Set Limits Without Yelling

In Common Toddler Discipline Mistakes, I explained why punishments and the perception of children misbehaving as “bad” undermine effective and respectful discipline.

In the following email exchange, I discuss with Lauren (mother to a toddler) some other common discipline missteps: 1) Yelling; 2) Not setting limits early enough (which often leads to yelling or at least feeling like yelling); and 3) Not following through (which can also lead to yelling).

Dear Janet,

I’ve been a reader for about a year, and I’ve found the tenets of Magda Gerber’s approach to be indispensable with my daughter.  I’m a SAHM, and it’s incredible how much better our days go when I’m able to maintain a calm face and tone when setting limits.

My problem is that I’m not very good at it. Sometimes I just get so frustrated with the constant demands of a 2.5 year old that I end up yelling.

My question is whether you have any advice about how to stay calm and consistent.  I’m already very much a believer, but I need something to help me manage my frustration level in the moment.

While I know it’s absolutely unreasonable to expect my daughter to know when she’s pushed enough, I can’t help wanting say something like,, “Come on, kid, I’ve nailed the respectful-but-firm tone here a few times already, and now I’m not screwing around!”

The thing is, when it works — which is a lot of the time — it WORKS. It seems like that would be enough incentive for me, but I still struggle.  I’m sure if  were to get this question from another parent, I’d know exactly what to tell them, yet putting it into practice consistently when the going gets tough is not easy for me.   Any hot tips?

Thank you so much,


Hi Lauren,

Two and half is a demanding age, but “constant demands” was a clue for me that there is something in the dynamic between you and your daughter that is unsettling her.  There shouldn’t be constant demands. But if she senses that she is pushing your buttons and that there might be an explosion (yelling and frustration on your part, etc.) then she is going to be compelled to make more demands.

Have to go, but will try to write more later!


Thanks, Janet.  She definitely can sense when she’s pushing my buttons, that’s very true.  I don’t think I made a fair characterization of the situation by describing her demands as constant.

She really is wonderful at self-entertaining, and we do everything we can to foster her independence and follow her lead.  For example, she has just learned to open the screen door herself.  I think this is great, because we have a safe, fenced back yard, and she’s able to spend as much time as she likes playing out there.

As an example of something that pushes my buttons, now that she can open the screen door, she sometimes gets in a spell of throwing things outside, and she won’t stop until we lock the door.  It doesn’t matter what we say, whether we do the calm “I won’t let you do that” or  when she keeps doing it…she won’t stop.  The thing is, I don’t WANT to lock the door as an artificial limit.  I want her to just do what I say.

I guess my feeling is (and I know it’s a completely unreasonable expectation) that I want her to understand how hard we work to be respectful parents, to give her as much freedom and autonomy as she can handle, and to give us the benefit of the doubt and respect when we do say “no”.  When she blatantly does something we’ve nicely told she may not do, it feels hurtful and disrespectful to me, and I have a lot of difficultly not taking it personally.

What I’d love to be better at is just saying, after one warning, “I’m going to lock the door now because you’re having a hard time keeping things in the house” and calmly getting up and doing it.  I think my problem, now that I’m talking it out, is that I give her too many chances, more than I can handle, to comply on her own.  In my effort to give her the opportunity to choose to do what I’m asking of her, I end up pushing myself farther than I can handle.

So what’s the best way to balance giving her a chance to decide and comply on her own with stepping in and enforcing the limit?

Hi Lauren,

Yes! You answered your own question:

“What I’d love to be better at is just saying, after one warning, “I’m going to lock the door now because you’re having a hard time keeping things in the house” and calmly getting up and doing it.  I think my problem, now that I’m talking it out, is that I give her too many chances, more than I can handle, to comply on her own.  In my effort to give her the opportunity to choose to do what I’m asking of her, I end up pushing myself farther than I can handle.”

It seems that you are expecting too much of your toddler and misunderstanding why she is “misbehaving”. Yes, she can understand what you want, but no, she can’t just agree and quietly comply with your wishes out of respect. This isn’t personal — it’s developmental.

A vital part of her development right now is testing her power and her will, while also being assured that she has parents who are well-equipped to contain this power.  Toddlers do this by resisting us.  They can’t explore their will by saying “yes, mom, I’ll do what you ask.” So, defiance at this age is normal and healthy.

However, it is disconcerting and even scary for toddlers to feel too powerful – powerful enough to push parents’ buttons and rattle or anger them or powerful enough to make decisions they can’t easily make (like when to relinquish their will, follow a parent’s direction and stop throwing toys). Feeling too powerful means feeling uncared for, and toddlers are acutely aware of their need for our care.

