elevating child care

The Real Reasons Toddlers Push Limits

Limit-pushing behavior can confound even the most attuned parent or caregiver. Why would our sweet darling throw her toy at us when we’ve just asked her not to, and then add insult to injury by smirking? Is she evil? Does she have a pressing need to practice throwing skills? Maybe she just hates us… 

Sensitive, intensely emotional, and severely lacking in impulse control, toddlers often have “unusual” ways of expressing their needs and feelings. If it’s any consolation, these behaviors don’t make sense to our children either. The simple explanation is the unfortunate combination of an immature prefrontal cortex and the turbulent emotions of toddlerhood. More simply: children are easily overwhelmed by impulses bigger and stronger than they are.

In other words, your child very likely understood that you didn’t want her to hit you or her friends, siblings and pets, dump her food or water onto the floor, whine, scream and call you “stupid”, but her impulses made a different choice. And though she smirks, this isn’t out of ill will.

Rule #1: never, ever take a child’s limit-pushing behavior personally. Our children love, appreciate, and need us more than they can ever say. Remind yourself of these truths multiple times daily until you’ve internalized them, because a healthy perspective on limit-pushing is a crucial starting point. Respecting children means understanding their stage of development, not reacting to their age-appropriate behavior as if they are our peers.

Here are the most common reasons young children push limits:

1. SOS, I can’t function

Young children seem to be the last people on earth to register their own fatigue or hunger. They seem programmed to push on, and sometimes their bodies will take possession of their minds and transmit SOS messages to us through attention-getting behavior.

When I think about my own children’s limit-pushing behavior, the examples that immediately come to mind are about fatigue…

There was the day at RIE class when my toddler son (who has always seemed to have social savvy) suddenly started hitting and pushing.  Aha. He’s tired and has had enough of this, I realized. I let him know I heard him and that we’d be leaving: “I don’t want you to hit. I think you’re letting me know you’re tired and ready to go home, right?” But then I got involved in a discussion with one of the other parents and forgot for a moment and, no surprise, he hit again. Oops. Totally my fault. “Sorry, B, I told you we would leave and then started talking. Thanks for reminding me we need to go.”

Then there was the family trip when one of my daughters, age four at the time, uncharacteristically spoke rudely to my mother. Taken aback for a moment (how could she?) but determined to remain calm, I intervened: “I can’t let you talk to Grandma that way….we’re going to go.” I ushered her out of the room screaming (my daughter was the one screaming, although I wanted to). As I carried her to a private space where she could meltdown with me safely, it hit me… We’d been traveling for six or seven hours. Of course she’s exhausted and just letting me know in her four year old way. Duh. My fault again.

I cannot count the number of times my children’s behavior has hit the skids because they were suddenly overtaken by hunger just twenty minutes after they’d been offered food. And their inevitable responses — “I wasn’t hungry then” — always seemed so unfair. Apparently all is fair when it comes to love, war and toddlers.

2. Clarity, please

Children will often push our limits simply because they haven’t received a straight answer to the question, “What will you do if I do such-in-such?” And then they might need to know, “Will it be different on Monday afternoons? What about when you’re tired? Or I’m cranky? If I get upset will you do something different?”

So by continuing to push limits toddlers are only doing their job, which is to learn about our leadership (and our love), clarify our expectations and house rules, understand where their power lies. Our job is to answer as calmly and directly as possible. Our responses will obviously vary from situation to situation, but they should consistently demonstrate that we’re totally unthreatened by their behavior, that we can handle it, that it’s no big deal at all.

3. What’s all the fuss about?  

When parents lose their cool, lecture, over-direct, or even talk about limit-pushing behaviors a bit too much, they can create interesting little dramas which children are compelled to re-enact. Punishments and emotional responses create stories that are frightening, alarming, shaming, guilt-inducing or any combination.

When parents say more than a sentence or two about the limit-pushing behavior, even while remaining calm, they risk creating a tale about a child with a problem (perhaps he hugs his baby sister too forcefully) which then causes the child to identify with this as his story and problem, when it was just an impulsive, momentary behavior he tried out a couple of times.

For instance, counter to the example I shared about my daughter speaking rudely to Grandma, which for me clearly indicated that she was out-of-herself and unraveling, my response would be far more minimal if a spark of rudeness was directed at me. Rather than react and risk creating a story around occasional whining, screaming, “you’re stupid”, “I hate you”, etc., I would dis-empower those behaviors by allowing them to rolllll off my back. Perhaps I’d acknowledge, “I hear how angry you are about leaving the park. That really disappointed you.” (Always, always, always encourage your child to express these feelings.) Again, testing us with these behaviors from time to time is age-appropriate, and if we react we may encourage this to continue.

