4 Toddler Testing Behaviors (And How to Cope)

In “Don’t Leave a Testing Toddler Hanging,” I shared four typical testing scenarios. I then offered some general guidelines for recognizing and responding to limit-pushing behavior. One of the parents commenting on that post asked if I could specifically address each of the example scenarios I’d presented at the beginning. She explained, “Seeing how techniques are applied really helps me learn how to model them.”

Me, too. I also appreciate an opportunity to clear up possible misunderstandings. So here goes:

Situation #1: Your 10-month-old spends the majority of your playgroup session climbing and squirming on your lap, using you to pull up to standing as you sit on the floor.

Parents might not recognize this behavior as a test or experiment because a) It usually begins early in toddlerhood when we are accustomed to responding to our infant’s more straightforward behavior (child expresses a need, we discern it and try to fill it); b) We might not be bothered by this behavior while our baby is small; c) We might even think it’s a good thing to let babies climb on us because we want to encourage their motor skill development; or d) We believe it is a reflection of our child’s need for closeness.

A child who is old enough to squirm, bounce, cling, and climb is also old enough to understand “I love having you on my lap, but I need you to sit still. If you want to climb or pull up, you can use that coffee table (or whatever).” I believe children need that limit to be clear so that they can make a clean decision to move away from the parent or stay close.

If the child continues to wiggle (which will happen even though he probably does understand our words – that’s what testing is), we follow through: “I’m going to move you off my lap, because you’re having trouble sitting calmly. You feel like climbing on me. That makes me uncomfortable.”

The key is to understand the difference between a want and a need. In the playing-on-the-lap example, there may well be a need for closeness and touch, but using mom or dad as a climbing structure is a want and, more than likely, a test.

The question the child asks in this situation, though not consciously, is “how much will you let me do to you?” When parents let this test go even though they’re uncomfortable or annoyed, or when they aren’t clear, it can become the child’s focus (as other tests do).

In a playgroup or other social situation (and even during playtime together at home), I would always allow a child to stay on my lap (without squirming) as long as he wishes.  I highly recommend staying put in these settings so that children have opportunities to build confidence as free explorers, autonomously deciding when to leave and return to their parents (referred to by attachment theorists Bowlby and Ainsworth as their “secure base”).

Alternatively, I do not recommend coaxing children to leave us to “play with all those cool toys over there,” or “see what Joey’s doing,” etc. Children know when we are selling them on something!

Situation #2: Your 18-month-old can’t seem to make up his mind. First he wants to go outside. Two minutes later he wants to come back in. A minute later he wants to go out again.

Toddlers like to make decisions. Or do they? They’re not entirely sure. The toddler years are a time of conflicting, unbridled emotions that are often expressed through impulsive, defiant behavior.

I recently consulted with a mom whose three-year-old son was doing the opposite of everything she asked him to do. If she said “don’t,” she could count on him to immediately do whatever it was. It made me chuckle when she shared that her noncommittal responses like “either way is fine” would literally stop him in his tracks because he couldn’t think of an unacceptable option to take. (She had recently given birth to a second child, so his testing made a lot of sense.)

When we say “red,” toddlers have a very strong impulse to say “blue,” and then if we agree to “blue,” there’s a good chance they’ll need to revert to “No, red.” And so it goes.

To help extricate toddlers from these cycles of control and resistance, they need us to calmly make some of these decisions for them while acknowledging their perspective. Then we follow through by helping them follow our direction.

In other words, when a child changes her mind a second time (or maybe even the first time), and it seems unreasonable or impossible, we say, “I hear you wanting to go back outside. We’ll do that a bit later, after I’m done making your lunch. We’ll be staying inside for now.”

As always, our confident attitude and total acceptance of our child’s negative response to our decisions is far more important than the words we use.

(I share more details in “How to Help Our Indecisive Toddlers.”)

Situation #3: Your two-year-old isn’t ready to get into her car seat, regardless of your schedule. Her resistance and stalling seem to increase each day despite your patience and respectful attitude. When you’ve finally run out of time and need to place her into the seat yourself, she screams.

