elevating child care

A Toddler’s Need for Boundaries – No Walk in the Park

When an infant approaches the end of his first year, parents begin to struggle with boundaries. Soft-hearted parents allow a child to climb all over them in my parent/infant class. The child is searching for limits and boundaries for his behavior. But moms and dads are often afraid to say, “I don’t want you to climb on me. You can sit with me. If you need to climb, there is a climbing structure over there.” The sooner a caregiver can establish those limits, the easier it will be for the child to relinquish ‘testing’ and return to playing. Parents sometimes fear they will crush a child’s spirit if they are firm and consistent about rules. Truthfully, it is the other way around. A child does not feel free unless boundaries are clearly established.
Educator Janet Gonzalez-Mena used the following analogy to describe a child’s need for boundaries: Imagine driving over a bridge in the dark. If the bridge has no railings we will drive across it slowly and tentatively. But if we see railings on either side of us, we can drive over the bridge with easy confidence. This is how a young child feels in regard to limits in his environment.
Seeking the ‘railings’ he needs to feel secure, a child will continue to test a caregiver until boundaries are clearly stated. Power struggles are a necessary part of the development of ‘self’ for the child; however, the outcome must be that the child knows that the adult is in charge. Children do not usually admit this, but they do not wish to be all powerful and the possibility that they might be is frightening indeed. Children raised without firm, consistent boundaries are insecure and world-weary. Burdened with too many decisions and too much power, they miss out on the joyful freedom every child deserves.
In the parenting classes at RIE, it is not uncommon for a toddler to act out by hitting, pushing or throwing an object at a parent, or at another child. When this problem arises, I encourage the parent, if he or she is able to anticipate the hit, to raise a hand to block the child’s aggression and say firmly but matter-of-factly, “I won’t let you hit.” Or right after the strike a parent might simply say, “I don’t want you to hit.” If parents show anger, become agitated, or say too much, they risk turning the child’s undesirable behavior into an event. For instance, if a parent begins to lecture: “It’s not nice to hit! Hitting hurts people! We don’t hit in our family,” the parent may fuel the fire by giving too much attention to the child’s action and unwittingly cause the child to want to repeat the action. In the other extreme, if a parent responds with, “Oh no! Please don’t hit me, okay?” or “We don’t hit our friends do we?” the child is not receiving the clear authority that he requires. The child will then keep testing to prompt the parent to take charge. When children act out I see them holding up little imaginary red flags that say: “Help!”; “Stop me!”; “Rein me in!”; “Parent me!” A parent needs to respond with clarity, composure, and conviction.
If a child who is signaling a need for boundaries is not dealt with consistently and effectively, the child may resort to waving bigger red flags. I witnessed a big flag years ago when my three-year-old daughter, Madeline, and I were walking near a park playground. A boy who looked four or five ran around the entire perimeter of the playground to approach Madeline and hit her on the chest. Madeline did not cry, but we were both stunned. In other circumstances I might have been thrilled at what then came into view. A handsome and famous James Bond type movie star rushed towards me. He was the boy’s mortified father, who, unable to look me in the eye, mumbled a cursory apology and ushered his son away. This father and son had issues to sort through.
While all parents have to learn and adapt to understand how to best guide a child’s behavior, the absence of such guidance can have serious, long-term consequences. If these issues are left untended, a child might eventually experiment with destructive behavior, inflicting damage on others or himself as an unconscious call for parental intervention. It is always safest to deal with limits effectively at the earliest possible stage.
What we have in the beginning, though, is our adorably angelic baby. We are shocked when she first shows any sign of aggression. Most toddlers act out at some point, and a parent need not worry that the child is demonstrating an evil streak! In fact, children often misbehave to signal that they are tired and need to go home.
A toddler also acts out when there is a blatant failure to draw clear boundaries at home. Sometimes, the child is exposed to adults or older children who do not respect the toddler’s boundaries; they grab and tickle him, for example, depriving him of a sense of secure space. When a young child is overpowered and assaulted in this way, he becomes confused about physical boundaries with other people. If parents or older children need to roughhouse with the baby, they should wait until he is old enough to be a more equal partner.
Sometimes a child will suddenly act out in class because there are a couple of gaps in his ‘railings’ at home. Henry’s story aptly demonstrates the intensity of a child’s need for thorough boundaries as he grows in independence.
Henry is a charming, gregarious twenty-month-old, who greets parents as they come to class and hands toys to children who seem distressed. But one day Henry came to class and started to hit everyone. Henry’s mother, Wendy, was beside herself with worry. I asked Wendy if anything was different at home and she mentioned that she was frustrated while getting Henry to sit in his car seat when it was time to go somewhere. She was allowing Henry to do it in his own time, waiting while he played around inside the car. Wendy said she finally became impatient and after telling him what she would do, she placed him in his seat. She could not believe that Henry cried anyway, even after she had tried to be respectful, giving him so much time to sit in the seat himself! Wendy was confusing a transitional situation, a time when Henry needed to feel his mother was in control, with play time, a time when a child is best left to direct what will happen. I advised Wendy to give Henry the option of climbing into his seat by himself, but if he did not climb in right away she should place him in his seat, even if he cried. Wendy sent me a thankful note a few days later. When Wendy made it clear to Henry that it was not up to him to decide when to sit in his car seat, his need to red-flag his mother was abated. Henry had stopped hitting!
The clearest proof that I have ever found of a child’s desire for parental control came through a friend of mine and also involved a car seat. Holly was a tentative mom, someone who avoided setting limits. Holly told me she was having an impossible time getting three-year-old Eliza to sit in her car seat. Eliza screamed, threw a fit and flat out refused to cooperate. I recommended to Holly that she say, “I know you don’t want to, but you must sit in your car seat” and then physically place Eliza into the car seat. Holly reported back to me that she had forced Eliza, kicking and screaming, into her car seat. As Holly started the car in complete dismay, Eliza said softly, “That’s what I wanted you to do.”
Children do not feel hurt when the adults they desperately need establish behavioral boundaries. It is easier for a parent to indulge a child than it is to be firm and consistent, and children know that. A child may cry, complain or even throw a tantrum when limits are set. In their hearts, however, children sense when a parent is working ardently to provide a safe nest and real love.
When an infant approaches the end of his first year, parents begin to struggle with boundaries. Soft-hearted parents allow a child to climb all over them in my parent/infant class. The child is searching for limits and boundaries for his behavior. But moms and dads are often afraid to say, “I don’t want you to climb on me. You can sit with me. If you need to climb, there is a climbing structure over there.”

