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 one of Magda Gerber’s parent-toddler classes 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-and-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 or laugh 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 in 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 will 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.


 I offer a complete guide to toddler behavior and respectful discipline in my book:

NO BAD KIDS: Toddler Discipline Without Shame


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

  1. Thank you for confirming my suspicions that my 4.5 year old grandchild was just pushing the limits. When she unexpectedly blurted out “hey, I don’t love you” at the playground I was first a bit thrown. But we had been there for over two very active hours and it was lunchtime. We decompressed over lunch at her favorite restaurant and the remainder of the afternoon was filled with her more characteristic hugs and kisses. All was well.

    1. I love the way you handled this, TJ. Thank you for sharing.

  2. So much great insight here. My children push limits, but they seem to appreciate me enforcing the boundaries.

    I once witnessed a 3 year old beating up on his mother. While he was punching her, she was calmly trying to work through his feelings with him. I interpreted his behavior as, “I don’t want all of this control! Please take control for me!”.

    Children need to know they can depend on us!

    1. Jane Ramsay says:

      And exposing their behaviour away ie hitting by blaming the adult and excusing them is why kids at school are the way they are – no responsibility and no blame

  3. Linda Browne says:

    My son constantly pushes my limits. He is 29 yrs old.

  4. Viorica Hägeli says:

    My 35 yo child (my husband) is always in some competition with our 2,5 to son.

    Is there any podcast you intend to make about behaviour of dads that might be worse than a toddler when they are dealing with a 2yo?

  5. This makes a lot of sense for taking children out of places or behaviors that aren’t working. I’m trying to work on this. What is a good approach for when a child does actually need to do something, and won’t. Something like wash their hands, brush their teeth. I can’t physically make her do them, but they are important and necessary, and she has meltdowns every time.

    1. Nicole Brown says:

      Hi Janet! I was trying to access the stages of development link and it didn’t work. I would love to review this- could you perhaps post another link or point me in the right direction?

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