Don’t Leave A Testing Toddler Hanging

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.

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.

Your 2-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.

Your 3-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.

What do these toddlers have in common? They’ve been left hanging in toddler testing limbo.

A No-Win Situation

The problem for children: It’s a healthy toddler’s job to test our limits. When we don’t answer these tests definitively, kids can become increasingly preoccupied with testing. When children are stuck testing, they’re not playing, socializing, creating, learning, fulfilling their potential.  Testing limbo is an unproductive distraction.

Young children are extremely perceptive. When they are stuck in testing mode, they are aware that their behavior annoys, and maybe even infuriates the adults caring for them. This is not a comfortable or healthy place for a child to be.

The problem for us: Testing limbo isn’t comfortable for parents either. If we don’t address testing behaviors calmly and directly, we can become increasingly irritated and exhausted, lose our cool and feel guilty, dislike parenting, even resent and lose affection for our child. Tests are requests, and when we don’t provide conclusive “answers” in our responses, we unwittingly provoke more testing.

Testing is like a mouse in our house. If we don’t notice it and handle it effectively, it’s likely to show up in other situations as well (and multiply!).

How to help: Testing is our children’s subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) way of signaling for our help and requires a clear and, preferably, immediate answer. Parents shouldn’t be afraid to be decisive and direct, because we can always change our minds (decisively) later, which is actually excellent modeling. “I thought about it and realized it’s okay for you to splash the water out of the pool. I’m sorry to have told you no.”

Whether we are at home, in public, or at the homes of friends and relatives, preventing children in our care from getting stuck in testing limbo is a profound demonstration of our love. Here’s how RIE Educator Lisa Sunbury Gerber, the mother of a toddler, articulated this approach in one of our recent conversations:

In social situations, especially where others may have different rules or expectations, what helps me is to stay close to R and focused on her. Even if the other parent has rules I don’t agree with or enforce at home, I see my job as protecting R and helping her to succeed in situations like this, and that means staying close and setting the limit… It is good modeling, too. She does understand that in some situations and some places there are different expectations.”

Steps I Recommend

1. Clearly express the limit: “I don’t want you to (or “I can’t let you” or “I won’t let you”) scream right next to me while I’m putting the baby to bed.”

2. Acknowledge desires and feelings: “You want to stay here with us. You are having a hard time being quiet.”

An acknowledgement can also come before stating the limit, i.e. “You want to help me put the baby to bed. I can’t let you make noise in here while she goes to sleep.”

3. Follow through: Be prepared to take action — our words are seldom enough to ease testing. “I’m going to ask you to wait outside the room with Daddy. I’m going to walk you out. I’ll be there with you in a few minutes.”

Following through might mean holding your child’s hands as she tries to hit, removing an unsafe object from her hands, putting toys or objects away, moving your child out of a situation in which she’s stuck testing.

If you hear yourself stating the limit a second time, you are probably waiting too long to follow through and help your child follow your direction.

4. Accept your child’s negative response. Breathe, relax, let go, let feelings be. These feelings are not your fault or responsibility. They don’t belong to you. Releasing these feelings is the healthiest thing she can do, because they are almost always about so much more than the situation at hand. You and your child must be able to let go and accept this disagreement so that you can both move on.

5. Reconnect by acknowledging your child’s perspective and feelings (again). Let her know through your emphatic tone that you understand the intensity of her feelings — that you totally get her message: “Wow, you didn’t like that at all! You seemed furious. You wanted so much to stay in the room with me.” Be available for hugs or cuddles and allow your child to initiate them.

Handling these situations assuredly with empathy and acceptance will pre-empt the cycle and prevent them from becoming a daily occurrence.

Screaming, yelling and foul language are tests that we cannot prevent. Our children control these actions. However, by underreacting we can deactivate these “buttons” so that children quickly lose interest in pushing them. It is still important to let kids know we hear the message in their screams and extreme statements like, “I hate the baby (or you),” to which we might respond, “I hear the anger in those words. Big brothers feel like that sometimes.”

