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. 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!

      1. Michelle White says:

        I try to remember to be grateful that I am the safe space to do this kind of outpouring of emotion.

    1. I use the recommendations here to improve my relationship with a ID (intellectually disabled) sib, who operates at about a 1 or 2 year old level, and your advice has helped so much, whereas our own mother and other sibs have “written off” the relationship, and expect obedience or compliance, because, who needs to give a 58 year old the level of attention you give a 2 year old.

      The fact is, the need for attention, the need to be understood, has 55 years of thwarted treatment, including from state caregivers (which has made things much worse).

      So, my question may be out of your ken, but maybe not. The past 5 years have been fraught with spitting and now screaming, reinforced when state caregivers go away, but hitting if necessary. How would you get around that. I give my sister the close loving eye contact and smiles, I tell her what we are going to do, and find she cooperates much better, but plenty of negative reinforcement has exacerbated the really bad stuff: scream when its time to change clothes, but if I sit there smiling with my face at her level, catch her eye, she will frequently stop in the middle and laugh.

      Any ideas? Oh, our mom thinks she just needs discipline…how do you discipline a 120 pound person. Timeout (leaving the room), mom believes just makes it worse, so she yells, “Behave!” or “You’re bad!” …which changes the scream/spit thing to an attempt to hit. Makes things worse, claims I should be protecting her, whereas I have said calmly and angrily that her approach is actually putting ALL of us in more danger and reinforcing negative behaviors.

      Ultimately, my sib has powerful behaviors to thwart anyone “getting her to do something” rather than wanting to be a willing participant, and this is what I’m asking about. Name calling is the worst, but eventually the trust even with me is overcome by extreme distrust of “a situation.”

      Need the simplest of instructions for mother and other caregivers, who don’t get that this is still a 2 year old stuck in 50 years of maladaptive self protection. The other view is that she’s a behavior problem and needs…discipline.

      You can’t have discipline (corporal), sarcasm, neglect (lack of one-on-one intimacy–as much as is needed!) and then expect instant obedience. Bargaining is the worst (I’ll get you some french fries if we can put your shoe on) because it is using the adult caregiver’s idea of time/reward, rather than reinforcing the here and now cooperation, and often accompanies annoyed impatience, which I think every animal feels more intensely than the verbal instruction.

  2. 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.

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

  3. 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!

    1. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

        1. My 3 year old son is throwing his food at daycare as soon as a plate is placed in front of him. Daycare is not allowed to take food away from children as a punishment.
          We follow your advice from above at home and he rarely throws food. Any suggestions for throwing food at daycare?

          1. Why do you think he is doing this? Sounds like he needs someone with him for a few days at lunch to stop him from throwing and understand what is going on with him.

  6. 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

  7. 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! 🙁

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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. 🙂

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

    2. Brandi, your son may be in a situation he is unable to explain to you. I wouldn’t discount his behavior without first getting all the information you need to do what is best for him. Try attending his preschool for a day and observe his actions yourself…be a fly on the wall with regard to both him and his preschool experience.

      Many, many years ago when I was in first grade, I didn’t get off the bus as usual. Turns out that I was on the wrong bus, even though I knew it was the wrong bus but no one was listening to me. The teacher insisted that I was incapable of getting on the right bus and rarely made good decisions, etc.. Fortunately, my father disagreed with the teacher’s evaluation and expected more from her in regard to his daughter. He reassured me that it wasn’t my fault and that was the end of it from my perspective. To this day, I don’t know how the situation was resolved but I knew then that my Dad was there for me. Hope this helps a little bit!

    3. The Kissing Hand book by ahdrey Penn. it’s a wonderful story about a child going off to school.

  10. 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

  11. 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! 🙂

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

  13. Karen Treacy says:

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

  14. 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.

  15. 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!

    1. I’m in the same boat with my eight year old son – I’m going to try these techniques; I have a feeling they will be useful…

  16. 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

  17. 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!

  18. 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.

  19. 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…

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

  20. 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.

  21. 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!