The sooner a caregiver can establish those limits, the easier it will be for the child to relinquish ‘testing’ and return to playing. Parents sometimes fear they will crush a child’s spirit if they are firm and consistent about rules. Truthfully, it is the other way around. A child does not feel free unless boundaries are clearly established.

Educator Janet Gonzalez-Mena used the following analogy to describe a child’s need for boundaries: Imagine driving over a bridge in the dark. If the bridge has no railings we will drive across it slowly and tentatively. But if we see railings on either side of us, we can drive over the bridge with ease and confidence. This is how a young child feels in regard to limits in his environment.

Seeking the ‘railings’ he needs to feel secure, a child will continue to test a caregiver until boundaries are clearly stated. Power struggles are a necessary part of the development of ‘self’ for the child; however, the outcome must be that the child knows that the adult is in charge. Children do not usually admit this, but they do not wish to be all powerful and the possibility that they might be is frightening indeed. Children raised without firm, consistent boundaries are insecure and world-weary. Burdened with too many decisions and too much power, they miss out on the joyful freedom every child deserves.

In the parenting classes at RIE, it is not uncommon for a toddler to act out by hitting, pushing or throwing an object at a parent, or at another child. When this problem arises, I encourage the parent, if he or she is able to anticipate the hit, to raise a hand to block the child’s aggression and say firmly but matter-of-factly, “I won’t let you hit.” Or right after the strike a parent might simply say, “I don’t want you to hit.” If parents show anger, become agitated, or say too much, they risk turning the child’s undesirable behavior into an event. For instance, if a parent begins to lecture: “It’s not nice to hit! Hitting hurts people! We don’t hit in our family,” the parent may fuel the fire by giving too much attention to the child’s action and unwittingly cause the child to want to repeat the action. In the other extreme, if a parent responds with, “Oh no! Please don’t hit me, okay?” or “We don’t hit our friends do we?” the child is not receiving the clear authority that he requires. The child will then keep testing to prompt the parent to take charge. When children act out I see them holding up little imaginary red flags that say: “Help!”; “Stop me!”; “Rein me in!”; “Parent me!” A parent needs to respond with clarity, composure, and conviction.

If a child who is signaling a need for boundaries is not dealt with consistently and effectively, the child may resort to waving bigger red flags. I witnessed a big flag years ago when my three-year-old daughter and I were walking near a park playground. A boy who looked four or five ran around the entire perimeter of the playground to approach her and hit her on the chest. She did not cry, but we were both stunned. In other circumstances I might have been thrilled at what then came into view. A handsome and famous James Bond type movie star rushed towards me. He was the boy’s mortified father, who, unable to look me in the eye, mumbled a cursory apology and ushered his son away. This father and son had issues to sort through.

While all parents have to learn and adapt to understand how to best guide a child’s behavior, the absence of such guidance can have serious, long-term consequences. If these issues are left untended, a child might eventually experiment with destructive behavior, inflicting damage on others or himself as an unconscious call for parental intervention. It is always safest to deal with limits effectively at the earliest possible stage.

What we have in the beginning, though, is our adorably angelic baby. We are shocked when she first shows any sign of aggression. Most toddlers act out at some point, and a parent need not worry that the child is demonstrating an evil streak! In fact, children often misbehave to signal that they are tired and need to go home.

A toddler also acts out when there is a blatant failure to draw clear boundaries at home. Sometimes, the child is exposed to adults or older children who do not respect the toddler’s boundaries; they grab and tickle him, for example, depriving him of a sense of secure space. When a young child is overpowered and assaulted in this way, he becomes confused about physical boundaries with other people. If parents or older children need to roughhouse with the baby, they should wait until he is old enough to be a more equal partner.

Sometimes a child will suddenly act out in class because there are a couple of gaps in his ‘railings’ at home. Henry’s story aptly demonstrates the intensity of a child’s need for thorough boundaries as he grows in independence.

Henry is a charming, gregarious twenty-month-old, who greets parents as they come to class and hands toys to children who seem distressed. But one day Henry came to class and started to hit everyone. Henry’s mother, Wendy, was beside herself with worry. I asked Wendy if anything was different at home and she mentioned that she was frustrated while getting Henry to sit in his car seat when it was time to go somewhere. She was allowing Henry to do it in his own time, waiting while he played around inside the car. Wendy said she finally became impatient and after telling him what she would do, she placed him in his seat. She could not believe that Henry cried anyway, even after she had tried to be respectful, giving him so much time to sit in the seat himself! Wendy was confusing a transitional situation, a time when Henry needed to feel his mother was in control, with play time, a time when a child is best left to direct what will happen. I advised Wendy to give Henry the option of climbing into his seat by himself, but if he did not climb in right away she should place him in his seat, even if he cried. Wendy sent me a thankful note a few days later. When Wendy made it clear to Henry that it was not up to him to decide when to sit in his car seat, his need to red-flag his mother was abated. Henry had stopped hitting.

