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. avatar Sue Martin says:

    What a terrific response! As usual this post gets to the heart of the issue in a clear and concise manner, and is very helpful to the majority of parents who find themselves in these situations. Furthermore, the approaches suggested are applicable to child care centres, although I would suggest that there is a need for a continuity of approach between parents and educators.
    As a person who has been immersed in child development work for many years (too many??) I venture to suggest another layer to your approach. I think appreciating the child’s developmental stage/situation is particularly important in these contexts. It may not mean that any developmental insights alter your strategies but I think they might tweak them in some instances.
    Here are a couple of thoughts: younger/older toddlers have differing concepts of time, and we need to appreciate that the egocentric thought of very young children shapes that perception of time (just as it does for us…time flies when we are having fun!). Early egocentric thinking contributes to a child’s inability to see that another individual has certain things you want or need to accomplish. As yet they do not have a complete ‘theory of mind’; that another person has a will and thinks differently- even though they will have experienced some conflict resulting from differing perspectives. While I support the notion of having expectations and limits…and making those clear…we do need to make sure that what we are doing is developmentally appropriate. This is not to say that we lower our expectations necessarily, but that we know why a child might have difficulty with certain ideas.
    It is often through these challenges that children acquire the concepts and gain the skills that are desirable and helpful to them.
    We could also delve into the psychological issues underlying the dynamic of the adult and young child’s differing agendas. Complex dances of attachment, separation, individuation and independence are going on as well as the most obvious battle of wills. How these things are handled may have been overplayed by some psychoanalysts in the recent past, but we should not ignore those dramas!
    I do hope this is helpful.

    1. This is a great reminder and helpful in detaching from exhausting behavior and not taking it so personally, as in I must do something different as a parent because I am “obviously failing” if my initial responses didn’t work. Thank you!

    2. One more thing Sue. I also think your thoughts speak to the gap in reading/guidance that addresses and acknowledge BOTH the struggle and needs of mothers/parents AND children. I often read books about the politics of motherhood and then blog posts about the importance of positive compassionate parenting and feel torn because both are addressing valid needs but seem to sometimes be mutually exclusive.

    3. Thank you, Sue. I very much appreciate your feedback. Yes, I agree that there are many more layers to this approach… Understanding each child’s stage of development, needs, and unique perspective has been the focus of my work with parents, infants and toddlers for the last 20 years. In my classes, I am privileged to be able to explore and address the nuances you mention. It is so easy to clarify limit-setting issues in person! In writing, not so much. There are many variables. It’s almost impossible not to generalize, confuse and mislead some, while helping (hopefully!) others. People are going to misinterpret. I’m not going to be able to cover specifics or address every aspect of each issue. (And my articles certainly aren’t short, as it is!)

      I usually share posts like this one in response to the queries I receive online and in private consultations. When I notice a pattern of difficulties or misunderstandings, I try to address them (as I did here). Most of the parents I’m hearing from lately are running into problems because they are overthinking these difficult situations…and therefore doubting themselves and not taking action. In general, I think it is far better to take action, than it is to resent or scream at children.

      Sue, I would love for you to share some specific examples. What are the alternative responses you recommend for the situations I’ve shared? That feedback would be very helpful to parents reading. Giving parents more general concerns to chew on is not so helpful, in my experience.

  2. Great article, as always. Wondering, as a new mom of a 9month old, and who has been a toddler teacher for years, what types of testing behaviors to expect from a child so young and what is appropriate to expect they can handle. You mentioned the squirming at playgroup. I would have thought sitting still during group instruction to be somewhat unrealistic as an expectation for a 10 mo. old. Perhaps not. Could you expound on some examples for this age range?
    Thank you so much!

    1. I have the same question. My son is almost 11 months old and wants to touch the laptop while I’m using it, though he’s not allowed. Another thing is trying to stand in the bath tub, which he’s not allowed to do because he might slip and he can not stand stable yet. I try to redirect him (instead of distracting him, as discussed before on this website) but have to do it over and over again. Is he too young to understand? Is this already testing?
      Greetings, Kim

      1. Kim – I’m a strong believer is giving infants and toddlers safe “YES” play spaces, meaning nothing that we regularly make available to them is off limits. An 11 month old cannot be expected not to touch your laptop. Placing him in the position of irritating you this way is unfair and will lead to discomfort for both of you. If this is just an occasional situation, making very little of it is the best way to deter his interest. “Please don’t touch there… I’m going to help move your hand over a bit.”

        Standing in the bath is unsafe… so I would limit it. As I shared in my post, children DO understand, but that doesn’t mean they can follow the direction. If he seems stuck testing the standing issue, I would say (nonchalantly and NOT punitively) that you can’t allow him to be unsafe in the bath and will need to take him out. Be calm, matter-of-fact and upbeat and do this before you are annoyed.