Car seats are the #1 area of resistance for toddlers, and who can blame them? There is not a single thing to like about being trapped in a seat when all your body wants is to move. On top of all that, you’re at a very willful stage of life. And you live in the moment, so “now” feels like “forever”. It’s almost impossible to anticipate a payoff for your discomfort, even if you know you’re going to Disneyland. With this perspective in mind, I share detailed advice in “Car Seat Struggles — Handled With Respect.”

Situation #4: Your three-year-old wants you to play with him when you need to make dinner. He howls and holds onto your legs. A few minutes later he hits the dog. At dinner time, he demands yogurt instead of the food you’ve prepared. Later he refuses to get out of the bath tub and get ready for bed.

When behavior unravels like this, it typically means that we have an exhausted, wound-up child with some feelings he needs to express, and the parent is not being clear enough about limits, because he or she doesn’t want an upset child. Then the child usually continues testing in a variety of situations until he feels the security of the parent’s leadership and can let his feelings flow.

Being clear means confidently asserting, “I need to make dinner now. I hear how much you want to keep playing. I was enjoying that, too. I’m hoping we’ll have time to play a bit more before bedtime.”

To emotionally disengage from our child’s testing behavior and remain confident with a limit we’ve set, it can sometimes help to sing a little tune in our head… “la-la-la”.  Then, as our child is clinging onto our legs, we might casually acknowledge, “Hmmm… I feel you holding on… I’ll need to move your hands a bit so I can bring these things to the table. Or would you like to do it?”

If the child screeches, “Ow! You hurt my hand!”, even though we know we weren’t acting roughly or angrily, we just take their word for it and acknowledge, “That hurt you. You didn’t like the way I moved your hands. I’m sorry it hurt.”  This is when the emotional release might happen (for our child, preferably, not us!). I recommend being present and accepting it in any form: screams, thrashing, unkind words. I’d do my best to relax and let it roll.

If our child tries hitting the dog, and we need to be elsewhere, I would move the dog to a safe place.

(Regarding the demand for yogurt at dinnertime, see #2, say something like, “These are the options we’re serving for dinner tonight. You can have yogurt in the morning.” When there’s resistance at bath time, see my car seat post recommended in #3, and again, when issues are non-negotiable, take decisive action.)

If you can’t relate to these examples I’ve shared, “Don’t Leave a Testing Toddler Hanging” might be clarifying, as it was for this parent:

You posted this the day after I had an incredibly bad day with my 2.5 year old, and it really helped me out. I knew we were stuck in some kind of cycle but I didn’t know what, and I wasn’t breaking it. I was also getting increasingly frustrated and upset with myself for not being able to stay calm.

At first, I honestly didn’t think my son would react positively to the approach offered. But I tried it anyway, and so far it has worked every time. Thank you!


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

NO BAD KIDS: Toddler Discipline Without Shame




(Photo by David Goehring on Flickr)




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

  1. Stephanie says:

    What do you do with a 14mo walker who didn’t get #1 addressed the right way?

  2. Stephanie says:

    What do you do with a walking 14mo who didn’t get #1 addressed at 10 months?

    1. I would do the exact same thing, Stephanie. Be very clear about your expectations and follow through by calmly and gently removing your child from your lap if you need to. Acknowledge, “I used to let you climb on me, but that isn’t okay with me anymore. I want you to sit quietly on my lap, or you can jump around next to me.”

  3. At what point does the clingyness in #4 become testing? I have a 10mo and while she does enjoy ‘needs nothing’ time for brief periods, she cannot be guaranteed to tolerate me making dinner. How do I know when a need for closeness becomes a want?

    1. Children commonly experience separation anxiety around your daughter’s age, but that doesn’t mean she needs for you to be constantly holding or touching her. That is a “want” that can become a test. It is important to be sensitive to her clinginess, but you will also need to take your space in this relationship. She can’t be the one to give you permission to do the things you need (or want) to do. And she won’t always be happy with your decisions! Such is life and relationships.

      It is healthy for her to object when you confidently separate. (I don’t know your set-up at home, but gating off the kitchen can be helpful…and is much safer, too.) Then you can keep checking in with her if she complains or cries… “I hear you. I’ll be with you as soon as I’ve finished cutting up these vegetables and putting them on the stove. Then I’ll be going back to the kitchen to stir them until they’re done.” She can definitely tolerate this, but children this age seldom let go of parents happily and quietly. Why should they?