The clearest proof that I have ever found of a child’s desire for parental control came through a friend of mine and also involved a car seat. Holly was a tentative mom, someone who avoided setting limits. Holly told me she was having an impossible time getting three-year-old Eliza to sit in her car seat. Eliza screamed and refused to cooperate. I recommended to Holly that she say, “I know you don’t want to, but you must sit in your car seat” and then place Eliza into the car seat as gently and calmly as she could. Holly reported back to me that when she had insistently placed Eliza in the car seat, Eliza kicked and screamed. Then, as Holly started the car in complete dismay, Eliza said softly, “That’s what I wanted you to do.” 

Children do not feel hurt when the adults they desperately need establish behavioral boundaries. It is easier for a parent to indulge a child than it is to be firm and consistent, and children know that. A child may cry, complain or even throw a tantrum when limits are set. In their hearts, however, children sense when a parent is working ardently to provide a safe nest and real love.

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49 Responses to “A Toddler’s Need for Boundaries – No Walk in the Park”

  1. avatar Celia says:

    As a parent who struggles with this issue every day, I appreciate the examples you have provided in dialogue form. That makes it easier for me to copy! Sometimes it’s easier for me to have a script that I can use in the critical moment, than to try to think philosophically what is the right thing to say/do. I especially appreciate your affirmation that the child will know she or he is loved even if they are still in the tantrum! Thanks for a supportive, helpful blog!

  2. avatar Ginger says:

    The image that you give of the bridge with railings makes your point very clear and the examples you give bring your message right into focus. It is very helpful to have something like that to keep in your mind in the heat of the moment. Since my children have become teenagers, setting and enforcing limits can be stressful. I remind them how easy it would be for me to say “Sure. Go ahead. Don’t bother me about this any more” Having standards for them is so much harder, but they are worth the trouble. I am even willing to face their anger and frustration (the teenage version of a toddler’s tantrum) to set the limits that I think are appropriate.
    I’d like to say explaining all of that to them immediately diffuses the situation. It doesn’t, of course, but it helps.

  3. avatar Frank says:

    Thank you for the wonderful and meaningful examples used to understand the world through the toddler’s eyes. The testing of boundaries appears to be what a child does throughout the 18 or more years of living with the parent. I have been actively guiding and setting the boundaries with my little one and I know it takes a lot of practice and consistent monitoring. Generally, he will cry for a moment but then want me to comfort him. Before long he runs off to the next project. It is nice to see that he recovers so quickly. When I keep him and those around him (our dog) safe he does have a good time and laughs a lot.

  4. avatar housewife bliss says:

    I could not agree more with what you have posted. Boundaries give children a sense of security and show them how far they can ‘be free’ without breaking stride. Consistency is key in providing that. I find that my boys benefit from boundaries more than my daughter does, but know that the boundaries she knows will bode her well in the future.

    • avatar timeforbed says:

      I never get tired of this article. I keep coming back to it again and again. The children in my PreK class will really test me sometimes. This article always serves as a reminder of what to do. Thanks Janet.

  5. avatar tlv mom says:

    My child, who is 2 weeks away from his 2nd birthday talks a lot about hitting (even inanimate objects).
    He doesn’t actually hit much and when he does he is set straight as you mentioned in your example.

    Reading this I was wondering if this is also a boundaries issue that should be addressed.

    • avatar janet says:

      Do you mean limiting your boy from talking about hitting? I would allow him to feel like hitting and talk about hitting all he wants, and I would acknowledge his feelings.

      “You want to hit the dog. Are you upset about something?”

      We all have feelings of frustration and anger sometimes. He needs to know that all his feelings and desires are okay, but that you are not going to allow him to act on them.

  6. avatar Nicole says:

    Wow, I really needed to read this, particularly the part about toddlers climbing all over their parents. I work with young children and when I sit on the floor they climb all over me and push each other off. This has happened for the past few years, even with each new toddler group. I have never been sure how to handle it and now I realise that has been the main problem. Next time I’m at work and this happens, I’ll be able to confidently set some boundaries. I’ll let you know what happens.

  7. avatar Richie says:

    As a stay-at-home-Dad for 11 years, I’ve had a lot of practice setting boundaries for my kids. I’ve always thought that kid’s boundaries are like a security blanket for them, giving them a safe zone in which they can explore. The older they get, the bigger the area. It gives them a safe sense of scale for their world, ever-changing with them as they mature and are able to grasp bigger things. An even more apt analogy might be the safety and security the kids feel in the womb – with all it’s restrictions – and the frightening feeling of freedom after they are birthed. We substitute swaddling for the womb and they welcome the artificial boundary! It helps them feel more secure. That’s what boundaries are all about.

  8. avatar lisa says:

    Wonderful examples Janet. So helpful in many ways.
    By giving clear options, clear choices.. clear and direct.
    thank you janet!

  9. avatar Darla Hutson says:

    KUDDOS!:)

  10. avatar shana says:

    Janet, I don’t have time read it all tonight, but I’m sure this is a perfect post for me! I learn so much from your articles – thank you thank you!!!