Sometimes children will smile when they know they are re-enacting a story, but this is usually an uneasy, tentative smile rather than one of happiness.

4. Do I have capable leaders?

Imagine how disconcerting it is to be two, three or four years old and not be certain we have a stable leader. The most effective leaders lead with confidence, keep their sense of humor and make it look easy. This takes practice, but not to worry, children will give us plenty of “chances” through their limit-pushing behavior until we get this right.

As Magda Gerber advises in Dear Parent – Caring for Infants With Respect: “Know what’s important, both for you and for the child. If you are not clear, the child’s opposition will persist, which will make you, the parent, even angrier. This is turn highlights the conflict that exists already, leading to an unhappy situation combining anger, guilt, and fear. A child has a difficult time growing up with ambivalent parents.”

5. I’ve got a feeling

Children wil sometimes persistently push limits when they have internalized feelings and stress that they need to release. Trusting this invaluable process and calmly, but firmly holding the limits for our child while welcoming his or her feelings is the quickest and healthiest way to ease this need for limit-pushing. (For details and an example, please read The Healing Power of a Toddler’s Tantrum).  Maintaining an “all feelings allowed” attitude will nip most limit-pushing behaviors in the bud.

6. The sincerest form of flattery (sort of)

Children are sensitive and impressionable, and we are their most influential models, so they will absorb our behavior and reflect it through theirs. For example, if we snatch toys away from our child, she may persistently snatch from friends. A child is likely to behave more erratically whenever her parents are upset or stressed about anything, especially if her parents haven’t openly shared these feelings.

7. Seems the best way to get your attention these days

If the comfort and validation of our attention has been in short supply, or if there have been compelling mini-stories and dramas created around our child’s limit-pushing behavior, she might end up repeating them to seek this negative attention.

8. Have you told me that you love me lately?

When children feel ignored or even just a bit out of favor with us it rattles them, and fear shows up in their limit-pushing behavior. Reassuring hugs, kisses and “I love you” will certainly help to mend these bridges, but the messages of love that matter most are heard  through our patience, empathy, acceptance, respectful leadership, and the genuine interest we take in knowing our child.

To love toddlers is to know them.

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35 Responses to “The Real Reasons Toddlers Push Limits”

  1. avatar Monica says:

    Thanks to posts like these I am generally completely unthreatened by my daughters outbursts of strong feelings, I allow them to pour out and I feel very confident in my ability to be her unruffled gentle leader! Thanks!

  2. avatar Justine says:

    Janet,
    That introduction, were you at my house yesterday? I swear the throwing and the smirking, you had to be watching my daughter. It is so maddening, and the smirk is just iceing on that cake.

    Thank you for your insite, I hope it will help keep you out of my living room. I have learned so much from you over the past few months.

    • avatar janet says:

      Yes, I was at your house. If you behave I’ll stay away (just kidding). Thanks!

  3. avatar Malissa says:

    Thanks Janet. Again great timing.

  4. Janet, Once again you have shared an extremely wonderful and valuable post. It is so important for adults to realize and understand the still maturing young brain! You have helped in creating this needed knowledge that will benefit everyone. Because as I continuously say, We ALL benefit when ALL children have well developed brains.

    Thanks for sharing your heart, passion and experince toward creating well adjusted, respected and loved children!

    • avatar janet says:

      Deborah, awww, such kind words, thank you! Your feedback is always so helpful and encouraging.

  5. I really, really needed this right now. My daughter is really testing our patience, especially during mealtimes, with throwing food and giggling and smiling after any sort of reprimand. We’ve been trying to offer her alternatives to let us know when she’s done or if there’s something she doesn’t want to eat, but so far none of those are nearly as fun as tossing it over the edge of her high chair tray! Thank you for the reminder to keep my temper in check.

    • avatar Rose says:

      If she throws food more than once, the meal is over. No reprimand necessary. Just clear the plates, explain calmly that food-throwing means no more food, and carry on! She’ll figure it out pretty soon.

      • avatar janet says:

        Yes, I agree with you, Rose. Even babies know that they are not supposed to throw food…and they seldom do this when they are actually hungry.

  6. avatar Michelle says:

    Thank you!

