Limit Setting

A Challenging (and Adorable) Stage

Raising toddlers can be so fulfilling, yet so frustrating.  You need to start limiting your children’s behavior as soon as they begin to move about. Just because they can go into certain rooms does not mean it is safe for them to do so.  Just because your children can name an item doesn’t mean that they can have it.  And just because they have strong opinions doesn’t mean you need to acquiesce.

Yet, stopping or redirecting their behaviors can be more challenging than it sounds. Discipline for young children is difficult, but do-able.

In order to help you in this undertaking, we will examine:

• Your Role as the Parent
• The Growth Process of Your Toddler
• How to Set Limits

Your Role as the Parent

Part of the difficulty you experience may lie in your own ambivalence about your toddler growing up. As a parent, you are often so focused on your children that you don’t notice how you are changing, the different demands made on you as your children grow and develop, and the challenges you face. 

Newborns require unconditional love and constant attention day and night.  Your goal is to meet your babies’ needs, figure out what is wrong, and make it better.

Starting with toddlerhood, your goals change.  While still providing unconditional love, you also need to help socialize your children and teach them to tolerate frustration, learn to be adaptable, and delay gratification.

Mixed feelings about your baby growing up

In meeting these grand goals of toddlerhood, you can feel the “Push-Pull” of development.  On the one hand, it can be thrilling to hear your children’s new words, watch them explore new areas, and see them develop relationships with others.

On the other hand, each step takes your children a little further away from you.  They no longer need you to carry them; others can understand your children and meet their needs.  Watching them grow can feel bittersweet.

At the same time that your toddlers are becoming more independent, they still need a lot of care.  At times, what you need and what your toddler needs can be in conflict.

For example,

After a long day of running errands with a stroller through a crowded mall, you may need some down time, and at the same time, your toddler may need to get out and run.  Or you may need quiet, and your toddler may need to practice using his voice. Or you may need to visit with other grown-ups, and your toddler may need to nap in his crib.


The Impact of Parenting Style

In addition, everyone has ideas of how toddlers should behave based on his own upbringing.  In some families, children are precious little beings to be cared for and catered to.  In others, children are expected to be seen and not heard.  Most families fall somewhere in the middle.

Your response to your toddler’s behavior may in part be based on the parenting style your own parents adhered to when you and your siblings were growing up.
couple talking
While there may be discussions with your parenting partner about whether or not to pick up the baby or let him cry or how much of a schedule to follow, toddlerhood with all of its areas of growth tends to have many more opportunities for these differences in approach to appear.  If not discussed openly, these differences can erode your confidence and lead to parental conflict.

The Impact of Expectations

Expectations also play a role in how you view your child and yourself. 
For example,

On the one hand, you may expect your little one to sit quietly with you, read books, and play.  You may expect to be endlessly patient and loving.  The reality, on the other hand, may be a rambunctious, strongly opinionated child.  And you may find yourself exhausted and short-tempered.

You may hold your child and yourself to unrealistic standards and as a result, spend a lot of your energy feeling as if you or your child are falling short. In the next section of this article, we will examine toddler behavior to help you set realistic expectations for your child.

In addition, parents can feel conflicted about setting limits:

  • On the one hand, you want children who are well behaved, handle various situations, and follow instructions.

  • On the other hand, you can be concerned that in setting limits you are curbing your children’s natural curiosity and squelching their personalities.

  • In the end, you may flip-flop and second guess yourself./

  • It is important to set limits while still providing your children with the freedom to explore and grow.


Throughout the whole time you are raising your children, you are also growing and changing. As your children reach a new stage of development, you are forced to change your parenting styles and techniques.


Coping with your new role

  • Acknowledge the loss of your baby, even while rejoicing in the emergence of your toddler.

  • Find ways to get your own needs met – you can’t keep “running on empty.”

  • Have a calm discussion with your co-parent about your child-rearing views.  Make conscious, deliberate decisions about how you want to raise your child.  You can agree to disagree on smaller issues. On more important issues, you can agree to back the other parent assuming his point of view is not hurtful, just different from your own.