    But I just have to throw this out, I wonder what your take is on this. When my son climbs on me in an appropriate way, I tell him it hurts, and please not to do it. Because I imagining him playing with other children and I want him to understand when they say it hurts, or please don’t. Its amazing to me how sensitive he is to this and stop and is very careful to go around me. And I usually let him go around because he’s trying to get to something that I’m probably blocking.

    • avatar janet says:

      Shana, you are so welcome! Yes, one of the main reasons to be clear about our own boundaries with a child is to help him understand what is acceptable with others. For example, we might not mind our child using us as a climbing structure, but what does that teach him about respecting people’s bodies? Our dog might be fine with the baby touching him roughly, but what does that teach our baby about respecting animals? And another dog might react aggressively!

      My only concern about the example you give is that you might not be projecting enough authority. It’s wonderful to be polite and say “please” whenever you can, but, “please don’t, because it hurts me” could come off a tad victim-ish, depending on your tone. The ideal would be for your boy to know that you are in charge — no question – and that you will not allow him to do things that would hurt you. Then he doesn’t ever have to behave out of guilt, or worry that you might let him have the power to hurt you. This is where, to feel really secure and nested, a child needs his parents to be different from his friends. He needs parents who are leaders. So, I believe it would be more helpful to your son to say, “I won’t let you climb on me. It hurts.” And then, “Can you get down yourself? It seems not, so I’m going to move you.” And then calmly move him off of you.

      • avatar Erika says:

        Hi, Janet.

        I’ve read several times on your site that we shouldn’t let babies and toddlers “climb all over us,” and I’ve always wondered about that. Now I understand why.

        I have to admit that while I adore the affection, the only plus in the situation is that it’s validating for me. The benefit ends there. It isn’t my child’s responsibility to make sure I feel loved; it’s my job to make sure that my child has opportunities to learn the beauty of boundaries — which can clear the way for a healthier kind of love and affection.

        Thanks for the wonderful blog and for helping me to be a better parent.

        • avatar janet says:

          Such a thoughtful comment! Thank you for sharing and you’re most welcome, Erika.

  11. avatar Tara says:

    Hi Janet,
    I always enjoy reading your insights to parenting and try to put your ideas into practice. I read this post but one thing is bothering me. In another post or maybe it was advice to someone, I recall that you say to let a baby play on the changing table if he wants to. I think the baby was trying to stand while Mom was changing the diaper and your advice was to let the baby stand. Well, sometimes there isn’t time to let baby do whatever he wants to do on the changing table, just like in the carseat. I would paste the link, but I can’t find it in the small amount of time I have before baby wakes up. Thanks again for your work, it has been beneficial to me and my child. =)
    Tara

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Tara,
      Even more than I appreciate your compliments, I’m grateful to you for alerting me to inconsistencies in my advice! For a very young infant, a few minutes of “play” when they are gazing at something is not worth interrupting in my opinion. And yes, I do believe in being flexible during diaper changes whenever possible. Diaper changes are a kind of dance we do with our babies. We need their cooperation, but we also want to encourage active participation and that means accommodating a mobile baby’s need to move when we can. “Oh, you want to stand and hold the wall while we do this? Okay, we can try it, but you’ll have to stay in that position.” However, as you say, sometimes there isn’t time, or the baby is clearly taking advantage and testing our patience. In those cases, yes, we should absolutely put our foot down and calmly insist…even if that means holding the baby still while he cries or complains. “You want to move some more, but I need you to stay still while I wipe your bottom. I’m going to have to hold you in this position.”

      The challenge is finding that balance between dominating — doing everything “to” a child — and being a loving leader. Our children need us to be flexible, but be leaders.

      The task of getting into the carseat is a little simpler and offering a child the opportunity to do it himself is a good way to invite participation and autonomy. But the boy in the example I mention was clearly stalling, and the mom was giving him the power to decide if, and when he was ready to get in the car seat. That was too much power and it was making the boy uncomfortable, although he couldn’t admit it.

      Does this make sense? Tara, thanks again for bringing this up…I really appreciate it!

      • avatar Kate says:

        I always change my babies (I work in daycare and have my own two) standing once they could stand. Easier and more honoring (I feel).

  12. avatar Tara says:

    Yes and thank you! I see that there are no black and white answers. Thanks again!

  13. avatar Daryl says:

    How do you handle a toddler “running away”. My 3 yo (just turned 3) daughter has always been “good” but from about a month before turning 3 to now she seems to be a different person. The biggest thing that just started is running away when we go somewhere. At the store, she’ll run through the isles (I have her brother in the cart and I either have to leave him and sprint to her or chase her like a crazy person around the store with cart in tow). Another example: we went to subway after a play date at a bounce house place and she took off in the parking lot (weaving in and out of parking spots). I was terrified she was going to get hit. I was carrying my son and could not catch her. I wanted to BEAT her. I almost couldn’t control myself after I caught her, a mixture of fear, embarrassment, anger and she just laughed. She “runs away” every day, usually several times a day, we ask her to come over to us or put something down, or stop doing something, etc and she runs away from us. When we’re at home, we put her in her room for timeout (I usually spank but have been REALLY trying not to spank anymore). I just don’t know what to do. Before we go somewhere, I tell her my expectations and she agrees but as soon as we go in she goes nuts.
    Any help would help. Intuitively your method makes sense I just can’t seem to make it applicable to me.