  22. this is very helpful, thank you. I try so much to keep my calm but sometimes carrying all the other stresses around (work, relationship, etc) I lose my cool and snap at my 3year old boy, he is very expressive, by words & action, and it makes me mad at times, but reading your article, I know I just have to let him be, my only duty is to guide, protect and to love him 🙂

  23. Tonight I wanted to find some information to make sure that i am reacting in the right ways to my son’s frustrating toddler-ish behaviour! He often pours his water on the floor or whips his spoon across the room after he’s done eating no matter how many times I’ve calmly said “spoons and forks are for eating, when you’re done eating, please give mummy your spoon/fork gently”…..I LOVE realizing that this is insanely common for toddlers and that I HAVE in fact been reacting the right way…..I realize that reacting to this behaviour in a negative way is absolutely pointless…its harmful, and will have the opposite affect that I want (with respect to gentle parenting). I’m going to bed tonight feeling happy that I’m not just “giving in” when I pick up the spoon or clean up his water… need for a power struggle….toddlers will be toddlers and calmly stating the limit and then immediately moving on is the absolute best move for connection!!! 😀 Thank you for your fabulous writing, I read EVERYDAY on facebook.

  24. Do these (*and* what you wrote in “Don’t Leave Your Testing Toddler Hanging”, as well as other articles with Toddlers in the title) apply in preschoolers? I feel/think yes but wanted to hear your opinion.

  25. I see my 2 year old “re-enacting a story” with an “uneasy, tentative smile” regularly. He is not to the point of internalizing the story as “his story”, but it is a good reminder to be aware and not let that happen.

  26. Awe… I can do it the “right” way with my granddaughter! Thanks, this is all so true. I will share it with young parents especially.

  27. Working Mum says:

    How do you stop yourself from reacting emotionally when you see your one baby hurt the other? When my 28 month old boy either hits, bites or pushes my 15 month old it really effects me. How do I teach him and protect her from being continually targeted and hurt at the same time?

  28. Joy at home says:

    So, So good…and I’ve only read through the first point : )

    It’s exactly the reminder/reassurance I needed today! As we parent our adopted 6 y/o who is at an earlier developmental stage…

    I bookmarked your site for further reading ~ Thank you!

  29. Thanks for this article. Just what I need. 3 & 1/2 year old here finding his way in the world. Needed reminders like this. I always notice when he is tired and hungry especially when out and about it can all turn on its head. I like the phrases to use in these situations as I’ve always noticed it myself but havent expressed to him that I understand he wants to go etc. Thanks Kelly

  30. What a great find! So happy to have found your site. This article is great. I’m challenged to stay calm and not react because my mom was always angry and yelling. So it’s in my “make-up” to yell. But I’m very proud of myself and these articles and info help me immensely. I was the “why” child…. And for me, knowing “why” he is behaving this way makes it easier for me to understand him and not react. It’s strange, every time I read more into child development, I look at him in a new light. I feel closer to him and more connected, like me saying “hey I know what you’re going through, let’s do this together.” The Internet sure makes parenting easier! I read a lot!! Other moms ask me what happens with terrible twos? I say start reading now to be prepared and it won’t be so terrible! Lol

    My biggest challenge is bath time. It’s always a struggle, he never wants to bathe (he’s 3) I’ve give him choice of bath or shower, let him fill tub and put soap in, etc. still hates the bath. I analyze it over and over to figure out what is it causing this?? Any ideas?? Thanks for everything!!

  31. A wonderfully written piece that I’m sure many parents would benefit from. The ability of a parent to be ‘reflective’ and respond to behaviour accordingly is within us all but unfortunately not always easily accessed. Thanks.

  32. Hello,
    I was wondering what you suggest doing when 1 and a half year olds throw their food and their milk cups during meals. My twins do this even when they are still eating, so it doesn’t always seem to happen only if they are full and ready to stop eating. I also don’t know if this behavior is just completely normal for this age and they will grow out of it, OR am I not doing something I should be doing to get it to stop? Thanks for any advice.