  • Learn about child development.  You can view other presentations on this website or access parenting books on the topic.

  • Accept that part of your job is to limit your child’s behavior in order to keep him safe and over time to ‘civilize’ him (learn to delay gratification, tolerate frustration, take other people’s needs and feelings into consideration).  Looking at the bigger picture can help you persevere and not cave in because you feel “mean.”

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The Growth Process of your Toddler

Understanding how toddlers see the world will give you a greater appreciation for this unique stage of development and an increased awareness of the typical – albeit challenging – behaviors that toddlers exhibit.  As a result, you will not take their behaviors as a personal challenge to you and will be in a stronger position to set appropriate limits.

<learn more about child development


Toddlers LIE- not in the sense of not telling the truth (which is sometimes also true because they have trouble separating fantasy from reality), but rather that they are born:

Lacking in judgment

Being Impulsive

Being Egocentric

Toddlers do not have the ability to keep themselves safe – because they lack judgment, are impulsive, and are egocentric. It is up to you to keep them safe through vigilance and limit setting.  It is unfair and unwise to expect a toddler to have good judgment, be able to curb his impulses, or consider others’ feelings.


The Unique Child

As your children become little people, you have ever-increasing glimpses into who they are going to be.  There are 5 factors that will help you understand their unique make-ups so you can be more tolerant and patient of their challenging behaviors.


1. Temperament

All children are born into this world with their own individualized blueprints for reacting to the world around them. Temperament explains why some children are very easy-going while others tend to be incredibly challenging for parents.

list of temperament traitsChild development research has identified ten temperament traits, all of which exist on a continuum.

Raising spirited children who are at the far extreme for any of the temperament traits requires a lot more effort and thought, many times leaving parents frustrated, exhausted, and doubtful about the effectiveness of their skills as parents.

Parents may wonder “What did I do to cause this behavior?”  The answer, of course, is: “You didn’t do anything.  It is how your child is wired.”
You can learn ways to help manage your child’s behavior, but you can’t change who your child is.

Goodness of Fit

Your temperament may also be a factor. This is known as “goodness-of-fit.”

  • Sometimes having opposite traits can cause problems. It can be difficult to understand why your child reacts as he does when it is so foreign to your way of thinking.

  • Sometimes being similar can cause problems as both you and your child can react to the same triggers.  At times, you may not have patience for what you consider to be your own weaknesses.

  • On the other hand, parenting a child with similar temperament traits as you may make raising this child easier because there will be a natural understanding of your child’s needs and perspectives.

<learn more about temperament

2. Maturity

Children grow in maturity at different rates in different areas (morally, relationally, socially, physically, intellectually, and emotionally).

With toddlers there is a tendency for people to assume that a taller, more physically mature child is advanced in all areas.  It is helpful to break down your child’s maturity into its sub-components rather than universally labeling your child as mature or immature. 

For example,

a child may be socially mature, in that he is very outgoing and quickly engages other children in play, but may be less mature emotionally, melting down quickly when upset.


Also, children often develop in one area at a time.  A child who is concentrating on verbal skills may walk or attain other physical abilities at a later time.

Every child progresses at his own rate.  You can’t force maturity. You can provide opportunities to practice skills, offer encouragement, and believe that your children will get there one day.

<learn more about maturity

3. Developmental Tasks 

Children at every age are working on accomplishing certain developmental tasks – things they need to do in order to advance their maturity.  Although these are important phases for children to experience and master, it is not always fun to parent children during such times; hence, they are frequently called  “challenging norms.” Two developmental tasks that toddlers are working on are:

    toddlers not sharing

  • Defining themselves through ownership.  The way this manifests itself is through a lack of sharing.

  • learning to separate from their parents.  One common way that toddlers exhibit this budding independence is through a never-ending series of “NO’s.”

<learn more about developmental tasks

4. Ages and Stages

Children grow in fits and starts, taking major leaps forward during periods of equilibrium, when they are calm and at ease and confident, only to appear to backslide at certain times.  These periods of backsliding are called disequilibrium, when children feel less secure and confident, struggle more, are more at odds with themselves and the world.

toddler having temper tantrumDuring periods of stress that typify disequilibrium, children are more likely to be demanding, clingy, or less easily satisfied.  One of the most widely recognized stages of disequilibrium is the one referred to as the “terrible twos.”

Typically, 18-month olds and 2 1/2-year-olds are in a period of disequilibrium. Knowing this can help parents realize that the difficult behaviors are temporary and understand that the developmental process will eventually move their children into an easier stage.

  • For some parents, these patterns are very clear: spirited children tend to go through life with gusto, so the periods of disequilibrium tend to be exaggerated. With a calmer, less exuberant child, these cycles may be harder to discern.

  • When your children are in a time of disequilibirum, it is usually best to hold off teaching new skills or raising expectations for behavior.  Wait  until the phase passes, usually a few months, when your children are in a better position to assume more responsibility.

<learn more about stages of development

5. Situational factors

External factors in children’s lives can cause anxiety or increased stress.  Some of these situations include:

  • New sibling
  • Move to a new neighborhood
  • Move to a bed from a crib
  • Change in childcare provider
  • Divorce
  • Illness
  • A friend moving

As when children are in disequilibrium, when outside factors cause children to be stressed, they may become more demanding, more needy, and less able to tolerate normal frustration.  At these times, they can use understanding and listening from you; you may still have to set limits and say no, but you can do so with greater kindness and compassion.

<learn more about situational factors

Toddler Behavior

Much of your toddlers’ behavior can be explained by their unique phase of development.  They are learning about the world around them and do not see the world as adults do.  They are driven to understand and try to gain control over their environment; one minute they may be filled with bravado and the next moment with fear.  Toddlers:

  • must explore.  They learn about the world through their senses.  They are driven to touch everything and put most things in their mouths.

  • often feel needy and insecure.  They use  transitional objects (blankies, stuffed animals) so they can soothe themselves.

  • resist rules and transitions and are easily frustrated.

  • dawdle as they are on their own time schedule.

  • make messes when they eat.  They also resist certain foods, want to eat the same foods over and over, resist sitting for a meal, or resist eating at all.

  • toddler girl

  • have an extremely short attention span. This distractibility can work in your favor when you want to redirect their behavior.

  • are emotionallyunpredictable and uneven.

  • have many fears and anxieties.  These can be extraordinarily strong.  Some common fears are animals, clowns, drains, strangers, haircuts, water, and the dark.

  • cannot distinguish fact from fantasy.  To them, wishes come true, inanimate objects seem alive.  They believe that it can “rain cats and dogs.”

  • do not always understand what you mean even if they have a large vocabulary.

  • have trouble with time sequence.  They may say “I went there tomorrow.” 

  • don’t understand cause and effect, which is in part why they don’t have empathy – they don’t understand how their hitting another child caused their friend pain.

  • have trouble making choices.  “Either/or” still means “both” to them.

  • love sameness even to the point of being rigid.  Rituals provide a sense of security and safety.

  • are just beginning to develop social skills with age mates.

  • have a sense of humor.

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Discipline for Young Children

There are steps you can take to set your children in the right direction while still maintaining your humor and sanity.


Let your children do the work of toddlerhood

Toddlers Must Explore

If you know that toddlers must explore, you can provide areas that are safe for your child to explore.

  • Allow access to cabinets filled with Tupperware.

  • On inclement weather days, build a fort from chairs and blankets.

  • Pretend to have a picnic in the middle of winter.

  • One mother who was stuck inside with two toddlers for long periods of time brought in bags of sand, which she poured into trays, dressed her kids in bathing suits, and turned her kitchen into a “mini” beach.

Whenever possible, keep alluring but dangerous items out of sight.  There may be some things that you can’t move, but for those that you can, it is wiser to move them and save your energy for other more fun activities than saying “no.”


Toddlers Want to be Independent

If you know that toddlers have a desire to be independent, allow your child to do as many self-care items for himself as possible.

  • Let him brush his own teeth while you are doing yours.  You can go in for a final brush-up if necessary.

  • Let her put on her own clothes.

  • Consider buying Velcro shoes and other toddler-friendly items.

It may take longer, but if you plan for it, it can actually keep your child happily occupied while you are getting some of your own tasks completed. 

Toddlers Dawdle

If you know that toddlers dawdle, then leave extra time in your schedule to accommodate toddler-time.

  • Assume that ten minutes of your life will disappear somewhere between looking at the clock in the kitchen as you walk out the door and looking at the clock in your car when you turn on the ignition.

  • Some people have their children sleep in the clothes they are going to wear the next day to avoid extra steps.


Toddlers are Messy Eaters

Messy toddler mealIf you know that toddlers make a mess when they eat, don’t serve messy foods or teach your child to help clean up.

  • Don’t serve rice if you are bothered by the mess and don’t have time to sweep.

  • Some people have an extra T-shirt that they always put on the child for eating.

  • Some people have the kids just eat in their diapers.

  • You can also teach your child to help you clean up – they can use a dustbuster or hold the dust pan.


Toddlers Have Trouble Making Choices

If you know that toddlers have trouble making choices, then give your child very limited selections.

  • Do you want to wear the blue shirt or the red shirt?”  If he can’t decide, you make the choice. “It’s a red shirt kind of day.”

  • In some stages, when anxiety and stress are especially high, it is best to announce what is going to happen rather than offer a choice.


Toddlers Love Routines

toddler routinesIf you know that toddlers love sameness even to the point of being rigid, then create rituals to start the day, to end the day, for ending play, and for leaving places. Make sure you enjoy the rituals and they aren’t so long that you feel trapped by them.’


Toddlers Have Difficulty with Transitions

If you know that toddlers have difficulty with transitions, in addition to rituals, you can help your child plan for change.

  • You can give warnings: “After 5 more tosses of the ball, we need to clean up the toys. OK, that’s one.” 

  • For some children, parents find that using timers help:  “The rule is when the timer goes off…”  Often toddlers accept outside things such as timers to be the rule and won’t fight them as much as they would argue with you.


Toddlers Have Short Attention Spans

If you know that toddlers have short attention spans, you can use distraction to direct them to a more acceptable activity.  A favorite is to look outside at the passing clouds; there is always something that can be of interest.


Toddlers Have a Sense of Humor

If you know that toddlers have a sense of humor, then motivate your toddler with games. “Let’s see who can climb into the car seat first, you or Mr. Bear.”


Other Tips for Setting Limits with Toddlers

Take time for yourself.

Count to ten, take deep breaths.  Even if you don’t feel calm, you can fake it – speak slowly and softly.  At least that way, you won’t be adding fuel to an already explosive situation.

Use a time-out for your child.

Not as punishment – but as a way to remove him  from challenging situations and give him time to calm down enough to re-enter.  He can sit with you or alone, depending on what works better for your child. 

Before he returns to the situation, you two can discuss how he will need to behave once he leaves time-out.  The length of time for a time-out is unimportant.  He can re-join the situation whenever he seems calm enough.

Pick up and remove the child if he is doing something dangerous.

  • Act quickly and decisively – don’t wait for your child to agree.  There are times when your child is locked into what he is doing.

  • If your child won’t listen to your words, step in and take action – put the toy away, turn off the TV, carry him to the door….

Expect resistance.

Don’t expect your day to go smoothly with a toddler and don’t judge your parenting by how happy your toddler is. Do not cave in because your child is resisting – he is doing his job by complaining and you are doing your job by keeping him safe and setting limits. 

You can give short explanations, but avoid overly long or detailed monologues. You can use the Broken Record technique where you repeat a simple request: “Into bed now.” “Bed.” Remember that you just need one more request than he has “no.”


Give two “yesses” for every “no.”