        1. Giving a child a bath and they insist on standing- give them a shower instead 🙂

    2. Thanks, Michelle. I’m sorry to not have made my point about the playgroup clear! Several seem to have misinterpreted. No, sitting still would definitely not be expected of a young child(!), nor do I recommend “group instruction”. I am referring to free play opportunities in which children have the option to stay with the parent (who sits and remains available on the floor), or move, play, and perhaps engage with other children. I think that’s a great choice to offer babies, toddlers and preschoolers.

      The limit I’m suggesting is that the child not use her parent as a climbing aparatus. Parents sometimes tell me, “I don’t mind”, which I understand. But the child will usually continue to push this situation until the parent defines the limit. This activity can then become the child’s focus.

      A 9 month old CAN accept, “I love cuddling you on my lap, but I need you sit calmly… There are safe places to pull up on over there. I will need to move you off my lap if you keep bouncing and climbing on me.”

      It is also important for parents to pay attention to children while they engage in play, so that climbing and clawing isn’t the only way to obtain the parent’s attention.

      As to other limits for a 9 month old.. Hitting, biting, pinching are experiments that parents should calmly limit (in my opinion). Other than that, it is more about limiting the child’s environment, so that unsafe or inappropriate items are out of the way (because children will test us around them) and so exploration and play can be unrestricted.

  3. Hi Janet,

    This is a very helpful post for me, along with your Why The Whine post – which for us right now are overlapping issues. My 3.5 year old is quite sensitive, and while there are definitely times when she whines or pushes buttons excessively, often her requests or actions are perfectly reasonable for a child her age, but they still happen to be conflicting with my own needs for quiet surroundings at times. For example right now she is into telling me never-ending “stories.” I might try to listen for a few minutes and then carry on with chores, but she will get upset and become demanding about the issue of me listening to her stories and escalate very quickly. I have a very hard time separating myself from her demands or screaming even after I have set the boundary, as the noise often brings on an anxiety attack in me. Sometimes I will tell her I need a break and walk outside which will create even louder screaming. In short my need to keep my center, and her need to express herself through stories or singing or never ending questions often creates conflict for us. Is this her way of testing or is she just self-expressing and I need to find another way to keep my center in the midst of the noise? Thank you!

    1. Hi Brooke! Yes, this sounds like testing. She needs the freedom to tell all the stories she wants, but demanding you listen is a test. So, be clear and take your space in this relationship. Listen to her attentively and happily when you want to (rather than begrudgingly) and then let her know when you need to move on with other things. If she continues (as she probably will) or screams, just carry on calmly. It might help to sing a little tune in your mind…la, la, la. Reacting to her stories, demands and screams with irritation or anxiety gives her actions more power…and encourages her to continue testing. She will lose interest when you stop letting this get to you.

      I realize that it is challenging to temper your emotions around this, Brooke, but I’m hoping that gaining a clearer perspective will help.

      Did you happen to read this post: ?

      1. Thank you Janet. That post was very helpful as well as was the “permission” you “gave” me to carry on and listen when I can and want to willingly. I really appreciate you response.

  4. avatar Bill Nguyen says:

    Thanks for the article, it is extremely helpful. I’ve got a 3 year old who has been testing a lot lately. And it definitely helps and I hope to use your methods to hopefully alleviate many of the situations and trantrums.

  5. I really appreciate that you wrote how to practically live this out. So often I feel lost in the ideology and don’t know how to put it into practice.

  6. Sorry, seems like common sense to me: set rules, tell them expectations, set boundaries, follow through. I don’t understand the purpose of this article, it’s basic Parenting 101. If we are going someplace that needs extra attention to good behavior (restaurant, church, store, relative’s house), I tell them I expect them to behave and what good behavior means (yelling, whining, fighting=inappropriate, please, thank you, being polite, no arguing=good behavior). Then what the consequences will be, they will differ depending on where we are and what is possible, we can leave the store but we aren’t leaving church but we can not go out for breakfast after church. Going on errands and making 5 different stops during your kid’s nap time is setting your kid up for failure, it’s kind of common sense to pay attention to when your child is tired and to be respectful and recognize that kids get tired and grumpy, I know I get tired and grumpy, why wouldn’t a 2 year old? Parents don’t trust themselves enough and look towards books, blogs, doctors, too much. Information overload will drive you absolutely batty and cause you more headache and confusion than the toddler that is vying for your attention (which you’re not giving because you’re on the computer or reading a how-to book).

    1. Fantastic you have such great instincts, Lynn. Me, not so much. There were only a few instances when I thought, “Duh, doesn’t everyone know that?” I was grateful for advice. It sounds like you have this parenting thing well under control.

    2. How wonderful for you to have such a handle on parenting. For me, this article, and blog is such a blessing. I honestly can’t imagine how lost I’d be in parenting without it. It is my go-to parenting blog, because I know I can trust it, and that it works and is good for me and my child. True, all the different information out there can leave you flustered, but when you find what works for you, as I have, you just stick with it. Thanks Janet for all you do as always!

    3. I have no problem with your lack of appreciation for my post, Lynn, but denigrating parents for seeking advice is the lowest of the low.