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Daryl! The thought of your daughter running around the parking lot gives me chills. I get so scared about children in parking lots, because I know people can’t see them when they are backing out. I still grab my 9 year old son’s hand in parking lots(!), but now he usually pulls it away again. None of my children have done what your daughter is doing and I’m trying to figure out what I did that might be helpful to you. First, I always insisted they hold my hand when we were walking anywhere near cars, even on the sidewalk and especially in parking lots. I also didn’t chase after my children if they wandered away somewhere safe, like in a store or the park, etc. I think following and chasing needlessly can turn it into a game. The child usually returns to you quickly if you don’t chase her.

      It sounds like your totally understandable anger and the punishments, etc., are giving LOTS of negative attention to this behavior. It’s hard to control our feelings in situations like these, but it really does make a difference when you project confidence and calm control, minimize your reaction as much as possible and give only the briefest, most matter-of-fact response. “I want you to stay next to me when we’re out.” “I won’t let you let go of my hand in the parking lot, it’s not safe.” This is one of those situations in which we have to “act as if” (we are calm and in control) before we (and our child) actually believe it.

      • avatar Daryl says:

        I just want to clarify that I didn’t “beat her” :o). I do hold her hand…and she’s usually the best hand holder, it’s just lately she catches me off guard. I’m going to try the not chasing her and see how that helps.
        Thanks

        • avatar janet says:

          Daryl, also (just a thought, you may already be doing this), but make sure you give her some one-on-one time with you each day — some positive undivided attention, so she has less need to go for the negative attention. This is especially important because she is dealing with being a big sister. Let her completely dictate how you spend the 30 minutes (or more, if you can) each day…within reason of course!

          • avatar Daryl says:

            that sounds like a great idea! I usually put the kids down for their naps at the same time, but I think I’ll start staggering them by half and hour. That way I have 30 minutes with her while her brother’s sleeping, and then about as long with her brother while she’s still down for her nap. Thanks for the help!

      • avatar Teja says:

        Hi, facing the same problem, as Tara! Got a 24 month old toddler and 8 months old daughter, so when we are out, its like a comedy, when my son decides to run away, i have to stop the stroller and chase him around, I like your advice Janet, tho my son I guess he is different, he doesnt come back, so therefore out of fear, I rather go and bring him back, now he can be on his best behavour and he will give me hand, but sometimes, he just out of nowhere, he goes his way. So what to do in my situation? Or we are on the playground, my daughter in the stroller and then when its time to go, I will go and tell him, how we have to go and how we will come tomorrow and all that, but no, he runs away (I understand he is enjoying play time), so again its annoying, that i have to leave daughter and chase him around and when I finally do catch him, there is the tantrum moment, he throws himself on the ground, screaming, of course I feel embarrased, thinking that everyone is looking at me, same time keeping an eye on the stroller with my baby girl and then cause he still doesnt wanna get up, I ussually pick him out and carry him out of the park. To be honest, I really dont know what to do, we came to that point, when I dont wanna take him to the park, just cause of those situations! Then I feel how im depriving him….so then we go again, its like a circle. I just recently found your site and Im reading and reading and am slowly trying to use your tips and hopefully it will work! But still, you got any extra advice for me? I would really appreciate it !

  14. avatar Aunt Annie says:

    This is a great post. I would love to put it on the wall at every child care centre I’ve worked at, where there seems to be a norm of saying to very small children in a sugary tone ‘we don’t hit our friends’ when they start to act out.

    Number one, that’s not setting a clear boundary because we’re not talking about ‘we’, we’re talking about YOU, kid! And number two, at this age those other children are not their ‘friends’ and they don’t yet really know what a ‘friend’ is anyway.

    I find it so frustrating, and am ever so tired of getting dirty looks from other carers when I say ‘STOP, no hitting’ (or similar simple, direct response) and then hold the child’s hands to stop them if they don’t comply. It’s almost like you’re accused of child abuse if you set the most blatantly obvious boundary!

  15. avatar Laura says:

    Wonderful article. My question – my daughter is 13 months and for the past week or so has been having major melt downs every time I lay her down to change her diaper. She is a very happy and easy going baby, but come diaper changing time she starts crying, arching her back and doing anything possible to not lay down. Is this just the beginning of the power struggles that are to come in toddlerhood? I am trying to remain calm and unaffected, but it’s also very hard to see her get so worked up. Any advice?

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Laura! Your daughter is right on schedule! She’s probably just begun walking (or still working on it) and resisting diaper changes is typical at her age. A couple of things (all positive) are going on. She’s becoming more mobile and wants to practice her skills. She is feeling a tad more independent and testing her will (an early beginning to the terrific twos). It’s her job right now to resist. So, accept her resistance instead of getting rattled by it, and work with her.

      First of all, don’t expect her to lie on her back and let you change her. That probably won’t happen again for a while, if ever. Try changing her in a different postion and ask her to work with you. Let her stand, if she can do so safely. Or, ask if she prefers to be on her tummy. Maybe ask her to bend over or be on all fours while you wipe her. Talk her through everything, ask for her help, hold her and insist as a last resort…. but that’s okay. Here are more details posted in my community forum: http://janetlansbury.com/community/topic.php?id=84

      Oh, I almost forgot… Keep the honest dialogue going and acknowledge all her feelings… “You aren’t comfy. You want to get up and go. You’re having a hard time staying still while I wipe you, but I need to do it”, etc.