      Be careful not to fuel her anxiety with your own. In other words, if you are anxious around her feelings, she has no choice but to feel anxious as well.

      1. Stephanie says:

        Janet – Would you give this same advice for a 20 month old? We’ve been dealing with a lot of difficulties and separation anxiety around meal preparation time for months now, and they usually result in me asking my son if he’d like to come into our Ergo (carrier) so he can be on my back and watch what I’m doing. That’s how I’ve solved the issue in the short term, but I feel like it’s probably not the best solution in the long term. Thoughts?

        1. Stephanie – Here’s what I know… I can be hard as parents to discern the difference between children’s explosive “disagreements” with our decisions and true anxiety, fear and ‘devastation’ (a over-the-top word I hear people using to describe typical toddler meltdowns). Your little guy’s wish to be carried on your back is the result of conditioning. I can say that with confidence, because the majority of toddlers I have worked with have not been conditioned this way, and the last thing they would want when they are upset is to be on their parent’s back, stuck in a carrier, staring at the back of their parent’s head. So, this is a choice. Your choice. If you want to change this dynamic you can do so at any time by setting clear limits and accepting your son’s feelings.

  4. I had never thought of these type of scenarios. Kids do these type of activities but i never noticed that these can represent their behavior. Thanks for sharing, because after reading this I will try to notice each and every movement of my kid.

  5. Wonderful article Janet! I had one of the scenarios in #4 last night with my 3 year old. I was going to prepare dinner and she wanted me to do a puzzle with her. I told her calmly that it was time for me to make dinner and that I wouldn’t be able to do the puzzle with her right now but maybe after dinner. I suggested that she play with something else that she didn’t need help with but she insisted on playing with the puzzle in the kitchen anyway. The first few times she asked me for help while I was cooking, I was able to remain cool and confident and re-explain that I was making dinner and that we could perhaps work on it after dinner together. But where I get stuck is after about the 10th time that she asked. I start to lose my cool and get frustrated. Any advice?

    1. Wow, you can repeat yourself 10 times without losing your patience–that’s a lot of patience! Here’s what we do for meal prep:

      No toys in the kitchen. We had this rule from day 1, but there’s no reason you can’t instate this now.

      My 3.5 yo can either help me or he can play in another room. If he wants to be in the same room with me while I’m working, he has to work too. If he harms the work (unfolds the laundry, gets into the fridge) he has to leave immediately.

      Establishing new boundaries is hard. You have to be willing to follow through and enforce them, but for me, it’s so worth it.

      But if you try this approach, you’re at least minimizing how often you have to repeat yourself–most days.

      And if I’m cooking something that really doesn’t need the help of a young child, I give him some utensils to explore and restrict his play to one spot in the kitchen.

      I hope this helps!

  6. Dear Janet,
    I like you suggestion about removing the dog, but what about things you can’t remove? Like throwing things, ripping papers, or spitting? I have a 3yo who seems to escalate his testing to the point where I must stop what I’m doing and intervene in destructive behavior. And then I feel like I’ve failed because I’m giving him the exact thing he is vying for; my attention.

    1. Hi Karin – I’m wondering why you are allowing his testing to escalate? Testing escalates when we have not set limits calmly, confidently, and early. Spitting is an extreme act of defiance that indicates he isn’t getting the responses he needs, not only in this particular situation, but generally. Giving him attention is not “failing”. What he is begging you for (through his behavior) is a specific type of attention: gentle, but effective leadership.

      1. Hey, I do totally relate to this comment. We had hard time with our 4y for the past few month and read most of your article around it. I feel that those defiance behavior happen mostly when we set boundaries, but can’t physicly maintain them because we are working on something else (that’s why we set the boundaries!) . As it happen so less often if we include him in what we are doing, we tend to do that instead, but we end up not answering his need for play. I would so want to free his play without worrying about safety issue (especially with a 2yold sister who also need boundaries set with breastfeeding). Wow thats a long comment. Sorry.