  7. avatar haniye says:

    every time I read a new post of yours, it amazes me that how wonderfully you put words in sentences, so that we would capture insights that sometimes after reading a whole book, we wouldn’t. It seems that every word is so meticulously picked in order to guide us toward being better parents.
    It is less than 2 weeks that I’v started reading your blog and during this short time, you actually rocked my world. you changed my attitude and thus, my behavior in a much better way and I can not thank you enough for that matter.
    I also can not hide my sorrow about the fact that most of mothers I know here around me are not able to read English posts, even though,lots of them are in desperate need to read your awesome articles.
    If only there was a way that you would let me translate some of your posts! I would definitely put them under your name and also link to the main post in your blog.
    Obviously you have every right to disagree with this request but please don’t, for the sake of all the parents and children who would have a much better life, if they see the world through RIE philosophy and your blog.
    best regads

  8. avatar Mahrissa says:

    But what about when there is no “oh we’ve been traveling for 6 hours today” or “oh I forgot we had a really late night last night” type of excuse that you can come up with. What if this type of behavior is all of the time!? I’m so fed up with my almost 3 year old’s behavior I really don’t know what to do! :(

    • avatar haniye says:

      It kind of feel like to me that the word “so fed up” in your comment is contrary to these sentences of Janet’s post:”Our responses will obviously vary from situation to situation, but they should consistently demonstrate that we’re totally unthreatened by their behavior, that we can handle it, that it’s no big deal at all.”
      I think as long as your kid finds even the slightest amount of being fed up in your behavior, he,she might keep pushing your button.

    • avatar Liss says:

      Have you thought about looking at her diet or such things? Sometimes that or other random things that might not bother another child could be a trigger. Could be medical. Many possibilities…

      My younger brother is 12 years younger than me. When he was little he used to hit his head on the floor quite hard whenever he would get distressed or upset. I’m not sure why he did it or where he picked it up from, but we used to grab him and stop him from doing it, and try to console him. Eventually he stopped, much to our relief.

      Hang in there. It should get better with time.

  9. avatar Jamie says:

    So glad that I found your site. My child is not quite a toddler yet, but I feel reading these articles will help me have a better relationship with her.

  10. avatar Brandi says:

    My almost 3 year old just started at a Preschool and the first few weeks he was fine but now he has started acting out while at school(hitting, scracthing and pulling hair). The teacher lets me know when I pick him up and she makes me feel like I need to do something about it. He doesn’t act this way at home and I don’t think I need to “get on to him” hours after the incident happens…but she pressures me into saying something to my son in front of her….I don’t want to make him “feel bad” again for what he did earlier in the day but I don’t want the teacher to think I don’t see this as an issue if I just dismiss it….what should I do? Besides print this article off and hand it to her. :)

    • avatar Dean says:

      Hi Brandi,

      It’s possible your son is missing you during the day and acting out because of it. Sometimes children miss Mommy and Daddy so much they release these emotions on other kids.

      One tip I read on a blog a long time ago suggested giving your child a special memento to carry with them throughout the day. Whether in their pocket, backpack, or as a necklace, the item is one you share with them and let them know that if they ever feel sad and miss you while you’re away, they can look at the object and know you love them. I believe the blog writer used the example of a small seashell or even a wallet-sized picture of the child with the parents.

      I’m sure Janet has additional ideas, but this came to mind when reading your response. Hope it helps.

      • avatar Brandi says:

        Thank you so much, Dean! I will definitely try that. They have a “family tree” at school with pictures of their family but maybe it’s not easily accessible. I will get him a special gift that he can carry with him. Thank you.

  11. avatar Ashlee says:

    Thank you for this!

  12. avatar linda says:

    My daughter refuses to sleep or rest, if she is tired or sleepy!!! She is hungry and crying but she refuses to eat! She woke up early today and did not sleep in the aternoon, so she was very agressive all the time.. I knew what it was, so I told her, “I know you are sleepy, lets go to bed, I will read you your favourite book.” But she kept yelling, “I don’t want to go to sleep.” In many cases I know she is making the scenario just because I am asking her to do something. And you are right about something, I do discuss everything with my husband in front of her, about her misbehaviour, I thought she might listen and react by “being a good girl, just like mommy and daddy want”.
    and about eating, surprise: she refuses to eat, but most of the time I just cannot take it from her, because she is a picky eater, and I feel like I should do my best trying to convince her, by taking her attention away, praising her, forcing, threatening (you won’t get a new book if you don’t finish it – she loves books- daddy is not going to take you to the park etc), but these things works less every day that goes. She is 3 and a half almost, she is a very good friend, she respects her friends limits, she does not even touch other children, she will only say NO to me, her father and my mom (her grandma)
    thak you for posting and for listening

  13. avatar Jessica says:

    Love this article,and your entire blog!