What Gets In Our Way

We don’t recognize testing. Testing is when children:

  • Repeat a behavior we’ve said “no” to in the past And, in case you’re wondering, it is very unlikely that your child forgot or didn’t know that you didn’t want him to hit you, kick the dog, etc. Children know. They don’t forget these things.
  • Look toward parents and maybe even smile or laugh while they engage in an undesirable behavior.
  • Make unreasonable requests or demands
  • Seem to be “out of themselves” and unraveling, usually because they’re tired, hungry, stressed, or holding onto some strong emotions.
  • Engage in play that seems more destructive than constructive.
  • Seem to be pulling the strings, pushing our buttons, putting us through our paces, ruling the roost, calling the shots (there sure are a lot of analogies about this, aren’t there? Whichever shoe fits…).

We underestimate intelligence and awareness, doubting toddlers understand. Children usually understand us the first time we say it, and often even before we say it. In “The Real Reasons Toddlers Push Limits” I share the most common reasons children do it anyway.

We take our children’s emotional responses too literally and get overwhelmed. We confuse tests and momentary desires with “needs”.

We fear being overly strict and controlling like our parents, or perhaps we were raised without boundaries at all. Either way, healthy limit-setting has not been modeled for us.

We perceive terms like ‘control’, ‘discipline’, and ‘in charge’ negatively and  worry that we’ll crush our child’s spirit. In reality, however, helping children escape testing limbo is the surest way to free their spirits.

Judging by some feedback on this website and on my Facebook page lately, it seems some parents worry that giving children even the slightest correction is shaming. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.  Examples of shaming responses are: “How dare you?”; “How could you do that?”; “Why would you do such a thing?”; “You’re getting a spanking, going to your room”; “No dessert for you!”

Clearly communicating with our children that their behavior is not okay is in no way shaming. It’s called parenting.

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

(Photo by r. nial bradshaw on Flickr)


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

  1. Hmm… I have older children and my daughter in particular who is six years still seems to engage in this “testing” behavior. So, my question is this… If I haven’t nipped this in the bud does it just keep coming up as an issue? She is 6 1/2 actually and is often bossy, willful tries to negotiate what she wants, will blatantly state that she will scream and cry til she gets what she wants.. has threatened to break things…. so sometimes I give in … other times I just let her cry it out and have told her that I disprove the behavior ….(obviously my approach is not working because she engages in this type of behavior so often) What approach can you suggest with a 6 year old?

    1. Mom of twin 5yo boys with no advice, but following to see if Janet does! I’m in a similar boat but with two, and the testing only happens when I’m alone with them. This summer, we have had some scary moments in the pool and camping where I’ve been concerned for their safety and need to follow my rules, but they have blatantly ignored me, sometimes teaming up to do the opposite of what I’ve asked (stay where I can see them, come out of the pool when I ask etc). It’s to the point where I don’t feel confident taking them places on my own. The usual consequences don’t work, and long-term consequences like explaining that they won’t be able to do fun things with me anymore, don’t seem to hold any weight. Help us Janet!

    2. also my 8yo! I really hope for some advice for this.

    3. Rockshonara says:

      I’m in same boat with my 7 yo and hoping for some advice too.

    4. Me too with my 5 year old son. The timing of this post is impeccable as it addresses exactly what I am currently struggling with. My husband actually said to me today “Write to Janet!”

      1. Yay, I’m so glad to hear that, Paula! Thank you!

  2. I have a 17 month old who will engage in testing behavior and when I set a limit, it doesn’t seem to phase him. He will just bounce from test to test, and never get triggered into a tantrum. It’s like he has all of these emotions simmering underneath the surface, but isn’t able to work through them. And I’m not sure how to help besides following him around and saying “I’m not going to let you do that…” over and over. Any advice would be much appreciated!