  16. avatar Candace says:

    My husband and i just built a gate for our deck this weekend. There’s a very long full flight of stairs from deck to the patio landing and before, we had a couple chairs against the railing barricading the opening. Our time on the deck together was always a little frustrating because we had to keep out 1 yr old away from trying to get past the barricade, and also discourage our 4 yr old from going down to the patio when we did not want her down there. I could never leave them alone, I felt I always had to keep an eye on the stairs. Sometimes our time outdoors turned into me constantly taking the baby away from the stair opening and feeling weary.

    The new gate is extremely secure and solid, with a preschoolerproof latch. Tonight I made dinner with both kids on the back deck playing quietly and happily alone there together enjoying the fall air with the toys they brought out. I can see the deck from the kitchen and they didn’t even test the door. It was like their minds said “the boundary is clear, its firm, now i can direct my energy to playing. Nothing is inviting me to test it.”

    • avatar janet says:

      Candace, thank you for this story! It perfectly illustrates the way children peceive boundaries.

  17. avatar Vanessa says:

    Very good post, I just have a question, not sure what is wrong with saying:”Hitting hurts people! We don’t hit in our family” That is one of the things my therapist mentioned to tell my son, he is 3 and is having issues with pushing, I have been stopping him when I can, I volunteer at a gym so that I can drop him off some times to work out so I can’t always stop him. I am thinking about not going for a while, he is only doing this to 1 year olds who get close to the toys he likes, mostly the train table, he plays pretty good with kids his age or older though but is too frustrating and I do get pretty irritated about it. Thank you

    • avatar janet says:

      I guess it would depend how you said “hitting hurts people”. If you say it angrily or in a scolding tone, the child might have the impulse to seek that negative attention again. If you say it definitively, but keep you cool, it could be fine. But it’s been my experience that children are well aware that hitting hurts people. They notice that the first time they try it out on us…usually by the time they turn one. Children this age are extremely aware. So, it can come off as a bit of a lecture or be shaming to the child, in my opinion (as much as I hate to disagree with your therapist!). I think it works best to save those explanations for a quieter moment rather than during the incident itself. Maybe have a little non-judgmental talk about hitting. Ask him what makes him want to do it, what he might do differently, what you expect, and how you can help. Mostly, try not to get frustrated and irritated. I know that hard! But this phase will pass more quickly if you are calm and in control.

      • avatar Vanessa says:

        Thank you so much for your reply, I really appreciate it. I was thinking that these days, he has been hurt himself (by falling, of course) so he knows what hurts means and also I am very accident prone and he will usually ask me if it hurts and show concern. I will try the talk afterward when we are calm, I do talk to him but I think I still struggle with not lecturing, I ask questions and he will say “yeah I pushed”, I guess regret is not a feeling 3 year olds have?

  18. avatar Helen says:

    Thanks for this interesting post. My 3 year old climbs all over my husband, constantly, including kicking his glasses off in the process and laughing about it … and my husband winces and sometimes repositions him but basically allows it. My son doesn’t do this with me … I redirect him calmly, I say what he is not allowed to do
    (and why … I probably talk too much, having read this, I know I talk too much as a general feature of my personality! … for instance I almost always say “No hitting, that hurt X# When perhaps “No hit” would be enough, however due to reading other sites I’m also trying not to use the word No unless particularly necessary, so I say “Hitting hurts” and wait for my son to adjust his behaviour, apologise, etc. which he generally does)
    My son seems to be able to respect that different adults in his life will tolerate differing amounts of clambering/rough-housing … there is one preschool teacher who he cannot climb on as she has a back problem but others that he can … I support this, when I see it, by saying “Look at X, Joe, is it OK for you to climb on her?” and give the opening for the other adult to clearly permit this or not … and to try to develop Joe’s ability to read other people’s body language (I have been doing a lot of ‘training’ with this as my older boy is autistic and had to be taught very blatantly how to ‘read’ others)
    However … it still bothers me that my husband allows Joe to climb all over him, and particularly to kick off his glasses through lack of care (not intentional, but not avoided) whilst wincing and looking uncomfortable with the behaviour. I want to respect my husband’s choices, and have probaly muttered enough things about ‘Tell him, Martin, just tell him that it’s too much right now’ (Husband usually does so when prompted) but the whole situation just bothers me … and Joe isn’t getting any smaller! … do you have any advice?

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Helen! I would strongly encourage your husband to calmly, but firmly establish some personal boundaries for himself, whether the climbing bothers him or not. This is not so much for your husband as it is for the sake of your son, who, in my opinion, shouldn’t be given the impression that it’s okay to climb on people (except perhaps dad, when he welcomes it), even if they say it’s okay. He will not learn to respect the personal boundaries of others if his mum and dad don’t insist he respects theirs. It’s great that you are dealing with the hitting, etc., without getting riled, but dad must, too.

  19. I’ve noticed that many parents believe the tactics they learned to deal with newborns are the same way they should continue to parent through upcoming years of a child’s life. A baby’s needs are paramount and often get in the way of everyone else’s needs. That’s normal. But letting a two-year-old or seven-year-old constantly impose his will regardless of other people’s needs tends to be a path chosen by many caring parents who believe that the child will find in himself the desire to be courteous and respectful of others, and insist that imposing limits doesn’t bring forth the child’s authentic caring response. (I’ve been taken to task by these parents many times when I advocate limits, rules, and boundaries on electronic entertainment.) Thank you for this post. Again, sharing.