Your daughter wants and needs you to follow through and lock the door. Then, if she has feelings about that, allow and acknowledge them.  She needs you to calmly connect and “parent her” way before you get angry. If you are getting annoyed, that means you are giving her too many chances and choices. She’s clearly letting you know that she needs your help.

My thought is that she may also be communicating that she’s tired, hungry or in need of release for some pent up feelings. But one thing is certain: she is asking for a boundary from you, presented calmly and respectfully so that she can feel safe and secure in your love and care again.

I would get close enough to make eye contact and tell her once politely not to do it (“please keep your toys in the house”) and then say, “You are throwing toys outside when I asked you not to. I’m going to lock the door.” She may squawk in response, or even have a meltdown, but she will also breathe a huge inward sigh of relief. Mommy stopped me before she got mad. She seems confident about taking care of me.

Taking care of yourself and your child — prioritizing your relationship to this extent is the ultimate in great parenting and something to feel extremely proud of.  Children don’t want to be considered bothersome, frustrating or annoying and they don’t deserve our resentment. But only we can set the limits necessary (and early enough) to prevent these feelings from cropping up and poisoning our relationship.

I hope this perspective helps give you the encouragement you need to remain calm and be consistent.



At last! I’ve created the No Bad Kids Master Course to give you all the tools and perspective you need to not only understand  and respond effectively to your children’s behavior but also build positive, respectful, relationships with them for life! Check out all the details at ♥

(Photo by Elizabeth/Table4Five on Flickr)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Yumnah Ras says:

    Dear Janet
    I love your posts so much I have invested in your books!!! Two questions if I may? My husband often mocks me for reading up about parenting although he says I do a good job of parenting our 2,5yo and 6mo. He does not want advice on how to parent although in my opinion he is perpetuating many of the mistakes of his parents. As well as overcompensating with certain issues. Is it enough when one parent ‘does the right thing’ eg limit set, positive gentle yet firm discipline etc. I know ideally both parents would have similar parenting styles but my husband and I seem polar opposites at times and I wonder about the negative effects of this.
    Baby-brain! I have forgotten the second question! Haha. But this post resonated because yesterday we had a yelling day which was horrible for us all. Ah! I’ve remembered!! My son the toddler is still breastfeeding. I night-weaned him by saying that there is no more boob at night, but when it’s light outside there is as much as he wants. And that there is no boob at night but lots of hugs and cuddles because Mommy and daddy love him very much. But two nights ago he woke and came to my room at 3am and woke the baby who needed a feed anyway – I couldn’t let her cry so I told him that there was no boob for him, but she needed to grow big like him so she still needed boob at night. But I love him very much etc etc … He was alright actually and didn’t even ask for boob though he did tell me at 3.30am that it was light outside, I told him that it wasn’t and he fell asleep in my room quite easily. I wondered last night whether this was the reason for the ‘challenging’ behaviour during the day which just frustrated me and I then responded by losing my temper, when really now I feel he was asking me to show that I still loved him the same? He often uses nursing as a way to connect with me and I feel ‘recharge his batteries’. Anyway I don’t feel yesterday was a failure if I can take a lesson from it!

    Thanks so much for all the good you do!!! (Any chance of running a series of workshops in London UK??)

  2. Thanks for this Janet! So helpful. I’m wondering – will this work for a 22 month old or is he still too young to really understand what I mean the first time I say it. I feel like he definitely understands when I say “we can’t go outside right now” (that is his most frequent demand even though my husband takes him out several times a day for long stretches) but for other things like “You have to wait for me to help you (with whatever it is) because the baby is crying and I have to go get her” I feel like he doesn’t really quite understand the words yet? And he just sobs and gets so angry and stomps his feet and falls on the floor. He reacts this way with other things too, not just ones that involve the baby (who is 8 wks old by the way). He can’t seem to understand WHY he has to wait for things and I end up yelling at him to calm down because that seems to at least get him to snap out of his head a little bit. But really, it doesn’t help! And I really hate yelling when I know he can’t really control strong emotions over something.