    4. Lynn, I’m an early years teacher and I can tell you this is one of the best blogs for putting things succinctly…it’s never just about my own children because of what I do. I come across all types of children and parents some of whom have had the good fortune of being bright up by extremely progressive parents, but most people do not. In case you hadn’t noticed, the world has changed exponentially and what even 1 or 2 generations ago would have deemed acceptable parenting is probably not going to be good enough for our lot, who are destined for a much, much more complex world – they will need all the emotional intelligence we can possibly nurture. None of us know what kind of future it will be, so we have to work together and learn from each other. If we all go on and say parenting is no-brainer we will not progress as a species- we will stay stuck in the practices of our forebears. For your part, may I suggest that simply warning your children beforehand will not be enough for 100% of situations and – have you stopped to wonder whether this is genuinely putting them in control of their behaviour, or is it coercing them? What picture of themselves do they form when you list all the behaviours you don’t like? Do they think ‘mummy doesn’t trust us because she thinks we whine, fidget, etc’ ? I would go even further than what you describe and say you should model acceptable gracious behaviour ONLY so they form only a positive picture of themselves behaving beautifully and remain focus of doing that.

      1. Well said, Eva, and thank you for your support.

    5. Lynn, it may seem like common sense, only if you were raised that way or have spent a lot of time with people who parent in a similar manner. My parents were wonderful and I thank them for helping me and my sisters grow into the strong, independent, kind and generous women we are today. However, there are some points to the way I was parented that I don’t want to pass on to my children, in particular the shame and dificulty expressing emotions that came from the authoritative style that may parents used (I’m not blaming them, I’m simply saying that I was sensitive to that style). I couldn’t thank Janet enough for her blog and books which are not only giving me techniques and language to use with my children but also the confidence to stand up to members of my family who disagree with my choice of gentle, respectful parenting.

    6. You may want to consider coming down off that high horse a little bit. Everyone has been parented differently therefore will parent according to their ability. It’s not cool of you to shame others for trying to do better by reading books ect. We’re all just trying to do better than we’ve been taught.

    7. Lynn, I get the impression that your parenting is quite different from Janet’s approach. You seem to be “all over” the setting limits part but missed the light touch. Janet’s skill is imparting the calm, confident and unruffled approach, avoiding turning limit setting into battles, avoiding giving too much weight to each encounter and risking making the behaviour more powerful and dramatic. It’s a way of approaching children as capable, kind and good hearted but somewhat impulsive rather than expecting them to confirm to your ideas of good behaviour. Telling your children how you expect them to behave at church is not the epitome of respectful parenting.

    8. It’s wonderful that this seems like common sense to you, however MANY of the parents I know not only appreciate articles, books and blogs but need them. This may be parenting 101 but since parenting 101 doesn’t actually exist, articles like these help us get through the challenges moments where intuition doesn’t seem clear. Kudos to you for having this parenting thing down, why exactly are you spending time reading this article and taking more time to comment about its lack of necessity?!

  7. I read this article with interest as my 15 month old toddler continues to hit me and blow raspberries in my face. I respond firmly by looking in his eyes, holding his wrists firmly and saying immediately “No hitting” in a firm but kind voice. I hold onto his wrists for 10 seconds more (through the second retaliation to being told off hit) and then we hug. But he continues to be stuck in testing behaviours! Is there something else I should be doing? I am not afraid of being overly strict or controlling, I enjoy disciplining as part of healthy parenting but it doesn’t seem to be helping!

    1. My toddler would hit my face with his palms (sort of a push, rather than a smack) because he thought it was funny. I did what you did. Then he started pushing his friends so they’d fall over, but never when angry—only when he was really happy and excited. That’s when I realized he didn’t know what to do instead of pushing/hitting to express his feelings.

      So I continued to say, “We don’t hit. It’s not kind,” and holding his hands. But after his immediate struggle to get away from me stopped, I’d let go and say, “When you’re feeling very happy or excited, don’t push or hit. Give a hug, like this!” And I’d hug him. We’d practice two or three times and then I’d let him go.

      After a couple of weeks of this I noticed he’d catch himself when he was about to hit my face or push a friend. Shortly thereafter he started hugging instinctively.

      He doesn’t hit or push anymore.

      I don’t know if that will work for you, but giving an alternative action to express the same feelings is what helped us.

    2. Hmmmm… Leah, it sounds like you might making a tad too much of this. I would be more casual and matter-of-fact. Remember that this is a tiny, unthreatening little guy. I wouldn’t hold onto his wrists to make a point, only to stop him in the moment.

      1. Thanks April, I’ll try that. And janet – I don’t think I’m making too much of it. Obviously he’s tiny and unthreatening to me, but I don’t want to see him displaying this behaviour to his peers and I believe if I don’t put a stop to it now it will only multiply. He is clearly testing me (most of this behaviour is directed only at me) and isn’t that the point of what this article is about? Or am I missing something. I don’t think I should ever accept being hit in the face by my child at any age (as April said, it’s barely a push , not a painful hit, but the intent is clearly there) as I wouldn’t accept it from anyone, isn’t that the point of respectful parenting? Have I misunderstood something here? How would you suggest I handle this situation Janet?