    • avatar janet says:

      Laura, very well said. Yes, I’ve noticed that the adjustment from child’s needs during early infancy to those of the toddler years can be confusing for parents. I personally love that you advocate limits and rules around electronic entertainment! I believe that is one of the best things I’ve done for my kids. My teenagers now recognize that these limits (although they’ve complained about in the past) have helped them to focus, listen, retain information and be children who don’t need to study as hard as their friends do. Thanks for sharing!

  20. avatar Kathy Hewey says:

    SO glad I just found this post. THANK YOU. This is what I needed to know/hear! (I just emailed you via your FB page, and then found this, which has already answered parts of my questions)

    So Grateful! – Kathy

  21. avatar amy faith martin says:

    as a mom of an adult with autism and 3 other adult “kids”, a dog trainer, and now a grandma to 3 kids. i so agree with your post, boundaries taught & given are the best! thank you- amy

  22. avatar karen says:

    I am in disagreement with one part of this article. To me physically forcing a kicking and screaming child into a car seat would damage the relationship, respect and trust that had been built up. I would be grateful though if you can clarify some confusion for me on wording or perhaps there is a good article you have – for my understanding of ‘positive discipline’ is to avoid the use of no, not, dont etc and instead focus on what the need is, say why it cant be met and suggest an alternative – so for climbing on me it would be ‘I see you want to climb, it hurts mama, can you climb on the chair’ – do you think thats clear enough or does that sound too confusing? Clarification on all this would help thank you.

    • avatar janet says:

      Karen, I’m not sure what you’re asking… “Positive Discipline” seems to mean different things to different people and is not a term I use. My focus is not “to avoid the use of no, not, dont etc and instead focus on what the need is, say why it cant be met”. I believe that children need and deserve clarity about our expectations, not parents pondering their children’s needs and trying to please them or waiting for them to comply when they refuse to sit in their car seats, etc. It’s important to acknowledge our child’s point of view and offer a “real” choice whenever possible, but “Can you climb on the chair?” is basically leaving it up to the child to stop climbing on you or not, which is not a caring response, in my opinion.

      • avatar karen says:

        Thanks Janet, I would appreciate it if you can say more as im still unsure where I am with this and I take my communications with my baby very seriously so I want to get it right.
        When I change his nappy I am really consistent if he is unhappy, I say, ‘I know you want to go and play but I need to change your nappy first, Mamas going to lay you down again (or offer him to stand)’ or if he walks to the door in the morning before were dressed I say “I see you want to go outside now, but were need to be dressed first, do you want to come into the living room and we can get dressed?’ but I follow the same pattern, acknowledge his needs, an explanation, then a request or instruction (a request if a genuine choice). I would love your input on if you think this is too confusing for a 1 year old?

        • avatar janet says:

          Karen, I don’t think your language is over-the-head of a 1 year old, but the way you phrase things is not clear enough, in my opinion. In this example you ask a question that isn’t entirely clear: “I see you want to go outside now, but we need to be dressed first, do you want to come into the living room and we can get dressed?”

          Can he choose whether to get dressed before he goes outside? If getting dressed is a must for going outside, but he can also choose to stay inside and not get dressed, I would say, “If you would like to go outside, you must first get dressed.” That’s what I mean by clear. A choice or two is nice, but a questioning tone projects ambivalence and tentativeness…

          A smaller detail I’d add would be to use genuine, direct first person dialogue, i.e., “I” and “you”, rather than “Mama” and “we need to get dressed” (assuming you’re already dressed). ;)

          • avatar karen says:

            Thank you so much Janet for taking the time Im much clearer now. I will adapt my language. Ive been practising my conscious speech since he was born, its ongoing learning :) ps. As a side note Im excited to say he has now started to play independantly more since I transformed the living room but I notice its only at particular times of the day, unfortunately not first thing (which makes getting out the door a challenge) but often in the evening.

  23. avatar Elisavet Nikolopoulou says:

    Thank you Janet, because every time I read one of your articles about setting boundaries I regain my confidence!
    It’s not always so easy to firmly set boundaries because I feel sometimes that I have failed to convince my 22m son to do sth in other more gentle ways. Maybe I didn’t offer the right choices on time or I missed a clue in his behavior or I wasn’t connected to him before an incident or didn’t prepare him properly…But sometimes it just is like that and nothing of the above works especially when it comes to safety matters. I just need to think: this is the right thing to do and I must be brave to prove it to him. And it’s part of our role as well! If we forget part of our role the whole play will be unbalanced and everyone /everything will be affected. These thoughts help me not to loose my temper as well but set my boundaries as gracefully as possible- although graceful setting of boundaries might sound paradox.
    As many people wonder if RIE approach refers only to babies and toddlers, I think that articles like this prove how much RIE can work for teenagers as well and adults and in all our relationships. As a teenager I was always jealous of my friend whose parents would let her do anything she wanted, she was able to convince them without a fight in a sec whereas I always had to move in between boundaries. Recently she confessed that She was always jealous of me cause I had parents capable of fighting for my own good and that she always felt I was more loved by my parents because of that. She admitted that letting her without fight do whatever she wanted and making excuses for all her mistakes has ruined her life!
    So boundaries gently set are and do feel like love!

  24. avatar Rebekah Theriot says:

    Janet,
    Firstly, I would like to thank you for your work, it has helped me tremendously in parenting my first child. He is now a little over 3 years old and my daughter is 13 months old. We are a playful family and enjoy rough-housing (no tickling). But there is a downside to this, my son is very physical with his sister and we are at a loss of how to teach clear boundaries between the two of them. We’ve struggled with him laying on top of her (usually in an effort to stop her from doing/taking something) and trying to rough-house with her. In contrast, they’ve begun snuggling, playing chase games (no touching allowed) and she is now initiating rough-housing. When you stated:

    “Sometimes, the child is exposed to adults or older children who do not respect the toddler’s boundaries; they grab and tickle him, for example, depriving him of a sense of secure space. When a young child is overpowered and assaulted in this way, he becomes confused about physical boundaries with other people. If parents or older children need to roughhouse with the baby, they should wait until he is old enough to be a more equal partner.”