  33. Hi
    Just come upon this blog and totally eye opening to the behaviour my 28 month old boy is showing.
    Recently whilst visiting parents ( who gave 2 Yorkshire terriers who adore my little boy and vice versa) he’s started to kick and push them. We’ve tried telling him off/ explaining why he shouldn’t etc but he continues to do so..
    Is there any help or advice to help with this matter as obviously not nice for the two dogs or my little boy. (We obviously don’t leave him alone with them!)
    Thank you for any help / support! And will be following this page as its a big help!
    Thank you in advance!

  34. Aye, came here today for the throwing things at mommy issue. I got emotional with my “stop its” last night, and the behavior reappeared today. This is exactly what I needed to read to help restore my calm.

    Side note – why is it so much harder to be calm when it’s “that time of the month”?! Hahaha 🙂

  35. I just read this and this is the best advice I’ve gotten on this so far. My daughter I think bit a child once out of impulse, but when she went straight to school the next day and did it again after we talked to her and talked to her about it, I was overly frustrated. I think I’ve discussed this with her so much that now she enjoys talking about it. It’s “her story.” How do I go about breaking “her story” so she no longer sees it as that anymore. I’m at a total loss. She loves preschool, but if she bites one more time, she’s out.

    1. could you help her make some new stories? talk and talk about some positive interactions… maybe they would help cancel out the need to keep sharing the biting story.

  36. I feel like this really supports my “style” of parenting ,acting like the child can basically do nothing negative that will surprise me at all. I do feel it is important to be “surprised and make a deal out of good behavior I have been trying to do that as much as possible with good outcome. I have not allowed feeling to be expressed as you are suggesting here, possibly a mistake on my part. when our 3 year old crys I let him cry,no big deal because it is within reason and not insanely loud or long lasting But when our 2 year old fires off he is absolutely out of control, loud obnoxious and makes it clear he is wanting everyone to have to listen. It basically shuts down anything else going on around him because he is so loud and carrys on so long so I have been putting him in time out away from everyone when he does that, and basically telling him to stop crying,screaming like that is treated like a bad behavior. Now I am thinking perhaps the reason it reaches such intense levels is he sees it disturbs people and creates a reaction.I’m going to try to just let it roll. I tell ya though it makes my blood boil in like two seconds flat. very difficult to allow him to “express” his feelings because it feels aggressive and forceful towards everyone around and basicalkly makes everyone miserable.Feels his tantrums are pretty much being done TO us rather than just a kid crying because he is upset, if that makes any sense.I need to get over it and stop taking it as a personal thing I guess.

  37. Janet

    I love all your articles. I have read and reread a lot of them. They have helped so much. My four is using the word stupid right now…I have reacted poorly to it a couple times. And now every time he gets mad he calls me stupid. I have let in roll off my back…been bored about it. Acknowledged his frustration. But he keeps using it. I am wondering if deep down it is still a trigger word for me and he is picking up on that….but I am not sure what else to do. I get embarrassed when we are in public and he says ‘your so stupid’. Please any advice??


    1. Hi Shayna! Thank you for your kind words. THIS: “I am wondering if deep down it is still a trigger word for me and he is picking up on that…” Also: “I get embarrassed when we are in public and he says ‘your so stupid’”. Children only repeat words this way when they sense the power around these words. I would take a look at and consider why this is triggering for you… Then I would 100% let it go. Remember that this is a small person trying to lash out and get to you in an immature manner. If it doesn’t get to us, it goes away.

      1. K thanks!! I will mediate on this trigger for me and see what pops up. I have started acting funny when he says it. Like it’s hurting my ears. And that has helped a bit.


  38. Lily's Gma says:

    I raised 2 daughters who never had temper tantrums and if they ever pushed buttons I don’t remember it…. but now I’m watching my almost 2 granddaughter fulltime while my daughter is at work and she loves pushing both mommys and grandmas buttons. I’m ‘parenting’ her the same way as I did my girls except for the new things I’ve learned over the last few years. Some of that is why some things aren’t working. I agree with not allowing a child to get you so upset you lose yourself in anger but at the same time, I completely disagree with ignoring all behavior. Being soft and ignoring issues is not being a ‘teacher’ and that’s one of the most important roles a parent can play next to being nurturing ( sure ignore bullies- they leave you alone, but ignore a child’s bad behavior and they will continue to do it, even if they stop a specific action they just try something else to replace it). We have to teach children there are consequences for their actions, that’s how we teach them right from wrong and its also how we help to keep them SAFE.