        1. Yes, this is testing. What I mean by “making too much of this” is that you are giving his behavior a lot of power by holding his wrists for those extra 10 seconds. When you create interest that way, children are compelled to continue their experiment.

          Alternatively, when you stop him like this is no big deal, he loses interest in this test. No, you should definitely not “accept” this behavior, but the confident, nonchalant way you handle your “no” will make a difference.

          I’m not a fan of hugging children or asking them to hug others when they are acting aggressively. Consider this… Do you like being hugged with you’re frustrated or angry? Do you like being hugged by someone whose actual impulse is to hit?

  8. Valuable information, great post. I especially like the step by step offered.

    But im having trouble figuring out the steps/solution to the carseat dilemma, which we are going thru right now with our 25mo. I get prepping her, telling her that i need her to sit in her carseat and be buckled in for her safety, but is the follow thru portion where i just stoically put her in the carseat despite her screaming and bracing against me and the seat? Im lost. There has to be a better way, right?! What am i missing here?

    Thanks so much for any clarification. This whole parenting thing is HARD! Lol 😉

  9. avatar Christine says:

    This is so timely I could cry. My 18 mo daughter has been testing non-stop for DAYS and although I try to be clear in setting the limit, it has done very little to help. Part of the problem I believe is that she seems to have molars coming in, and appears quite uncomfortable. But I think it is more than that, because even when I’ve given her something for the pain, the testing continues. Today I was holding her and she had a jingle bell in her hand, and she smacked me so hard in the face with it, something she has never done, and completely out of the blue. I was so surprised! She has also been throwing things, which I am not sure how to handle because it is very hard to predict when she’ll do it, and I can’t really take away all objects that could become projectiles. Basically she is testing every limit imaginable, and it is exhausting! Bedtime, eating, diaper changes, throwing, hitting,kicking, hurting the dog. Here’s my biggest problem. I have a mental block when it comes to strong emotion, and confrontation. I know it comes from how I was raised. When I am conscious of it, I can remember these guidelines. But I have this tendency (which is very hard to control) to zone out. So that follow through step gets missed all too often. It is frustrating because I realize once it’s too late, that I missed the opportunity to nip it in the bud. So I am writing these steps down and will try to stay more conscious in the moment! I wish it was easier to overcome my own difficulties to parent my child better. I seem to have more of these mental blocks than I’d like to admit, and it makes this parenting thing that much more difficult.

    1. Christine – I understand how challenging handling these behaviors can be. I must say that you have wonderful self-awareness. That awareness combined with your intense desire to help your child will see you through this difficult period. Hang in there! You can do this. We all make a lot of blunders in this process and miss opportunities, so please go easy on yourself!

  10. This is something I can use with the families I work with. Often unwanted behaviors that persist have been shaped and reinforced by the response they get and it’s hard to see it when you’re in the thick of it. The only way to change our children’s behavior is to change our own and this article has great advice for that. If I may, I did want to add that if a child is looking and smiling while engaging in a behavior s/he knows is off limits, there are clearly boundaries being tested, but it’s important to watch out for attention-seeking behaviors. Sometimes for these behaviors responding in any way may result in strengthening the behavior. it’s important to know why a behavior is occurring because that determines how you respond. I appreciate the clarity of this article and think it will be quite helpful for many families.

    1. Great point about the attention seeking behaviors. Thank you, Sharon!

  11. I’m getting much better at all this and certainly we don’t have any major problems at the moment, but there are things I still struggle with despite having been reading this blog for well over three years!

    – When there is some ambiguity or arbitrary aspect: how long am I happy for my three year old to leave the water running when he washes his hands, how many books I am happy to read, how close I am happy for the 1 year old to get to stuff that isn’t safe if we are somewhere out that isn’t babyproofed…
    – When there is some urgency: when we have to get to daycare in the morning, when I’m cooking and need to keep an eye on the hob, when the other one needs attention for some reason
    – When it’s about wanting them to do something rather than not do something. I’ve never had much luck with fixed choices, and certainly with my three year old, I can’t forcibly make him do things.
    – Balancing slowing down ( as in with timeliness

    And even when I feel I am being quite clear, my 1 year old still gets all excited and giggly when he tests limits – just recently started trying to hit me, and me stopping him is the funniest thing ever.

    1. Juliette – I hate to throw another post at you, but did you read this? I would lessen the amount of choice and time for dawdling during transitions. I would not let the water run, or read more than a couple of books at bedtime, or let the one year old go near stuff that isn’t safe. When there’s urgency, you will need even more confidence and an upbeat, accepting (of resistance and feelings) attitude. Playtime is a GREAT time to let everything go, let kids dawdle and putter like crazy, lose all track of time. I’m wondering also if you read my post about the two kinds of quality time and the two hats parents wear…the party hat and the professional hat.