  7. Christine says:

    Thanks Janet for this and the previous ‘Don’t leave toddlers hanging’. I have found your rule of thumb ‘If you have to repeat yourself you’ve said it too often’ v useful for setting effective limits and for following through. Our current issue is our two year old throwing things at random moments eg happily eating dinner together, he fires his fork at his das… we ended the meal with explanation. He might fling vegetables on floor while helping me at the counter, he is put down to pick them up. Are these the appropriate responses and have you any insight into why he might be doing this? He is calm and happy at tgese times… it also includes throwing sand at others :/ he is 2 and 3 months. Thank you.

    1. This is a wonderful specific question. But she never answers these! It would be so helpful if she did.

  8. Hi Janet, (and/or reading community). I am curious what your take on my current experience is. I have a 3 year old daughter, but my questions are not specifically about her. I also provide care for a 7 year old boy during the week while his parents work. His parents are pretty good friends of ours which makes the situation even more complicated. The only way I can describe this child is that he seems like an active volcano ready to explode at any moment. He constantly takes toys from my daughter, and tries to control every second of her play time, with frustration and anger being his dominant emotions. I acknowledge his feelings as much as possible, but much of my time with him is spent trying to keep him from (and I hate to use this word) “bullying” my daughter. The experience of having him as a playmate has been, understandably, very challenging for her and I acknowledge her feelings while he is with us, and talk to her about the situation frequently when he is gone, but since he starting being with us at the beginning of the summer she has been struggling. I spend a lot of my time thinking about what factors could have happened in early childhood to this boy to allow him to have so much anger inside and feel so out of control. I have heard his mother say a couple of times that tantrums are not allowed in their home. She says “We don’t have tantrums. We communicate.” I know that my time with him is limited and that my influence will not be enough for him to allow the emotional release that he so desperately needs, but how can I support him while he is here in a way that is respectful to him and protects my daughter at the same time? He had a tantrum so intense here a several days ago that I had to physically restrain him to keep him from hurting me or my daughter or destroying our property. His mom said he has never had a tantrum of that magnitude at home. I have been doing everything I feel is right, but their time together is so full of tension that I have been seriously considering telling his parents that they need to find another caregiver. I want to give him the best, but I also don’t want my daughter to feel unsafe in her own home. I am curious about what factors would allow a child to reach this level of breaking point, and also what course of action you/others recommend. Thanks for reading!

  9. My son is 19.3 months old. We are severely stuck in this constant cycle. I know he knows what I am talking about and understands me. I want to break this cycle and get a better grip on all of the emotions running around for the both of us. I am stressed, exhausted, frustrated and ready to pull my hair out.

    One of the biggest examples, I can give is this: Despite being told a million times a day to leave the outlets alone and redirected to what he can play with, he is continually plugging and unplugging things. The house we live in needs some electrical work and I fear that he’s going to get hurt. I have tried spanking (working on getting away from that now), smacking him on the hand and firmly telling him no, redirecting him to things he is allowed to play with (i.e. an old keyboard, his toys, bowls and spoons) even time outs none of this has been working. I have tried to get to his level (squating or sitting on the floor) and explaining to him that we don’t play with outlets because they hurt you and he laughs at this. Two seconds later he is at the outlets again.

    Another major issue we are having is he is constantly trying to hurt the little dog in the house. He has grabbed his hind legs and tried to spread them apart, he has tried to pick him up by his head, he has tried to lie on him, he has tried to roll all over him. I get down on his level and tell him that he has to be gentle and love on the dog and not hurt him. The dog is an older dog so a broken hip would equal putting him to sleep and that would break my sister in laws heart.

    One of the biggest things that he has started to do recently is I will be working on A-D and 1-5 with him while he is in his boster seat (it has a tray that hooks on it) and he will throw his head back and roll his eyes. IF he isn’t doing those things, he is putting his head into his hand out of frustration.

    He is delayed in speech and I know this can be affecting him. He has had 5 ear infections now and wonder if the continued ear infections is causing him to have some problems as well.

    I am desperate to get my child to react differently. I could use all the advice possible. Thank you for taking the time to read this long comment (and your reply). I am one desperate single momma trying the best she can.