    1. Kirsty Harper says:

      So how do i deal with my strong 3 year old son who almost always refuses to get into his car seat (it’s eorse when he’s tired). He gets in the car and finds any excuse not to get into his seat so i can buckle him in. I’ve read your specific article on this but can’t seem to change things despite a year of trying. I’ve tried (on different occasions) genuinely acknowledging feelings, sitting and waiting, making it a game, letting him choose some leaves to take with him, bribery (can work but it has to be something he really wants), saying the place we’re going to will close if we don’t hurry. If all else fails i then say I’m going to put him in the seat he says “I’m coming, I’m coming now.” And then often goes back to stalling. Forcing him into the seat is next to impossible due to his size and agility. And I’m and sure a passer-by will report me to child protection one day after witnessing the struggle! It also results in a major meltdown which he really struggles to move on from. But I’m not scared of that expression of emotions. If i just give one warning and force him into the seat I’m worried about hurting him or myself in the process, or even failing to get him in. Any suggestions greatly appreciated! Thanks

      1. Aleksandra says:

        I have no idea how long ago you wrote your post, so no clue about your son’s current age.
        Just to let you know (I know it doesn’t help… Although it did help me to read your post. I no longer feel alone) that I am going through the same hell with my 3 year old daughter, refusing to get dressed. To top it up, yesterday she refused to get into the car seat and same as you, I feared to be reported as a result. I was seriously in a hurry for my dental appointment (which I missed as a result) and no efforts helped to convince her.
        I am convinced it is a game for her and a deliberate action. She may switch from being adorable and playing nicely all day long to this nasty attitude that I have no idea how to react to.
        Same as you, I have tried everything and am simply exhausted and desperate.

        Anyway, good to know I am not alone. It helps, somehow.

  3. This is a tough one because I do react just as prescribed but my son continues to test. He hits and name calls everyday. I love this advice and blog but I also feel like I’m told it’s okay for kids to express tough emotions, but in the same breath that it is my fault that the behaviors continue because I didn’t react properly.

  4. I was surprised to see you start with a 10 month old as an example. I haven’t really thought of my son (10 months tomorrow) as being ready for “discipline”. Since you started with that example, though, here’s a limit I’m wondering how to set. He’s very excited to pull up to standing, which is great in most situations. In the bathtub, though, it’s not safe for him to stand. So I repeat “please sit” approximately 50 times each bath time, while gently easing him into a sitting position. He doesn’t get upset when I do this, but usually tries to stand again immediately. Does he not understand what I’m saying (this is how I’ve been interpreting his behavior)? Whether he does or not, do I just keep repeating myself? I can’t end the bath time as soon as he wants to stand, because he does need to get clean. It doesn’t irritate me now – I know he’s just excited to stand, and I can keep repeating my line, but should I try another strategy at some point?

    1. I was also surprised to see the 10 month old as an example! My nine month old tests by putting things in her mouth, which I’m constantly telling her definitively, neutrally, non-judgmentally that she can’t do. I’m ok with it and it doesn’t bother me. If we’re at a playgroup and she’s climbing on me and pulling up to stand on me, why would I need to set a limit with that? I let her be close when she needs to and she’ll eventually move away to “play” near the other babies. I’m a little confused by how that’s leaving her hanging?

      1. Dear Emily,

        it is perfectly normal for a 9-month-old to be putting things (toys, paper, rocks, sand, anything!) in his mouth!
        Instead of saying no, I would recommend a safe environment for the baby, where you only keep things he is allowed to put in his mouth!

        Regards, Ewa

    2. Dear Amanda,

      maybe a non-slip-mat would work for you? That way he can stay safe, even while standing in the tub!

      Regards, Ewa

    3. You say “I won’t let you stand in the bathtub. I’m going to help you sit now to keep you safe.” And then if it continues you nicely say, “it looks like you’re having some trouble. Bath time is over now. We can try again tomorrow,” and you take them out of the bathtub. Those things are what holding the limit looks like. Just telling her repeatedly isn’t holding the limit – it is allowing the behavior. Hope that helps!! 🙂

  5. Melissa McCormick says:

    Great information. I have a 2 year old who is very confident, “strong willed” and does her fair share of testing. When she is unsuccessful with testing she will sometimes fuss, cry, express frustration, etc. but usually not for very long. Usually to stop the testing, however, I typically find myself resorting to bribes (ie “if you stop screaming in the car, you will get to…”) threats (ie “if this continues, you will not get to pick out a treat when we get home”), or time-outs. What are some specific examples of actions that would be more respectful ways of stopping the testing? Examples of situations I’ve experienced are screaming in the car when we are already late for something, screaming in the shopping cart in a store for not wanting to sit & be buckled in…