  3. I am very sensitive to noise. My only child is a very loud 6 year old. I am constantly asking her to be quiet, to speak in an inside voice, or to play in the other room. Invariably there are sudden loud sounds (eg. doors slamming) or constant talking in a shouting voice, or “singing” – very loudly and very off key. I am at my wit’s end. I follow through on limits; we are currently on day 13 of 30 days of no TV. Other than threatening to cancel birthday parties or yelling myself, nothing works. Part of it is her being a kid and me being overly sensitive to noise, but it is nevertheless extremely frustrating for me, because she doesn’t listen the first dozen times and won’t cooperate until I scream. Not just with being quiet, but with everything (putting on jammies, etc.)

  4. I love this article, as all advices from the website, I have both books, and I kind of have the same problem as Lauren, but don’t know what my “follow through” should be. My daughter is just yelling and being happy and joyfull and wonderfull, but the yelling is annoying sometimes because we know it bothers the neighbours. We live in an apartment block. What can we say, “I see you are yelling, after I asked you to keep your voice low now because it is evening, so I am going to…..?” To what? What can it be besides a punishment? I won’t punish her but I keep reminding her to keep her voice low , I do not have anything to follow though 🙂

  5. Oh Janet, this comes right in a moment when I’m feeling so sad because I feel like a failure. I am struggling too with a 2.5 year old boy who is testing me dozens of times a day. Reading this makes me think that I too wait much longer than I should before taking action until I feel worn out, with no patience left at all and I end up yelling. Doesn’t help the fact he is always looking for me, doing things with me, being on my lap or even nursing. As soon as I sit down he comes looking for nursies, when he plays he wants me there 8 times out of 10 and since beginning pre-school (not sure what it’s called in English..anyway, it’s the school I work at as well, so he sees me there with other kids) it’s obviously gotten worse (wants mummy for every single thing, even feeding sometimes, doesn’t want to be left home with anybody else but me when I go -once a week, the only 2hrs I keep for myself all week – to the swim pool). I try to have quality time with him everyday, but I obviously have a house to ‘run’ besides work so I can’t spend ALL the time playing with him. The icing on the cake is the screaming, he’s done that for ages. First screaming for no reason (and he has a voice so loud it’s unbbelievable) now both for no reason and when he can’t have something the way he’d like. We tried ignoring first then telling him that’s not the right way to ask or say things and replying only when he would say things in a normal voice. Works sometimes but not every time, possibily because we lost it a few times me and my husband and maybe he knows that’s a switch for us. When he yells right in your ear and you go deaf for a moment, it’s really hard to keep ‘cool’ so we were taht dumb to yell back’ stooop screaaaaming! Do you like this???’ I know, very low point. I never thought it would get like this, that I would end up this tired, frustrated and miserable for knowing I am not doing him any favour by being this ‘weak’, but that’s where we’re at right now and I have to admit I’m relieved those days when he naps in the afternoon (happens rarely…) and I know it shouldn’t be this way. I portrayed him like a bad kid, obviously he’s not, it’s just as if there was a communication breakdown many times. Sorry for venting this out, this article made me think I need to try again, in a different manner. Hopefully we’re still on time.. Anyway, thanks for your words, I will try and make some time for reading as many older posts as I can and read again your book – I have it and loved it but it seems I need a lot of repetition to get things stick to my brain.

  6. Dear Janet,

    thank you so much for all those wonderful articles! Reading them helps me through the tough times and makes me feel good in the good times!!

    Today, I feel like I’m in desperate need of help though!

    Our daughter (2y10m) is going through a very aggressive phase and by now we are at loss of how to handle this. She is screaming, hitting, biting, scratching and throwing things, taking her cloths off and melting down completely.

    She was showing similar behavior when I was pregnant > gave birth > little brother (now 1.5y) started crawling and starting at her daycare center. She’s always been so good with her little brother and has shown so much love and affection towards him. Her aggression was always only directed towards me and at those times of changes she was leaning completely on her father (“Not mom, only dad” was what she was usually yelling).

    Now she’s aggressive towards all of us. It’s like the minute she’s not getting what she wants, she’s falling apart and can’t snap out of it. It can go on and on for an hour and it really starting getting to us!

    We understand it is part of her development and and my husband and I are trying to be respectful to her, her brother and to each other but OH MY it’s HARD these days!!!

    My question is not about how to prevent it, but more about what we can do, when we missed the moment? What can we do to help her through her anger? To help her understand that we are there for her and love her, always and forever! Because being there and telling her does not seem to be enough! Whenever we do, she is just fighting us even harder.

    Holding her makes everything worse, letting go of her too tough, because she is hitting and throwing things. I started putting her in her little brother’s baby bed, telling her, this is her safe space, where she can kick and hit the pillows, but she’s so big by now, it is easy for her to climb out.