    1. That sounds hard. My first thought is to wonder if there’s a space where he can play where you’re not having to constantly police him in order for him and the space and the dog to be safe. If you don’t have one, you might try setting one up – it’s exhausting for you to always be telling him “no” but it’s also frustrating for him to be doing what little ones do – explore and test – and to keep running up against things he can’t do, instead of things he can.

    2. For Andrea, regarding her 19.3 months old son….

      I wish there was dates on these responses (if there is, I’m not seeing them!) so I could know if I’m responding to something years old, or something newer. Lol. My apologies if it’s been years since you posted.

      Anyway… have you had your son tested for autism? It sounds to me like he might be on the spectrum. Repetitive behaviors, constant cycles of behaviors, lack of communication, and lack of understanding/empathy caught my attention…. but what really made me want to reply with the “possibly autism” suggestion, was your craving for your son to “react” differently. At least, this is what I’m hearing in your post. I’m not a medical professional, but I recognize these behaviors from a child who is close to me, who is mildly autistic. In any case, I hope you figure out how to cope/manage, and I hope your son can figure out that it’s important to listen to momma! For his own safety, and for your own sanity. (As a mom, I can relate to the need to be heard!)

      Best wishes! 🙂

    3. May lots of love surround you as you navigate this! As for electric outlets- there are protective plastic plugs to put in them. Maybe you want to consider putting those in the ones your child reaches (or at least in the ones you don’t have to use that he is do tempted by!) Then he would be safe and you could focus on keeping the dog safe and the other stuff. Maybe you could put the dog in another room (if you have one) when your child is in that mood…but maybe you’ve already tried that!
      Maybe I didn’t understand correctly, but I think you said you’re teaching him letters and numbers and he’s not enjoying it? I would say that at his age it is developmentally inappropriate to be strapped into a seat learning letters and numbers. He needs to be playing and moving around with adequate things to climb on and explore (not necessarily all the furniture unless you choose to allow it.) And also sensory play can do wonders at helping to calm and occupy. Things like sand, oats, beans, lentils, cornmeal, soil, water…. oh and play dough! And slime when he’s old enough to not eat it. He might like to mix different things…or play with trucks or other toys in it. ( Let him know where it’s okay to play with the dirt and if you don’t want him to throw it…if he starts throwing it you can give him one warning letting him know you don’t want him to throw and what you will do if he throws it and then the next time just cover it or put it away and move him to a different activity for a time. Once a child is 2 or 3 years old they can generally learn that they can make some messes but they will also need to help sweep it up with a little broom.) And yes, I’m sure you will look into communication delay and attend to healing the earaches as best you can. I don’t know if any of what I said is helpful, but my heart goes out to you as I know that this must be very constant for you and it can be exhausting! But it seems like you have a growth mindset, so I really feel like surely things will better and more clear for you even if they do feel tricky and sticky now! <3

  10. Hi Janet, you often talk about staying close to a toddler who is having trouble with a limit and/or following directions. Any suggestions for when staying close is difficult – like when you’re breast feeding and toddler 1 is testing the limits e.g. Hitting his sister?

    1. I actually emailed her this question! I would love to know as well as I have had difficulties with this as well. Or when the screaming is so loud that it is obviously upsetting other babies or children. But I need to attend to them as they are too little to be left along for a long time.

  11. Hello Janet. Looking for your advice and suggestions for our current situation with our 21-month-old who is doing a lot of testing. She tends to be very focused on her play, reading books with mama, and anything that has grabbed her interest in that moment. She has gotten to the point where my husband will walk in the room and she will say “no” when she sees him. It’s almost like his presence represents an interruption with regard to what she is doing then and there. It has definitely become a habit and daddy feels shunned by her and hurt, despite the fact that he tries not to show it and continues to love her unconditionally. She will even say “no”when he leans in to give her a kiss or hug. Any suggestions on whether you would consider this testing behavior or normal toddler rejection towards one parent? My husband also travels a lot and is often gone for four and five days at a time. I am wondering if this behavior could be a result of him being home inconsistently? Any advice on how to turn this around would be most helpful! Thank you very much!