    As for acting like what they are doing is ok. Disagree. I would never allow a child to call me stupid or throw something like a toy at my face without a sharp reprimand, nor would I allow them to be disrespectful or hurtful to anyone else either. Your not teaching them anything by ignoring bad behavior or even worse, acting like it’s funny.

    My daughter and I agree that my granddaughter understands us. But she will still throw something after being told no, and do the smile thing. Since my girls never did that sort of thing this is new to me. I am ocd, literally about paying attention to detail (is she hot, cold,tired,hungry,bored etc) and so I usually have the remedy before she even knows she needs it to help avoid any need to cry out for something, and I did the same for my girls, so that’s not an underlying factor. Now that shes bigger, I can see when shes hankering for attention, usually she starts acting up when I’m cooking or trying to finish a project so typically I will stop what Im doing in those moments and focus on her until she’s moved on to something else ,that’s something I learned that keeps us both from getting frustrated. HOWEVER, that too can create a viscious cycle, if you always give in to their moments of seeking attention, they figure that out quickly and will begin not to take ‘no’ for an answer. Good luck getting anything accomplished throughout a whole day. So now, I do not always stop what Im doing, though I do redirect her attention elsewhere quickly, with something like a snack, a tv show, coloring books etc. and go back to what I was doing. Redirection is a greatttt tool. But, children can and do learn that there is a ‘ time & place’ for everything, and they can learn it early on. So that’s what I’m working on now with our little one. Bottom line, sometimes when we say no, it means, NO, period, and THAT’S OK. Discipline is not a bad thing, it’s actually good when done correctly. Be in control of yourself , but be firm, go ahead, show some displeasure in their behavior, afterall that’s the point… just dont lose yourself in anger…remember too that you can still be nurturing while reprimanding a child, and most of all, in the end, be a good ‘teacher’.

    1. I am a new grandparent and have never been a parent so this is ALL new to me. My thinking is similar to yours, Lily’s Gma. I don’t understand simply ignoring when a three year old is choosing to drop or throw heavy objects from feet above the floor and the parents do not do anything. It isn’t in their own house. The child jumps from coffee tables to sofas, again not in his own house. I do not want this kind of behavior at my house and I am not sure how to deal with it. The parents seem to be parenting in the manner of this blog but it is not how I was raised and a lot of it does not make sense to me. How can I, as a grandparent, respect the parenting style of the parents but still be able to set limits in my house? I definitely do not want to punish my grandchild but I want to find some way to respond that will help to curb this frustrating behavior.

      I am seeking out genuine guidance that makes sense so I would appreciate feedback. Thank you.

      1. P.s. I found the titles of several recommended books on your site and immediately requested them from the library. Thank you!

  39. Yes! I have noticed even in my one year old that he always seems to hurt himself just before nap time. It is like his brain is shutting down and risky behaviors seem more appealing. It helps me to see it because he obviously doesn’t want to hurt himself, but something starts to misfire with fatigue. With hunger, he tries to hurt me. How can I take that personally knowing how fatigue affects him. If I didn’t have any impulse control, I would probably claw someone for food too! 😉

  40. Hi Janet, My daughter, sent me this article. I just came home from spending a couple or weeks with them and my only grandchild, who just turned 2. What hurts me and my other daughter most, is watching him hit his mother and pull her hair and then give her a hug. #1. why doesn’t he do this to his dad? He tried to hit me once, and I looked at him and said “don’t even think about hitting grandma” and that was the end of that, he took my hand and said read books? and we did. Will these kids grow up thinking they can have their way? and if they can’t keep a job, it is because the boss doesn’t understand? I agree with your article, kids don’t ALWAYS understand, but they will learn the most, before 5 – good and bad!

