The Importance of Setting Limits
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The Importance of Setting Limits

How to react when your kids push it to the limit.

Setting Boundaries

Dr. Ava

Q. My daughter just turned 2 years old, and now I know well what people are talking about when they say "the terrible twos." I feel like I'm constantly saying "No!" What's the best way to handle situations where my daughter is determined to test the limits I set? --Distressed by Discipline

Dear Distressed: What looks like rebellious or provocative behavior may actually be your child's attempts to become more independent. Children start out testing their own limits when they are babies ("Am I able hold to this rattle or will I drop it?"), and your limits as they approach the end of their first year ("Can I throw my bottle on the floor or will Mommy be angry?"), and then the limits of other authorities as they reach preschool age ("If I knock down Billy's block building will the teacher yell at me?"). It's through these daily struggles with limits that children develop a sense of their own identity, and the willpower, determination, assertion, perseverance, and confidence that go with it.

As a parent, you need to know how to support the healthy emergence of your child's will without encouraging too much unhealthy willfulness. Even before your baby's birth, you may have ideas about the strength of her will ("She's tough; she kicks like a mule!"). Once your baby is born, you'll have much more information on a daily basis about her willfulness as you try to set up schedules for her feeding, sleeping, and playing and as you observe whether she is a flexible or stubborn child.

In her first year, your baby is learning the limits of her body and the dangers of the world around her, but she's still quite immature, and lacks both understanding of her actions and the ability to control them. For example, when she tugs on your hair, she's not being naughty; she's just practicing how to grasp. Similarly, when your baby crawls towards the stairs, she isn't being deliberately reckless; she just doesn't realize the consequences of falling. That's why we watch over our infants so carefully.

However, by age 6 to 8 months, your baby is beginning to understand some of the limits you set. (The word "No!" for instance). But while your infant can recognize when you're alarmed ("The stove is hot!") or displeased ("Don't rip Daddy's papers."), her ability to follow your direction or control her behavior is still quite limited. You can't expect a child under 1-year-old to be controlled by words alone. Most of the time you'll need to distract her or physically remove her from the situation to enforce your limit and control her behavior.

But by the time your baby is between 18 months and 2 and a half years, she has begun to walk and talk, and these two accomplishments change her world and yours. This is the age when a toddler is "into everything," and that means it's also the time when limit setting is essential and limit testing peaks. Keep in mind that most of your child's behavior now is motivated by intellectual curiosity, not naughtiness. When he empties a box of cereal on the rug or writes on the wall with your lipstick, he's not deliberately trying to drive you crazy!

How we judge our children's willfulness has a lot to do with how we feel. The same behavior could be seen as bold and independent on a day we're relaxed, and stubborn and aggressive on a day we're upset. Try to keep your patience, perspective and sense of humor with kids under 3. A punitive reaction to your toddler's exploration and experimentation will only leave her bewildered. To help your toddler behave without squashing her spirit, set firm limits without anger, and offer appropriate substitutes for the forbidden activity (You might say, "Drawing is done with crayons on paper -- not with Mommy's lipstick on our walls!")

The Not-So-Terrible Twos

By 18 months to 2 and a half years, you may find that your sweet little baby has turned into a tyrannical toddler. But the "twos" don't have to be "terrible" if you keep in mind what your child is attempting to accomplish developmentally. It's normal at this age for a child to try to become more independent. The trick lies in making sure your child is expressing healthy assertion rather than unhealthy aggression. Language plays an important role in reducing your child's anger and frustration. ("Use words, not your hands.") Kids who can talk are much less likely to hit! Still, temper tantrums often remain a real problem for many toddlers. Don't be tempted to engage in a battle of wills with an out-of-control child. You can't win! Every time you threaten your child she'll "up the ante" until you find yourself responding in ways you'll regret. Plus, by engaging in a battle with a stubborn child, you're rewarding her with attention for her negative behavior. Instead, these four steps can help you to set useful limits for a child overwhelmed by angry feelings.

  1. Name the problem for your child: "I know you want the big truck and you're angry because I said we can't buy it."
  2. Don't pay attention to the tantrum except to keep your child safe: "I can't hear what you want or help you until you stop screaming and kicking."
  3. Pay attention to the real issue once your child controls himself: "Now that you've calmed down, I can hear how much you really want that truck."
  4. Offer possibilities and reward flexibility: "We can't buy such a big toy. That truck needs to be a special gift for a birthday or Christmas. If you show me you can listen and control your temper, we can buy a small truck over the weekend."

By calmly taking charge, you can help your child gain the physical and emotional control that she needs by this age. You also demonstrate that stubborn tantrums get her nowhere, but listening and cooperating are effective ways to get what she needs in life.

Finally, when you set limits for your 18-month-to 3-year-old, try to offer her an opportunity to exercise her will at another time or place. ("We can't stop now to play on the swings because we have to meet Daddy, but tomorrow we can take a nice long visit to the park.") And note the word "exercise." Your child needs opportunities to practice asserting herself as she grows. Respecting her autonomy and letting her exercise her will produces a reasonable child, whereas making everything a battle of wills produces an inflexible child -- one who only learns to mobilize more and more determination to defy you! You need to find that important midpoint where you help your child learn to bend, while retaining her spirit.

Dr. Siegler is the director of the Institute for Child, Adolescent, and Family Studies in New York City, and the author of two award-winning books for parents, What Should I Tell the Kids? A Parent's Guide to Real Problems in the Real World, and The Essential Guide to the New Adolescence: How to Raise an Emotionally Healthy Teenager. She is married and the mother of two children.