The Importance of Setting Limits

How to react when your kids push it to the limit.
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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!")

Continued on page 2:  The Not-So-Terrible Twos


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