    1. For Heather, regarding shunning daddy… my daughter did this when she was a little toddler. One day my husband decided to respond by having a (pretend) emotional breakdown because she hurt his feelings. My daughter was dumbfounded that her daddy was so emotionally distraught simply because she had shunned him. He (faux) wailed, sobbed, and acted extremely brokenhearted. His intent was not to guilt her into loving him, his intent was to show her that her actions were hurtful. That day, something changed. She became concerned about her daddy and wanted to check on him frequently, to make sure he was okay. She would randomly go up to him and give him a kiss on the cheek and a pat on the head. Lol. She was so surprised by his response, it made her completely reverse her little sassy attitude towards him, and suddenly she was aware of her own actions and the impact she can have on others. Just a thought, maybe it will help you guys, too. 🙂 (You can’t overuse it though or she won’t take it seriously.)

      *I apologize if your post I’m responding to is old. I can’t find dates anywhere?

  12. Hi Janet! I have been following you on FB and refer to your articles when I have no idea how to guide my daughter and I want to thank you. I grew up in an extremely dysfunctional house and swore I would do it differently. The problem surfaced with my daughter as I quickly realized being gentle, loving and kind was not enough and my daughter required boundaries. We started with time outs, which never felt right to me before stumbling upon your work. Now, we are usually able to feel good about our parenting as we make efforts to understand and follow your excellent advice. However, currently I feel stuck in an impossible situation! My daughter is 4 1/2 and will not sit for dinner. We ask her to sit with is just for a bit and at least try one bite of food before she is able to leave the table. The problem is if she doesn’t like what we’re having, she gets up and runs around, preventing us from enjoying our dinner after a long day of work etc and we all end up miserable. We have the expectation that she sit with us for a little while at least as we feel it’s important to sit together and feel like it’s not ok to let her run around and play instead. Is this expectation unreasonable? We have no idea what to do, because any attempts to hold our boundary, which involves having her sit with us turns into a chasing game, which I know is not the right approach for anyone. Please help! Thanks so much.

    1. I would simply tell her the first time she gets up “you don’t feel like sitting still today! If you are eating dinner, you need to sit down with us. When you get up and run around, you are telling me you’ve finished eating. Next time you leave the table, I’m going to assume you’ve finished eating and put your food away”.

      I wouldn’t chase her around or force her into the seat but I would make your expectations clear (eating happens while sitting at the table) and follow through after giving her one chance.

      I’d also try to make dinner enjoyable and give her lots of attention while she’s sitting well so she gets more attention when she’s doing the right thing. Then if she runs off to play, quietly remove her dinner and focus on the family sitting down rather than chasing her around or trying to convince her to come back.

      1. Would you just not provide dinner that night then? Just a snack before bed so they don’t get too hungry overnight?

  13. Hi Janet~ Thank you so much for your amazing examples. I’ve found that since I discovered your your website nearly two years ago I am happier as a mom and I know my kids are happier too. It is so great to know how to set clear limits and the reminder to be ‘unruffled’ and ‘nonchalant’ about all the testing and boundary pushing is helpful, if not difficult at times.

    My main question is that my daughter who has just turned three this month has recently started saying, “NO! Don’t say ‘I hear you. You are feeling upset!” or “Don’t nod your head, mommy!” when I realize she doesn’t want me to speak. My attempts to communicate and validate her emotions or desires are all shut down. She gets very angry and frustrated (not all the time, but a lot) when she is feeling upset and expressing herself and then I wait for her and finally respond in the ways you’ve exemplified in this and many of your other posts.
    Any thoughts on this? How can I respond so that she knows that I hear her, or perhaps the questions is more, when should I respond? How much space does she need? I don’t want to abandon her when she is angry, but it seems she doesn’t want me around or to reflect what I am hearing in her. Perhaps it is her age. Perhaps it is that she needs a bit more time before I respond? Thank you again!

    1. I asked Janrt pretty much exactly this question on a telephone consult and she asked me to say to her what I usually say to my children. Janet’s comment was (very truthfully!) that I was paying lip service to her feelings without really empathising honestly. It was true, I’m a bad actor and lots of times my words are correct but because I’m feeling frustrated/cross and just want her to stop, even my daughter could pick up that my acknowledgement was a bit fake!!

