not loved, or that she can’t make new friends.
Unfortunately, punishments only make things worse. Let’s say your toddler has been behaving poorly because she feels jealous. Being punished only confirms her initial worry of being loved less, especially the angrier you get.
Instead, look for these deeper reasons and acknowledge how she feels. Reassure her worries away, and you’ll find that her behavior will improve dramatically.
4. Give logical and natural consequences
As tempting as it is to engage in a power struggle with your toddler over her behavior… don’t. Instead, use the power of natural consequences to teach her the impact of her choices.
Spilling a cup of water, whether deliberately or accidentally, holds her responsible for cleaning it up. Throwing toys she shouldn’t be throwing means she can’t play with them the rest of the day. Refusing to stay put to read books results in not reading for the time being.
Look for the logical consequences of her behavior and hold her accountable to them. Not only will she reconsider her actions the next time, she’ll also be less likely to blame you as the “punisher” when her actions are what led to the consequences.
5. Redirect to a more appropriate activity
Sometimes the best way to curb toddler testing is to simply redirect to an alternative activity. If she insists on sucking on an old towel, offer a clean one instead. Jumping on the couch may not be safe, but jumping on the pillows on the floor is.
Or let’s say she’s playing rough with her brother and refuses to stop. Guide her through more positive ways she can still play with him. You might say, “Can you make him smile with funny faces? Look, he’s laughing!”
Don’t ignore her need to learn how to engage with the world. Instead, find a way that allows her to explore, play, investigate, and yes, test in a more appropriate manner.
6. Show the other person’s perspective
You’ve learned how important showing empathy to your toddler can be to disengage her defenses and help her feel understood.
Now you can encourage her to practice those skills herself.
Let’s say she grabs a toy from a friend and refuses to return it. You can say, “He feels sad you took the toy away. What can you do to make him feel better?”
Or you ask her to brush her teeth in the morning but she’s dragging her feet. You might say, “Everyone will have to wait for you to get ready, and we’ll be late for school.”
Use these as opportunities to teach life skills she’ll need, including the ability to put herself in other people’s shoes. Help her connect with people and her environment, rather than doling punishment as a way to curb toddler testing.
It’s not easy setting ground rules for toddlers when they keep testing their boundaries. But as you can see, discipline is less about punishment and reacting and more about guiding and teaching your toddler to behave appropriately.
Nurture—don’t squash—her strong-will personality so she learns how to use her traits in healthy ways. Show empathy so she feels heard and understood and look for deeper reasons driving her behavior. Offer logical and natural consequences to hold her accountable for her choices.
Redirect her to more appropriate activities that still honor her impulses. And finally, encourage her to practice empathy and consider other people’s perspective—an important skill to have throughout her life.
Toddler testing is an inevitable part of growing up, but it shouldn’t have to be the headache you dread waking up. Even if your toddler insists on tapping the fork against her bowl after you’ve told her to stop.
Get more tips:
- Toddler Not Listening? 10 Things You Need to Do
- THIS Is Why Your Child Is Testing You
- Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child
- How to Respond When Your 3 Year Old Tantrums Every Day
- 5 Ways to Stop Toddler Power Struggles Many Parents Don’t Think to Do
Struggling with raising a strong-willed child? Join my newsletter and grab 5 Tips to Raising a Strong-Willed Child to discover 5 ways to nurture and work with—not against—your child’s inner spirit and strong personality: