Setting Limits for Toddlers

Setting Limits for Toddlers

Watching a child grow from a tiny helpless baby into a little person is one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced. James will be 18 months very soon and it seems as though he’s changed more in the past 3 months than the previous year. Watching him barrel down the hallway is such a delight, but also an awakening. For the first time, I’m starting to see him not as a baby, but as a little person. He has always been good about communicating his needs but now he’s also getting better at asserting his wants. And I’ve realized, I need to do a better job at setting some boundaries.

Setting Limits for Toddlers

Taking care of a baby is challenging, but it’s simple, straightforward. A baby has a finite list of needs and you can usually figure out which one needs to be satisfied. An emerging toddler, though, still struggles to communicate exactly what they want but has some very strong opinions on what should be happening. Take yesterday for example: James carried his shoe to Daniel, held out his foot, and said, “Help.” So Daniel started to put the shoe on James’ foot. At first he was smiling and content…until the moment the shoe was fully on. Then he started screaming. So Daniel took the shoe off and James again stuck out his foot and said, “Help.” After a few more rounds of this, it was clear; James wanted to do the process of putting on the shoe but he sure as hell didn’t want to wear the shoe.

Setting Limits for Toddlers

Realizing what your toddler wants is only half the battle though, because you also have to recognize there needs to be some boundaries.

James at 18 months

The sound of a crying or grumpy child is torture to parents. But we also can’t just let our kids do whatever they want, whenever they want. We know we need to teach our kids limits, not just because we don’t want to raise little dictators who think they will always get their way, but because ultimately kids need boundaries to feel safe, happy, and confident to navigate the world.

Setting Limits for Toddlers

What I’ve realized lately is that I struggle with setting boundaries because (I realize this is about to sound like a humble brag but hear me out) I am too sensitive and empathetic to his emotions. I over-identify with my son’s feelings. I try to understand where he’s coming from—constantly, which isn’t all bad, but it does make it tricky to do the right thing regardless of how it’ll make him feel. I’m sure many parents have had the experience of trying to get a toddler into a car seat when they don’t want to sit down and have realized they have some ability to resist. James figured out how to straighten his legs and hold onto the top of the seat in a standing position where it’s very difficult to bend his legs and buckle him in. If we try to physically force him to sit, he completely melts down. And I completely understand why. Being physically forced to do something against your will is a horrible feeling, worthy of intense anger and sadness. He is too young for me to try to convince him to sit with words, so he just would stand there laughing as I tried to cajole him to comply. The way he cries when I do it is so heartbreaking that several times I have decided to abandon our plans so I didn’t have to buckle him into the seat. But I’ve realized, of course that isn’t good parenting. Kids need to learn that some things in life are non-negotiable and sitting safely in a car seat is one of the best examples of that. Now when he starts to get upset when I put him in the car I tell him, “I know you don’t want to sit in the car seat, but you must.” (Advice I read from Janet Lansbury) And I confidently hold him down and buckle him in. He still gets upset and sometimes cries but he gets over it soon enough.

Setting Limits for Toddlers

We have been experimenting with setting limits in some other ways. Some are obvious safety issues like not letting him climb on the arm of the couch where he can get hurt, and not letting him play with the toilet water (he just figured out how to open the lid, help us…). Others involve us setting what we think are good boundaries about not always being able to have things exactly as he wants. He tries to extend his bedtime routine by asking for book after book. So we tell him we will read two books before bed. Then at the end of the second book we put him in his crib. He still cries out, “No, book, book, book,” as we put him in but he settles within seconds and goes to sleep. We used to have an endless power struggle of trying to convince a miniature person who can barely speak that this “is really the last book.”

We want James to feel like he has agency and power over his own decisions. We toddler-proofed the downstairs so he can walk around, explore, and play without us having to constantly say no or redirect. If he wants to open the drawer with the pots and pans and take out every single one and all of the lids and then move over to the tupperware and do the same, that is totally OK. This is his house, too. But we also want to make sure he knows there are some limits and we will gently and safely guide him.

Setting Limits for Toddlers

This part of parenting doesn’t come naturally to me. I am usually codependent and overly empathetic. I hate upsetting anyone, especially James. Intellectually, I know I am doing the right thing by setting limits and creating boundaries. But sometimes it really really hurts my soul. I think the only way to get better is to keep doing it and realize ultimately, this is its own kindness. I try to remember it’s his job to test boundaries and my job to set boundaries, safe and reasonable ones. He needs them to feel secure and content. I know I need to get better because we are just starting toddlerhood and I can’t even imagine the difficulty we will face over the next few years.

Do you find it difficult to set limits with your children? What are some of your biggest struggles and how do you deal with them? What are some parenting guides or books that you found helpful?



9 thoughts on “Setting Limits for Toddlers

  1. Catherine

    We are basically living the same life from the sounds of it haha! I have no advice but loved your perspective and hope you write more because I am missing the baby stage as we navigate this new terrain!

  2. Kelly

    It’s Just about finding balance. You’ll get there.

    Someone once said to me you need to set some boundaries or rules for your child or someone else would do it for me down the line. It made me think. If you think of it not as setting him boundaries and more as guiding him to be safe and the best he can be, you might find it easier . Xx

    P.S. I hope you’ll write another cookbook, love your first.

  3. Stefanie

    It’s so hard! I’m also very sensitive to my 2 year old’s emotions like you, especially at bedtime. I have such scars from sleep training (even though he took to it real fast and objectively it wasn’t that bad) that I still have anxiety when he cries after going in his crib. But it’s always better if we’re firm. With other day-to-day situations, sometimes I’m just tired and don’t want to fight so I give in. Trying to be better about it though. You are doing a great job!

  4. Melinda

    When I had my first child I read somewhere that you should not constantly use the word ‘No’, I can’t for the life of me remember why. Something to do with the word losing meaning, I don’t know lol. I spent a couple months using alternatives then realized it was a little nutty. Anyway, I read a book called ‘Kids Are Worth It’ by Barbara Coloroso This completely changed my view on my parenting. She talks about different types of parenting and boundaries I highly recommend this read!

  5. Denise Blust

    You’re thoughtful and empathetic – you’re doing a great job! It can be frustrating in the middle of a problem, but like the car seat issue, you figured it out. I have two suggestions. I love the pots and pans cabinet and had it for my two. However, make sure they help you pick them up too. No wreaking havoc on the downstairs without the responsibility of picking up! My second suggestion is when he’s a little older and able to speak and understand. Institute “House Rules”. I had a very testy little three year old girl who didn’t want me telling her what to do. I read somewhere about house rules, where you just shrug and say “that’s the house rules” like you have no control over it. It takes the responsibility and pressure off of you and puts them on the house. Who makes these rules? I don’t know either! We just have to follow them. Amazing how well that worked with my little terror (we called her the Rachinator!).

  6. Carly

    We have had the dreaded car seat battles! A month ago my husband was traveling, I was taking our 18 month old to daycare and she would not get in the seat. Even when I tried to get her down myself. She was screaming and crying, I was crying, it took me an hour but we got there! Its so hard to remain calm when they are melting down. I’ve found giving her a distraction even before I open the car door helps…

  7. Laura Novak

    I learned a technique that has been helpful for everything.

    You say, “James, WHEN your toys are picked up, THEN, we will go outside.” Key is to use “when” and “then”. Works like a charm.

  8. Tracy

    I cannot begin to tell you how much this resonates with me. It’s good advice for all ages, I think. My husband and I were childless, by choice, when we realized two years ago that my 5 yo niece was going to need a good permanent home. Her parents were no longer able to care for her and she had been living with my dad and his wife. Well, as good as they were with her, my dad was turning 70 that year and the reality was… they weren’t the best long term solution for her. So we decided to be her permanent parents. She moved in with us last July. We’ve been through quite the learning journey and exactly what you wrote here is completely relevant to my experience becoming a mom. I understand why she gets upset. I completely get it. I want her to have all the experiences and how to I limit that?! How do I teach her limits and boundaries when I want her to have it all! I also am an empathetic person and it is so so hard to help her through her emotions AND hold her to the boundaries.

    Thank you for putting into words exactly what I’ve been struggling with.

  9. Leigh Ann

    It helps me to realize that opportunities for frustration are GOOD because they now have the chance to figure it out and work through it (with your support) rather than be overcome by it. Think about how many adults don’t have that skill. Allow everything to stay smoothly wonderful all the time, and when they inevitably reach a time when it isn’t, they don’t know how to deal with those moments. They haven’t developed grit and resiliency. I’d much rather let them have frustrating moments while they’re younger and under my umbrella than I would to send them out in the world not knowing how to cope with hard feelings and moments.


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