This is a favorite and easy technique.  Often a toddler doesn’t know what to do with himself.  He has found something fun to do, even if you see it as unsafe or inappropriate.  You tell him to stop, but why should he? He is having fun.  Or he stops doing one inappropriate thing and starts another equally unsuitable activity. 


In these cases, it is good to redirect the child to two acceptable options.  It gives him the power to choose and at the same time teaches him what good activities would be.  For example, “You may not throw the ball in the house – you may roll it on the floor or we can go outside to throw it.”


Use praise and positive reinforcement.

thumbs upChildren tend to continue doing whatever you pay attention to.  So if it is your toddler’s misdeeds that you comment on, he will continue to dump the puzzles on the floor or whatever it is he is doing. 

If you “catch him” being good, he will want to continue being caught doing an acceptable behavior.


Don’t ask a question unless “no” is an acceptable answer.

“Do you want to go to bed?” If you ask by mistake, don’t get into a power struggle.  Say: “OK, you can stay up till after we sing this song.” Then continue with the nighttime ritual.


Grant in fantasy what you can’t give in real life.

Again, children love humor, so you may as well use it.
For example,

One toddler didn’t want to walk up a hill, but the mother already was holding the new baby and couldn’t oblige the child’s request to be carried.  Instead the mom said “I know, wouldn’t it be great if I were an octopus and had enough arms to carry both of you.”  The child said “Or a kangaroo.”  They played this game as they walked all the way up the hill.


Reduce boredom.

Children of all ages tend to get into trouble or to nudge you when they are bored.  Plan ahead with snacks and activities for long car rides, waits in doctor’s offices or restaurants, or visits with friends and family.  The advance work can be well worth the effort.


Use natural consequences

Many of the things you fight about with your toddlers will take care of themselves if you just step back and allow them to fade away on their own. 

For example,

If your child won’t put on his coat, don’t fight about it.  Carry the coat with you.  When your child gets cold, he will probably complain.  At that point, you can tell him that a coat will keep him warm.  Give him the coat.  He will realize that you were right – he does need a coat.  Eventually he will be willing to put on a coat before he gets cold.  It is usually warm inside the house where you are trying to convince him to put on a coat because it is cold outside.  Let the natural consequence of being cold be the teacher.


Make time to enjoy your toddler

Rather than always accomplishing something, put having fun on your to-do list.

Silly toddler


For your own sanity, ignore what you can. Unless the behavior is unsafe or drives you crazy, remember you don’t have to fix every behavior right now.  You have 18 to 22 years to influence your child growing into the person you want him to be with the values you want to instill – you don’t have to do it all now.  Relax and enjoy.


A few things to avoid

Don’t name call.

Names may not hurt bones, but they can hurt your children’s opinions of themselves.


Don’t assume that your children are purposefully misbehaving.

They may smile and say “no” as they touch a forbidden item, but they do not have the impulse control to stop themselves.  They need your help to stop what they are doing.


Don’t threaten consequences that you do not follow through on.

For example, don’t say you are going to leave the park, if you don’t intend to leave – you are teaching your children to ignore you!


You don’t need to hit your children to get them to listen to you.

Research suggests that corporal punishment increases fear and stress and reduces children’s ability to learn the lessons you are trying to teach.  It may end the behavior for the moment but decreases the long-term learning.

Plus remember that kids will repeat many of the same behaviors during their adolescent years that you are seeing now in the toddler years; you may as well learn other techniques now when they are little that will carry you through the teen years too.


You can set limits and keep your toddler safe and his self-esteem intact.  By doing so, you will feel better about your parenting and help your toddler learn self-control.



For more information about discipline check out the following books. Purchasing books from our website through supports the work we do to help parents do the best job they can to raise their children.

Without Spanking or Spoiling by Elizabeth Crary The Explosive Child by Ross Greene Kids, Parents and Power Struggles by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting by Laura Markham The No-Cry Disci;line Solution: Gentle Ways to Encourage Good Behavior Without Whining, Tantrums and Tears by Elizabeth Pantley

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