  14. avatar Cathy says:

    As Dr Dobson always said, to par as phrase, Kids are like night watchmen, so even though you’ve told them a million times that a certain thing is a no-no, the still need to check the doors to make sure the are still locked, as this is their security! It is nothing against you or your rules. So I would say to my kids when they were young; “the door was closed yesterday, today, and it will still be closed tomorrow!” I could tell this always made them feel secure! :-)

  15. avatar Laura says:

    Insightful and oh so helpful with reminding me that these little people are not adults! Thank you again!

  16. avatar Karen Treacy says:

    This rings true with both my toddler and my 5 year old, especially the tiredness aspect.

  17. avatar Erica says:

    For my daughter’s sake I wish I had read these things a few years ago but thankfully as you put it there are many opportunities to work on these things. So hard though sometimes as a parent to make these changes in the heat of the moment. I plan to print this and read it as often as I can to remind myself of it everyday. I think “Respecting children means understanding their stage of development, not reacting to their age-appropriate behavior as if they are our peers.” Is perhaps the hardest thing for me since my daughter is so very bright and so often doesn’t seem like four but she is, especially emotionally and when it comes to impulse control.

  18. avatar MrsB says:

    I need to know how to do this with the limit pushing behaviour of an 8 year old! My daughter grunts and groans like a sterotypical teenager whenever asked to do anything, even something everybody else IS doing, like helping with chores. Problem is a find it really disrespectful and react badly to it. I have been struggling with the chore thing for ages, why wont she just get it over and done with so she can do what she wants? She is so over dramatic about everything, I dont understand why she acts like this, neither of her younger sisters do.
    any links to similar articles about older children/pre-teenagers would be gratefully appreciated here!

  19. avatar Deb says:

    Janet, loved your specific points, especially the “what’s all the fuss about?” I think this is so challenging at times when you want to listen to your child and talk through an issue… it can make something small BECOME a problem just by over focusing on it! Thank you for bringing this up. I have found that preparing for a situation does help…for instance, talking to my son about how to act in church and practicing whispering in silly moments, helps him remember that in the moment. Another example is talking about having a friend over and that this involves allowing his friend to play with his toys before the play date… I do think just a simple statement helps! Thanks so much Janet! Deb

  20. avatar larisa cox says:

    Hi Janet,

    I really liked your article. It was very informative. I have a question though about letting the kids express all their feelings. I feel a little uneasy about letting my child call me “stupid” or say “I hate you!”. Isn’t it disrespectful? If I am to treat my child with respect, should I expect the same in return? Would me allowing him to call me names make it OK for him to do it in the future? I just see an angry teenager screaming at me. Are my fears unreasonable? Can you address this issue, please? Thank you in advance!

  21. avatar Kirsten says:

    Janet, I respect and enjoy reading all your articles so much. Usually it helps refresh my perspective so I can go back and deal with my three year old’s antics in a new way. That said, it is EXHAUSTING using all these mental tricks on my toddler. (I’m sure people will say they’re not tricks, but maybe I haven’t internalized it enough yet that it feels genuine.) I feel like he is so much smarter than me, he should be running the world. Except the world would be a mess and everyone would only have pudding for dinner ever.
    Thank you. Keep em coming.

  22. avatar SomeoneOCD says:

    I’m OCD (quite literally) and very bothered by this article. Why, you ask? Because the segments are incorrectly numbered. They go-
    1, 2, 3, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

    It should be, well, in numerical order. But you added an extra three and thus left off the eight. Oops! Poor eight…

    • avatar janet says:

      Ah, thank you! Fixed it. That one got past my editor…so I appreciate the heads-up. Yes, very distracting indeed.

  23. avatar april says:

    My 4 year old tests bed time limits a lot. My 1year old has been throwing toys and hitting and throwing her food over the highchair she throws her sippy at me or on the ground as well. Thank you for the wonderful insight to how to deal with it all and not get angery.

  24. avatar taneal bhandari says:

    My wife sent this to me. One of the most eye-opening articles about the subject that I’ve read. In fact, I’ve made a task reminder to read this weekly now that our little one is 18 months old. Thanks! It’s VERY re-assuring to read and re-read!
    :)

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