      1. I felt that things were getting too tight around here: so many transitions and rules that I decided to allow a ton of books. Sort of like the accordion going back out to get more air. Books were an issue and I allowed more time at bedtime for her to pick what she wanted and in what order. We are now back down to three, which makes me happy, too. It’s just enough. The day had become too Mommy directed. We stopped going to school (she is four)and I feel like I can focus more on parenting, rather than getting places.

        Also, we both will pick book sometimes. She’ll say I can and I get to pick those that reflected the day or what I thought she might appreciate for the insight (Terrible horrible no good days happen to others, too).

        I am becoming more flexible and intuitive in the moment. Lots of love and understanding.

        Thank you for the guidance and insight.

  12. Hello,

    I have a seven month old who I am trying to get to co-operate while going to sleep. He used to co-operate, as of late he tends not to co-operate with anything that does not seem to be going his way.

    Basically I engage in a whole bedtime routine: feed, book, bath, massage, feed, song… and then I put him down in his crib, explaining to him that it is time to go to sleep, and that if he is not sleep he can play quietly until he is. He used to soothe himself to sleep. As of late he just screams at the top of his lungs the minute I put him down. He does not even attempt to self-soothe. Is this testing the limits? Is he old enough to do that? Any suggestions?


    1. J – no, this isn’t testing limits. Screaming at the top of his lungs sounds like he has pain. Is he teething? Could he be gassy? Is he developing new motor skills? Are his days calm and relatively quiet, or is there more stimulation lately? I applaud you for your wonderful routine and calm attitude. The great news is that your boy knows how to go to sleep and he won’t lose that ability. What are you doing now when he screams? I would try to stay calm, talk to him… let him know (between screams) that you are trying to understand what’s going on… You might stroke him, bend down and circle your arm around him. If his cries escalate, definitely pick him up…

      1. Thanks for your reply. I tried different approaches, one approach was to do as you said talk to him, pet him, basically he does not want to sleep and I am not sure what to do about it. On the one hand I feel like I need to teach him routine and allow him to figure out how to go to sleep by himself (however I am not sure that letting him scream achieves this). On the other hand I feel like and sometimes pick him up and let him play (which means he goes to bed much much later) and which involves me patting him to sleep. This is not a solution either…. he learned to crawl this past week…any suggestions about sleep – how to get them to sleep – he also is exclusively breastfeed and wakes up 3 times a night

        1. is it possible that the “mental noise” and exhaustion of learning to crawl has overloaded him, and he has a heightened desire for the sure-fire soothing he gets from contact with you as a result? We found in those instances that controlled crying – a hot-button term, I know – worked well. We went in and offered comforting, as Janet describes, but for shorter periods and at greater intervals over time. The younger often chooses to sleep with the elder when such phases arise now.

          1. I don’t like how I said that. The point, for us, was to filter our reaction through the idea of what we would want if feeling overwhelmed, clingy, and in need of a good cry. Support without imposition was the goal. Causing added freak-out by withdrawing support was not. Nor was being turned into a rocking and patting machine though, so a balance must be found. Our youngest seeks physical contact in response to stress, so sleeping with his sibling meets that need now without monopolising our evenings.
            One last thought: if you think there could be some physical discomfort present, it might be worth consulting a massage therapist or chiropractor or osteopath who specializes in babies, to see if crawling has caused a kink.

  13. Hi Janet – my wife and I are big fans of your blog.

    We have a 16 month old girl who has been doing some testing. Specifically, she will hit me or her mom (or others) in the face. We’ve tried “I won’t let you…” etc or giving her a pillow and telling her “if you need to hit something, you can hit this pillow.”

    Results are sporadic. A friend advised that we ignore it and act like it’s “the most boring thing in the world” (i.e. don’t react) but that hasn’t really changed it either. She keeps coming back to this behavior.

    Any other suggestions?

    1. Hi Richard – I would do something in-between “ignoring” and offering the pillow (which I think is making a bit too much of this little experiment). I totally agree with “act like it’s the most boring thing in the world”, but at the same time, she needs a succinct answer so she knows you have this covered. If you’re too late and she hits, I would say a very nonchalant and brief, “I don’t want you to hit.” Or, “no hitting”. If she continues, put your hand in the way efficiently, but like this is the most boring, unthreatening thing in the world… and then maybe say, “I won’t let you hit.” The less you say the better, because that will demonstrate to her that this is no big deal at all to you. You’re noticing it, but it doesn’t push your buttons in the least.

      Her hits sound more like an experiment than anger or frustration…but if she does this in response to something you’ve said, etc., then add a brief, but emphatic, “You didn’t like that” (whatever it was), which lets her know you got her message.

