The Importance of Setting Limits

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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.


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