    This made me feel uncomfortable because it reminded me of inappropriate ways I was played with. I want my daughter to feel secure and my for my son to have clear guidelines of how to play with his sister. Is it too late? Any advice would be much appreciated.

  25. avatar Kell Martin says:

    We have had an extremely difficult hitting (and pushing) issue with our son, who is now 2 1/2, for well over a year.

    He pushes and hits other children fairly aggressively mainly when they enter his space or threaten a toy. Sometimes it’s in anger, sometimes it’s in fun… but, it’s out of control.

    Thinking back, his main playmate from 10 months on hit him until he was around 18 months, at which time he really started emulating the behavior. When he was hit, we always talked about his emotions, that it hurt, etc. and talked with both children.

    However, I’m not sure it’s due to the other child’s example. He started “swatting” at us around 10 months jokingly. At 18 months he was also playfully hitting and laughing. He loved the contact (which we tried to change to gentle touches, high fives, etc.) We went through a period of time where he would randomly run up and hit other children, two in particular. The way I’ve responded is to a) stop him and make sure the other child is OK b) get down on his level, looking him in the eyes and calmly telling him that I wasn’t going to let him hit me/other people. We talk a lot about how hitting hurts and we can’t hurt other people. However, the hitting hasn’t ceased.

    When he’s angry he talks about hitting the two particular children, one moved away over 6 months ago, but he’s stuck in a loop. When he’s mad at inanimate objects, he talks about hitting them. He’s associated hitting with anger. I try to give him the words “I don’t like” or “This makes me mad” rather than hit, but it’s not working.

    Before 2, he would see babies at airports, shops, etc. in his stroller and try to swat at them, hit pictures of babies in books, talk about hitting while looking in the mirror, etc. That’s calmed down a bit, but it’s been maddening.

    We are an AP family and I’m almost constantly with him. I feel that sometimes he acts out more with me than if my husband takes him to the park. This makes me feel like I’ve failed in some way, but I keep going.

    I’m obviously frustrated at times, though I try to hide it and keep my composure. I’ve tried so hard to be calm and positive.

    I talk through all of his emotions and give him the words. “I’m angry because…” I offer plenty of outlets for him to get his energy out. I have been afraid it’s a fear response, so we do all we can to make him feel safe. He and I witnessed a pretty horrific bike wreck a year ago. I reacted pretty strongly, freaking out about it afterwards, since we were the first people on the scene and the car almost hit us in the process. I worry some of that stuck with him, though at the time we talked through it.

    The hitting is no longer random. It’s now either when he gets really excited or a toy is threatened. I try to look for signs and intervene if things appear to be escalating to a dangerous level. It seems to be a very primal fight or flight response and also about dominance.

    We work through turn taking scenarios with dolls and he ends up hitting the other doll with his. We talk about using his words, like “I need space” since personal space seems to be an issue.

    I’ve taken him to positive parenting structured playgroups, where I’ve literally had to stop him from hitting kids in the head with toys they are trying to take. The faciliator tells me I’m handling the behavior correctly, but nothing seems to be helping. He is gaining a little control however. If I say his name, he stops and considers his actions. Other parents are constantly saying, “You are so patient. I would have lost it by now.” I get stares on the playground and I’ve just given up caring what other people think or embarrassment when an incident happens. It’s just him and me working through it together. Sometimes we leave if he can’t control his body or if any signs of fatigue, hunger, etc. are present.

    My big fear is that preschool is coming up. We are going to be in a co-op environment with other parents. I plan on being there every day, but I’m afraid my presence might also be a hinderance for him. I think it might benefit him to have a more structured environment with teachers.

    I’m at my wits end. He’s a wonderful, smart, hilarious boy. He’s extremely social and wants to laugh and engage with other children. All the kids want to play with him, even though he’s slap happy. But, I fear he’ll get kicked out of school, won’t be able to socialize properly and maintain friendships, and that this behavior has become so ingrained that it’s going to stay with him past toddlerhood. He even hits and talks about hitting in his sleep. :(

    I fear I’ve done something horribly wrong in my respnse to the hitting at some point and now he’s “stuck.” I’m hoping time and consistency will change this, but I live in fear of social situations. He’s always running off as well, and I hate to have to set SOOOOO many boundaries, but it’s my job to keep him safe, which I keep telling him over and over.

    I started taking him to OT thinking it could be a sensory issue. So far, the only thing they’ve told me is that we perhaps need to strenghten his core some more. ???

    I’m desperate. I get hit up to 50 times a day sometimes, and I can’t sit with him in a coffee shop for more than two minutes without him trying to climb the counter or smack a younger kid that comes in. I can never fully relax and just be. Seriously, the minute I do, something happens.

    I started doing “time ins” reluctantly, where we both go to a corner of a room together and talk about hitting if it happens. I have also started making him apologize to children he hits or ask them if they are OK, so he can see their emotion and to understand that his actions have caused pain.

    Sorry this has been lengthy. Please let me know if you can offer any more ideas of positive strategies to help my little guy get out of this loop.

    I want this time to be as magical as it can be.

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