      1. Thanks, Janet – great suggestion – will try this out and let you know how it progresses 🙂

        1. Yes, please do give me an update. Thanks, Richard!

      2. Hi Janet, we are stuck in a testing phase. What you’ve described here is what I’ve been doing with my 18 month old who has recently decided to test by hitting me (and only me) in the face and laughing maniacally. I say “I won’t let you hit me” and calmly block his hits. When he continues to hit (he always does) I say “I can see you’re having trouble not hitting me so I’m going to walk away now”. Then I walk away and he has a total meltdown. I then sit on the floor in the same room as him saying “I’m here” and “I know you wanted to hit me and I wouldn’t let you” and “when you’re ready we can hug” but he just storms around screaming and throwing cars and toys etc. until my husband intervenes and distracts him or I do something else that acts as a circuit breaker like silly dancing or putting on music. I think part of the problem is that while I try to make it seem like the hitting is no big deal, it’s actually really getting to me and I don’t think I’m a very talented actress. I think my son knows exactly how much it’s getting under my skin because he just keeps doing it. I’m working on that, but it’s not easy for me to take it as the most boring thing ever. Is there anything else I can try?

        1. This is EXACTLY my story! Looking forward to Janet’s reply 🙂

  14. I’m really struggling with this at the moment. My 2.5 year old is pushing all the time with nappy changes and getting dressed. I can’t make him do it and even holding him while I try is a problem as I am pregnant and have bad pelvic instability. He laughs at us if we use a firm or even angry voice, which makes the annoying absolutely infuriating!

    His language is excellent but he does have trouble recognising frustration and also calming himself, particularly when tired. He just gets more and more excited.

    What can you do when every attempt to hold his hands to stop the hitting just seems to escalate? At least he is laughing and thinking it’s fun rather than tantrum mind!

    1. Sera – The escalating means he is expressing his feelings, so that is actually preferable to him holding on and testing. I imagine he has strong feelings about your pregnancy, since this impending, mysterious change is very frightening for most children. I would talk to him about the pregnancy and how his days will look after the baby arrives. Be honest and provide all the details you know. Then, I would also expect him to be somewhat explosive and emotional at random times throughout the day. THAT is the way children express their fear around this situation. They don’t do it on cue when you are speaking to them about it, unfortunately. He’s going to be a bit volatile during this transition and I would do all you can to welcome that.

  15. Hi Janet,
    I stumbled upon your blog 10 months ago while searching for something on internet and has been hooked to it ever since. Though I must admit I was slow on implementing your great advice. I waited till my 15 month old’s scratching left bruises on face which According to my friend looked like result of domestic violence(poor my husband!). Finally I decided to be the calm leader and my toddler was glad to stop his scratching episodes! Around the same time he learned to ask for milk in my mother tongue.may be that was one of the reasons for his scratching. Some of his testing became stories due to my emotional handling(I was contemplating whether to quit or resume job at that time) which I need to Address.thanks Janet for making me a calm mom and my son the happiest 15 month old in the block.I’ve read many blogs but yours seems to address me on a personal level. I don’t dread his testings anymore. I’m loving this phase of motherhood:-)

    1. Hi Nimitha! Hooray! “I’m loving this phase of motherhood” is the best thing you could ever say to me.

  16. Hi Janet,

    Thank you so much for this post, it is SO timely as we are really struggling with a testing, screaming 2.5 year old.

    For a few weeks now my son has been letting out short, shrill, high-pitched screams. At first he was doing it when his 8-month-old sister was making loud noises, but now it has escalated and is happening at other times…and very frequently.

    He surely has a lot of feelings related to his sister, so I have acknowledged this as much as possible.

    We have been following the steps you’ve outlined to the best of our ability, but to be honest, I think I need some more help with the “follow through” when it comes to screaming. After expressing the limit and acknowledging his feelings, we have tried walking him out of the room (as in your example) or leaving the room ourselves. Sometimes he will follow us and continue screaming. Sometimes it’s not possible for us to leave the room, like when we’re driving in the car, when we’re outside or when I’m feeding the baby and can’t physically move. I feel like this results in not giving a clear message.

    Do you have any advice?

    It’s complicated further by the fact that his baby sister sometimes makes screaming sounds. How should we respond to her screams in front of him?

    Thank you again for your wonderful blog and advice!

    1. Thank you, Kristin! I would not limit screaming… Here’s a part of the post you might have missed:

      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.”

      In other words, Kristin, we can’t control a child’s words and sounds, so it’s best to simply make screaming a “powerless” thing to do by under-reacting. If you try to limit screaming or overtly ignore it or move away, you give it power. How to remove the power? Think “ho-hum”. The most I would say is, “hmmm… that’s a bit loud.” Don’t be bothered by this at all and it will go away!

  17. avatar Billi Grisdale says:

    Thanks for this post. Im going to read the rest of your posts as well. We have an almost 4 year old who has been testing us since his baby brother arrived and it’s only getting worse. I know it has a lot to do with wanting more attention and also just being 4, but I think our inconsistency in how we react is a big factor so I want to try your 4 step process and see how it works for us. But im not sure how to go about it exactly. For example, one big struggle is his refusal to use silverware at dinner. Im not sure what desires and feelings to acknowledge there other than “I can see you want to act naughty right now” :/ what would you do in this situation. Or refusing to pick up toys. Maybe this isn’t testing but rather plain defiance?