    1. Hi Cheryl, I think your daughter may be misunderstanding my advice. I wouldn’t give a child a hug when he was in “testing mode” like that. I would be very clear: “I don’t want you to hit,” while capably blocking/preventing this behavior. Understanding the reasons children lash out this way will help us to remain calm, rather than giving the behavior too much energy or attention. Here’s the point that applies… I’m wondering if your daughter is being clear and direct in her response (as you apparently are):

      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.

  41. Kelley Randall says:


    Your article is a help to me in dealing with my adult boundary pusher.

    The simple one or two sentence explanation to toddler makes a lot of sense.

    Looking back at some of the shenanigans, I believe I would have been less upset thinking of this person as a toddler and more productive in my responses.

    Minimally, I have to expect less from my adult toddler.

  42. I’m bookmarking this article so I can read it whenever I get too emotional. Staying calm is definitely not instinctual for me. My mother was very good at heaping on the shame factor, as her mother did to her. My grandma was adopted by a wealthy aunt and raised by many nannies. Her advice to my mother about discipline was ‘hitting children is the only way”. So anyway, my childhood has left some deep scars in me, and it is so easy to fall into old patterns when I get flustered and short tempered. I don’t want to repeat three generations of bad parenting. Thank you for making these gentle parenting techiniques available to those of us who were nutured in this manner. I’ve never hit my son, but I sometimes hear myself saying things that sound like my mom, and I have to apologize to my son. I even find myself unconsciously copying my mom’s facial expressions. It is so hard to undo 30 years of shaming, but I must try everyday so that I can help my son grow into a happy confident and kind person.

    1. Sorry, i meant *were NOT nutured in this manner*

  43. I’m new to your site, work & philosophy. I have a 16 month old who is just starting to delve into expressing emotions/tantrum territory. She’s just gotten over being quite sick, and having a dummy permanently in her mouth for 5 days straight, and now she wants it throughout the day (I’m assuming whenever she’s feeling emotional about something). Last night I wouldn’t give it to her, and I also wouldn’t give her a marshmallow before dinner, and she had her first full-blown emotional meltdown, and I was at a loss for what to do. Eventually I gave her the dummy when she was a bit calmer and asking nicely for it :/ But, I want to get rid of the dummy! She’s also started crying when being left at daycare for the first time since starting 10 months ago (even though she loves daycare). So obviously she’s dealing with some emotions! I will definitely be trying some of these techniques in general, but is this still the right approach when I know that she wants her dummy for comfort, but mean Mummy doesn’t want her to have it anymore? Even though she’s too young to express herself with words, will she still eventually understand the gist of what I am saying? On a side note, my only concern with aggressive behaviours (which hasn’t happened yet)is that by not letting them know that the action they’re doing is wrong (hitting, saying mean things) they will learn to keep doing this to get Mummy’s attention and get what they want? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with telling your children that hitting is wrong (but in a way that doesn’t shame them)? Sorry, new to this parenting technique, and new to parenting in general!!! I will keep religiously reading your posts 🙂

  44. nancy cearley says:

    I tell my grandson how much I love him to make sure he knows we are not going to send him away but he still will not listen to use. We are raising him and it is getting to us that he will not listen. What can we do to help him, I worry about him not use

  45. Sharron Jones says:

    Thank you for sharing. This is is very informative for me as a preschool teacher as well as for the parents.

  46. Hi Janet,
    Many thanks for this post! I read at it and said yes on my mind so many times… I got everything you suggest. However, how can I do with two twin 27 months old boys that would copy themselves all the times on the noughty things and one of them started hitting/biting/etc to the other just randomly, just because? I am a little worried because one of them is the hit one all the time and when working together on something not allowed it will be followed by screaming, tantrums or biting to me. Any advice to not shout all the time? How can I remain calm with two monkeys jumping on the couch or taking out the trash or spoons from its place? Help! And many thanks for your advice and ideas always! 🙂

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