      I’d take a few minutes and really try to see it from her point of view before saying anything. Your daughter is telling you – “you’re saying words but I’m not feeling understood!”

  14. Hi Janet, I have been totally blown away by your site and your methods for parenting. I have literally read every article on your site in 3 days and the techniques are certainly working their magic. I do have a question though.

    My partner and I are co-parenting her 2.75 year old (to whom I have been playing the step-parent role for 14 months now). He has an extremely large energy and the most powerful will of any child either of us have ever known. I feel there is so much I could ask you about but here is something that’s been on my mind. Despite him not being my biological son I love him as though he were, and I totally recognise his need for boundaries but I need a little more information on the practical implementation of them. If there is something we need him to do, for example give us his bigs sisters toxic nail varnish he has taken from her room we tell him respectfully and clearly what needs to happen (rather than just snatch it away.) “That does not belong to you, and is dangerous. Give it to me (parent 1) or I will have to take it from you.” Sometimes he complies straight away and we thank him for following instructions. Sometimes he doesn’t and we give him to the count of 3. When the count gets to 0 we take it from him, accept his emotional reaction, let him express it (with the “You wanted to play with that. But it is dangerous and we had to take it away. You must be sad and angry!” And after a short time we reconnect with a hug and carry on with our day.

    What I wanted to ask is, when both me and my partner are present in the house and this type of situation arises one of us will be dealing with the situation and at the last second before removing the dangerous, fragile, etc object from his hand he’ll give me an option of his own: “No! I want to give it to Mummy! (parent 2)” and I say ok, and he goes and finds her and willingly gives it to her instead. He does this for either of us, it doesn’t matter who is asking, he will want to relinquish the offending article to the other parent. We’d view this as a victory, But after reading your articles I’ve started to wondering if letting him negotiate and going with his suggestion just to diffuse a tense situation (and battle of wills) is actually just giving him too much power? Pandering to his demands? Is this a weakness in the boundaries that we are trying so hard to instill? I’d so appreciate your input on this Janet!

    As a step-parent to a toddler, parenting has not come naturally to me, but when I am fun yet firm, gentle yet strong And focusing on what’s important: loving him, and loving supporting my partner I know I am doing a good job. I just need a little guidance sometimes. I have never known a joy like I felt yesterday when I explained to him he couldn’t stand by the cooker to watch me make dinner until he put clothes on because he could burn his naked body, He said ok, and as he ran away to find some clothes he told me for the first time. “I love you!”

    1. You could simply frame his options as “Dobyou want to give xxxx to mummy or to me?”

      That way, you are giving him the option rather than him possibly using the opportunity to test you.

  15. Just wondering, how early do babies start understanding boundaries? My little girl is 8 months old and very sweet but also starting to be very confident compared to her peers. Mostly because of independent play and using RIE techniques! 🙂
    Anyway in playgroups she will often go up to other babies and try to touch them in the face making them cry. She has also been trying to get at both mine and dads face too. I constantly take her hand away, saying “i don’t like it when you do that as it hurts” and “gentle hands”, but I don’t think she is understanding it.
    Any other tips? Thanks!

  16. Hi Janet, I stumbled upon your website and rie a while ago and really like it! Growing up with a really strict mother, alot of no’s – to actions, wishes and feelings – I wanted to be a mom who allows feelings and helps her child handle them on their own (instead of alone).
    I’m a mother of three – two boys 5 and 3years old, and a daughter, she’s 10. I clearly see my 3 year old in situation 1 (thank you so much – I think I can handle that now!) And my 5 year old is the kid in situation 4 – throwing pillows, the coffee table, hitting his brother and kicking his sister. …. but I have no clue how to handle him! He doesn’t tell me what the problem is (he just wants candy or go to the store and buy toys) –

  17. I’m a big fan of your book, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame, but I noticed that there aren’t a lot of direct examples on what to say or do when your toddler refuses to do what you ask them to. Do any of your other books tackle that a little more?

    My toddler has been refusing to put his toys away when I ask him to. I get down at his level and ask him. I give him a moment and try again. I keep my cool. But I end up giving up and putting his toys away myself after he goes to bed because I don’t want to get irritated and yell or revert to a time out, and I don’t know what else to do.