    1. Hi Billi! I would not describe behavior as “naughty”. How does your son eat his food… with his hands? Within reason, I might consider letting that go, rather than focusing a lot of attention on it. (See my advice about screaming and foul language, etc.).

      A helpful to handle cleaning up is to not allow him to take out more toys until he’s ready to pick up the ones he has dropped. For bigger clean-up jobs, I would expect to do this along with the child.

  18. Hi Janet, I’m interested to know if you think there’s a difference between testing a limit and, for want of a better word, checking a limit?
    My son (12mo) has just become tall enough and strong enough to climb up on things. We’ve decided that he’s not allowed to climb on furniture like tables or shelves but is allowed to climb up on the sofa. If he’s on the sofa then he had to stay sitting down.
    He understands this rule. When he stands up I tell him, please sit down, and he does. He always looks at me when he stands up and then seems to enjoy following my instruction to sit down. He often repeats this a few times. On the occasions when he doesn’t sit down after I’ve told him twice, I take him off the sofa. I’m careful that I’m not turning it into a game.
    Neither of us are ever upset by this exchange and it feels more like a gentle interaction rather than him testing a boundary. However, the repetitiveness of it has got me wondering if I’m being a bit naive!
    So do you think children ‘check’ boundaries in a healthy and inquisitive way as well as test them?

  19. Hi Janet,
    Thanks for this article…I really needed to read it as my 3.5 yr old daughter is testing me a lot right now and she has developed some behaviours that I repeatedly tell her to stop lovingly but she continues to do despite my repeated attempts. She grinds her teeth really loudly and rubs her hands together like she’s cleaning them but with an anxious expression on her face each time she does it, she also grabs hold of my thumb/s as I’m doing things and won’t let go so I can’t do things and she does this repeatedly throughout the day. How do I get her to stop this kind of behaviour? Also what do you suggest I do when she has total meltdowns in public places when I can’t take her to the car or her room to calm down?

    1. Hi Louise! Well, I would stop her from holding your thumb… that’s easy to do, right? Just pry her teeny hand open immediately and keep your thumbs away from her hands. Be confident and on top of this, remembering that she is a tiny little girl. I’m not sure I understand why she has you “under her thumb” this way. 😉

      The teeth grinding and hand rubbing, I would not let bother me at all. Please see my comment to Kristin about screaming (above, a few comments up)

  20. Thank you for this article. As I read through the article, I thought that it did not apply to us at this time but then I realized that there is one thing that my 2 year old daughter is testing that I can’t seem to talk/work through with her. My daughter turned 2 in April and she is a wonderful child and, for the most part, does not test too much. Our current issue, though, is hitting when she is unhappy about leaving somewhere or being taken to her bath (for example). I always give her choices and the opportunity to walk away (or to) on her own once it is inevitably time to go. I have noticed that talking to her before actually making the move (leaving or going to bath) helps. Yesterday, she kicked when it became bath time and I had to take her non-bath related toy because she would not put it away herself, although I had notified her much earlier that it would soon be time. I put her down and sat next to her. I asked her if it bothered her that I took her toy and she said “yes”. I asked her if she thought kicking was the right response and she just looked at me. I then told her that I knew she was tired from the beach and that it was possible that her emotions were more heightened. She sniffled and looked up at me (because of course there were tears involved too). I asked her if she wanted to come sit with me and she did. I held her for a minute and she asked if her “pink baby” could come up to bath. I said “yes, of course” and explained that the only reason the other toy had to be put away is because it has batteries and cannot be near the bathtub. She seemed okay with this response but I am concerned about the kicking and hitting. It only happens about once a week. She did it to her dad once too when I was away so it is not just a behavior that is displayed towards me. We have never used physical behavior towards her or around her so it is not something she learned from watching us. (She is an only child that is in daycare for 5 hours a day.) After reading your article, I think she is testing us and I’m want to make sure that I address it correctly so that she doesn’t get stuck in testing mode.

    Thank you!

  21. Testing limbo. So that is where my son and I have been lately, especially the day we were stuck in the car for one hour after playing in the park, because my 2.5 year old refused to get in his seat (had to call the husband to rescue us). He is definitely testing me right now, today, too. I learned from your article “Car Seat Struggles” that I am not being clear, definitive, or consistent in these situations. I am tentative, and like you wrote, “When we are tentative, we leave our child in an uncomfortable state of limbo.”

    I also have not been acknowledging frequently, even though I read about its importance quite a while back. My child has a severe hearing loss that wasn’t discovered until a few months ago. He has been wearing hearing aids just over 6 weeks now. Obviously, his communication skills and vocabulary are behind most children his age, but I see that by acknowledging, I would be growing his vocabulary. I would be helping him assign words to his feelings.

    Maybe if I work on this, he will not feel the need to test, push, and fight to such extremes. Because right now, he is so testy and pushes so hard that I cannot physically get him into his car seat by myself. Thankfully this struggle is not an everyday occurrance.