  6. Melissa McCormick says:

    Great information. I have a 2 year old who is very confident, “strong willed” and does her fair share of testing. When she is unsuccessful with testing she will sometimes fuss, cry, express frustration, etc. but usually not for very long. Usually to stop the testing, however, I typically find myself resorting to bribes (ie “if you stop screaming in the car, you will get to…”) threats (ie “if this continues, you will not get to pick out a treat when we get home”), or time-outs. What are some specific examples of actions that would be more respectful ways of stopping the testing? Examples of situations I’ve experienced are screaming in the car when we are already late for something, screaming in the shopping cart in a store for not wanting to sit & be buckled in…

  7. I had had that example trying to put my baby to sleep, but what happens when you don’t have the dad available at that time? Like nap time? My 4 yo daughter has been testing and testing the limits. I’m really at a lost here! During the day I’m just with her and my 7 months old. Dad works all day long and comes home around 6pm, so removing her from any situation is hard because if I ask her to go to her room while I’m outing the baby to sleep she will still come back. Thanks a lot!

  8. Thank you SO much for this article. I am having the hardest time with my 2.5 year old son. I would love some insight on what you would do in our current testing situation.
    He goes to sleep with a lovey and a small sippy cup of water. The water is a soothing object for him and has been for months.
    His latest limit testing is he will throw his lovey out of his crib in order to get another drink of water. He will repeat this 4-5 times until he finally settles down and goes to sleep.
    This has only become an issue in the last week or so. Before he would get a little water and his lovey and go right to sleep.
    I have told him “Mommy is all done coming into your room. If you drop your lovey, he’s all done.” And it still continues with crying and hollering until I come in again.
    My husband and I are at our wits end and unsure of how to break this habit he has.

    1. Idk how old this comment is but straight up refuse to go in there. He will give up after a while and go to sleep. In order for you to break this cycle, you gotta stop engaging in it. Right now he knows that if he screams enough, you’ll do what he wants.

  9. The example with the 10 month old during play group caught my attention, as that has been my son since that age. He is now 19 months and is still the toddler in the circle at the library and at swimming lessons that isn’t “participating” as the other kids are. He’s wanting to explore and resists my quiet redirections to the point of disrupting the group, so I have to let it go and just leave him be. This is a testing behaviour? How should I handle this? I don’t want to make these fun activities (that are meant to make him comfortable in that atmosphere) into power struggles but I want him to be be able to function in structured social gatherings too.

  10. Do you have any advice in a 2.5 year old who is resisting nap. She is exhausted and ready for bed by 5. We have kept our routine the same, 6-7 hrs after wake time. She is now getting to the point of screaming to her our attention (which her 6 month old brother is napping and I don’t want him to wake up), she has been potty trained for 4 months and now poops/pees only during nap time to get us to give her attention, I’ve put pull ups on her now and she still is doing it. The other day she pooped and peed 4 times in a 30 minute time span to get attention.

    I know she’s exhausted, I’ve tried earlier nap time and that isn’t working. Later does but then interferes with bedtime. I’m losing my patience to keep her in her big girl bed (has been in for 6 months, with the first 4 months having no issues). This all has been going on for 2 months.

    Any advise would be so helpful! She’s strong willed! We encourage quiet time over nap time, she can read as long as we all get an hour to calm down and recollect before the afternoon starts!

  11. I was listening to your show “When your kids won’t give you a break” which mentions this article. I have a follow up question. When your older kid (5) responds to your limits with “negative attention seeking” such as throwing toys or doing something he knows is not allowed, of course in order to gain your attention, some time with you, or test boundaries, what should I do? I was wondering just going over to him and stopping him repeatedly until he gives up hehe? 🙂 Taking his hands “I won’t let you throw your sisters toys, it can damage them”, taking away the items and continues cooking?

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