    I’m trying to put the “parent-hat” on and rationalize that I am 37 and she’s a tiny 2.5 year old but what I feel is powerlessness, helplessness and failure! It’s very hard for me to NOT take it personally. But believe me, I’m trying!

    Yesterday she threw a CD case against my eye, managed to kick me in the face and in those moments I started losing it too! I’m pushing her away from me, yell and leave the room because I just can’t take it anymore. I feel like I just got one too many bite marks, scratches, bruises from my baby girl who I actually love to pieces. Where does all that anger come from?

    I have done a lot of soul-searching: I have not been the best at setting boundaries. In hindsight I know that and I think I also know where it comes from: I’ve felt terrible about not being able to give her a hundred percent when I was pregnant with her baby brother and after he was born. She was not even 15 months old. She needed me as much as he did and I couldn’t give it all to her. I understood that she leaned so much on her father but it also hurt! A LOT! Maybe therefore I was softer, comforting more than needed, giving her more attention in moments where it would have been wiser to take a step back. I thought I was practicing RIE but I fell into the trap, because I was not clear and instead of setting boundaries, I was avoiding conflicts because I didn’t want to feel more rejection! And now it backfires!

    Maybe one more thing: As of recent events, she started kindergarten 2.5 months ago. She started a little earlier than usual, because we felt that she is the happiest, when she is outside all day and were told that she is absolutely ready by the pedagogues in her old day care. She is fully potty trained and has very good speaking skills, in both Danish and German. It’s a wonderful forest kindergarten – we live in Denmark – with great pedagogues and where we know that she is very happy, once she is there. But getting her to go is a power struggle EVERY MORNING!

    I would be so thankful for your insight and help!! Thanks in advance! Your comment will be highly appreciated!!!

  7. Hello, Janet!
    Would it be another option if the mother acknowledges the toddler’s wants? “It seems like you want to throw things. We won’t have more toys to play with. Let’s find a different way to throw”. And then if the toddler still does it, setting a straight limit by letting the toddler know that mommy is going to close the door?

    I would like to know. Thank you:)

  8. Wow. I have a 21 month old and this could have been our house! I do this too, I give her lots of chances, and the when something has happened one too many times, I snap and yell. This is now so clear to me. Thank you.

  9. Dear Janet,

    You are a wonderful and trully blessed gift to a lot of parents out there and I am one of them. Thank you for writing my thoughts exactly and reading my mind so many times! You’ve changed my parenting and my family’s state to better so many times without even knowing it!
    And after all that, I must say I’m finally brave enough to write here because this is exactly our situation in the present. Except my sun is almost 4 and he is doing this every single minute of every single day and both myself and my husband are exhausted.
    I think one big cause is my mother in law, living with us, too. She will not hold any limit with him, and they spend a lot of time together while we are at work. But he does this with all of us and with every single subject.
    I also noticed my sun’s behavior gets worse the manier we are. If it’s only one of us with him, he has a fairly good behaviour. The second one us the other 2 adults in the house comes home, behaviour gets worse. And when all 3 of us are with him, he usually just gets out pf control.
    HELP! We are desperate and we don’t know how to truly evaluate and help in this situation.

  10. I have loved this approach of boundary setting and read about it long before my daughter was at toddler age which I think served me well having some realistic expectations but I find myself slipping into almost what feels like threatening rather than boundary setting. If you do xyz I will have to put it away/take it away etc. At first it felt like I was being up front with expectations and I try to have it sound supportive like hey kiddo I know it’s tough to keep the rice from the sensory at the table because you wanted to share some with the dogs‚ but I can’t let you do that. If it’s too hard to stop I will have to help you and we can put it away and try again later. And if there is another time it happens I follow through and validate her emotions and it’s a moment of sad and we hug and she moves on. However lately I’ve noticed her saying things like “I’ll be very careful” or “please don’t put it away I won’t do xyz again”. I just feel like she sees it as punishment which is of course not my intention. Any advice? Thank you!

  11. Do you have suggestions about how to set limits and boundaries with kids who are 7,8,10 and 12? I give them clear instructions. I know they are capable of completing the tasks and they simply don’t. If Dad is home they will. But he is away from home for 13 hours a day. Which has lead to me yelling nearly every day. I just get fed up with the disregard to doing any tasks. We homeschool so we are all home all day. They whine about doing school and complain about having to do chores also. I’m feeling so overwhelmed because I don’t have a reasonable response when they simply don’t do what I’ve clearly laid out for them to do.

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