    The only time I can get him to put his toys away is if I tell him that I’ll be happy to turn on Barney once he’s done putting his toys away.

    Any advice? Thanks. 🙂

    1. I’ve handled this with my two year old by calmly refusing to let him move on to another activity until he complies. Until he does the thing, I will not make a snack, not turn on Paw Patrol, not take him outside. Once or twice I have had to gently take away the toy he moved on to until he does what I asked. Each time he asks I tell him I will make the snack/give the toy back/etc after he helps me clean up the playdough.

      Of course, this won’t work if you are trying to get them to clean up before doing something they don’t want, like go to bed. I just don’t pick that fight, though I suppose you could make stories at bedtime contingent on getting toys cleaned up with enough time to spare before they need to be in bed.

  18. Hi there.
    We typically have situation #4 in our home, but my toddler tests all my limita by immediately banging his head on the wall or kitchen cupboards if I don’t give him the attention he wants. How do I deal with this? It has really worn me down!

  19. Do you have any readings on children hitting themselves andbashing their head against floors and eallsehen they get frustrated? Ive had a look but couldnt see anything. My son started this when h was around one he is now 20 months and I am due to have a baby any day.so thereis alotof changes happening for him so would like to support him with this.

  20. Love this. The specific examples really do help.

    My toddler (2.5) tests by stretching things out – for example rearranging the bathroom stool and climbing up in the toughest way to brush her teeth. She is constantly trying to find a new way to do each step of the routine. At first I was tolerant (it seemed like a new form of exploration), then I said ‘if you can’t do x, I’ll do it for you’ (she’s happy for me to do it and I’d really rather she just learn to go through these daily motions herself), now I’m in a rut of nagging. Is there a better way?

  21. Ada Efody says:

    Hi Janet: Another testing behaviour? not sure! “2.5 boy doesnt want to socialize or cries when his mama talks to others” – any suggestions how to deal with this phase?

    He is happy in daycare but after daycare doesnt want to meet with children his age and their mothers. yesterday he said “no friends”! and when we met with a friend and her boy. he ignored the boy and once i started talking to my friend he cried ” mom come, not talk , sit here” i tried it a few times when he played in the sand, but he immediately noticed and said “mom here no talk”

    what should i do? insist? i meet with friends only once a week so not to stess him too much. I am 4 months pregnant, so maybe this is the reason.

    My question: how should i deal with it? not meet friends? meet and then just acknowledge but then do I “give up” and stop talking or do I continue talking while him crying in the backround (not so easy)…

    1. Hi Ada – I don’t see that as testing. He is expressing his opinion and he has a right to. Between his time away from you at daycare and also the shift in your attention he senses in regard to your pregnancy, it sounds like he’s feeling sensitive and protective of his time with you. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still choose to see your friend if you wish to, but I would welcome him to share his feelings about that and not scold or coax him to feel another way.

  22. I’m wondering on how to handle an7 year old that always shy, she doesn’t make friends very easy at school and when in group sessions or playtime, she wants to be in charge and when she somehow looses at a game, she is distracts herself. We always praised her in everything she does but when she has to perform in front of us, she also distracts. She does choir at school but have difficulty talking in front of the whole class. Can you please advice me on this. Thank you. Cecilia Barnard

  23. My 1-year-old has been doing #1 a lot, but only at home. Half the time, I don’t mind, half the time I do. My husband never minds letting him climb on him, but he’s with him a lot less. Is it fine to sometimes let him climb on me, but then not when it’s actually bothering me? Or do I always need to make him stop?

    Also, he’s been getting EXTREMELY upset at certain times of the day when I leave his playspace and/or don’t let him climb on me. He gets so hysterical, it really would make me think something was wrong if I hadn’t witnessed that it was nothing physical. What can I do? I’ve been trying to hold him and just let him cry; do I need to say anything? I think it’s actually easier for me to emotionally cope and stay calm if I don’t feel the need to say anything. I feel terrible when he’s like this though and then feel like I have to keep coming back, particularly if I’m not doing something urgent like cooking.

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