    If you have any extra advice or links that would be helpful when working with a hearing impaired child, I welcome them.

    1. Yes, those are good realizations that make sense to me!

      Remember that young children are extremely aware and intuitive and are constantly “hearing” much more than our words. So, my advice for you would be the same as for any other parent… Project confidence and comfort with the many “disagreements” you and your child are bound to have.

  22. Janet, I haven’t read through all of the comments so possibly this has been answered, but my only concern (and yes, you note this towards the end) is how the limit is carried through. When I was angry, really angry at times, as a younger mom I would feel such intense emotions that I wasn’t able to carry out a limit without also feeling the anger toward my child. It was more than a limit; it was laced with the energy of punishment and my child was well aware. I couldn’t empathize; I just didn’t have the skills to do so at that time.

    When I read the part about setting the limit to not let the child scream while putting the baby to bed then putting the child out of the room on the other side of the door I honestly feel that wouldn’t accomplish my goal of connection with my kids, sleep and most of all in that moment – quiet. I suppose it would share that screaming is not okay, and that I will separate myself from it as needed, but it also feels like it’s laced with abandonment. Yes, this probably speaks to my own childhood.

    I suppose what I’m pointing at is that we also need to be respectful of where we are in our parenting journey. We need to be sensitive to what feels off to us, and be courageous enough to learn ways of establishing limits that stretch us yet help us stay in line with our values. Instead of putting my child on the other side of the door I can also state the limit that I need quiet, model that, sit with the child and empathize or change the location/plan to connect with both the baby and the toddler, brainstorm other ways the toddler can keep occupied, etc. I think there can be a compromise or collaboration with the child, too.

    I admit I’m still learning boundaries, so I’m aware that certain ways of establishing them aren’t comfortable for me but I am willing, and I’m certainly open to your feedback. I just think it’s important to learn to trust ourselves and that there’s more than one way to establish boundaries respectfully with our children.

    1. I completely agree with your sentiments, Amy. If we are not comfortable with certain boundaries, our children will be uncomfortable, too, and have a very difficult time accepting them.

  23. Great article! I have a just-turned 2yr old who is refusing to get in her car seat. She has decided she hates being restricted (won’t wear clothes unless distracted by being out, won’t let me carry her on my back in a wrap,toilet trained herself because she didn’t like nappies anymore), and I’m struggling. We recently moved cities and I don’t know many people, but can’t get out to meet anyone because she won’t get in the car! We’ve tried playing in it, positive associations etc, but nothing works. I know she’s testing me, but other than isolating myself at home until she gets over it, what can I do? Public transport here isn’t great, and I get a bit nervous seeing as she won’t let me put a nappy on her but treats undies like nappies.

  24. This article desperately needed a glossary. I could not decipher what testing meant until so far into the article that I felt tested and irritated by it.

    Is testing the physical achievement that the toddler is attempting and failing to get past? It is the testing of limitations and boundaries that parents attempt to establish? It is the toddler testing the patience of the parent?

    Without an understanding of testing, I had to ponder toddler testing limbo, a second concept before I even understood the first. Your recommendations might be helpful, but if I as a parent do not know what I am trying to teach, they will do me no good at all.

    1. Thank you for your feedback, Phil. I am sorry that the five examples I shared in the beginning of the post didn’t not clarify “testing” enough for you.

  25. Interesting and helpful. Especially the paragraph about the nonchalant tone… We were trying to teach our son not to hit but made too much of it and it took ages to change his behaviour…

  26. Janet, thank you for this and every article you write! I have a related question. My 14 month old loves to read books with me, and recently she has started pushing or throwing them in my face when she wants to read them again, or just in general. It is usually when she is tired or feeling some other intensity. The other day she did it and it hurt me, and before I knew it I loudly said her name along with “NO, NO, NO”. After this I spoke to her calmly telling her that I didn’t like it, and showed her how to hand it to my hand. She is now aware that it is a boundary she is pushing.

    Today, we were lying in bed and she deliberately hit me in the face with a book. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, to keep from reacting, and she immediately started to cry. I am afraid that I have created a situation where she thinks I am going to yell at her, or get upset. Do you have any specific suggestions on how to get out of this cycle we seem to have entered?

    I should also share that we are in a huge transition right now, her Dad and I have split up and we are house sitting. Her world is very different to her and I have become her only care giver…

    Thank you!

  27. With three children I seem to have forgotten how to play somewhere along the way… Carpools, school activities, Reading out loud, making meals, washing dishes- leaves brief seconds for quick corrections rather than loving redirection and celebration the tiniest jobs well done! Where have my parenting skills gone?!

  28. Hi there! I cannot tell if my daughter’s periodic “clinging” behavior when I drop her off at daycare is a test or something else? Some days she does great (can’t get to her friends fast enough) and others, I end up leaving her crying. I have been doing a form of steps 1-3 (I will change the language used to that suggested above) but how do I do steps 4 & 5 when her teacher is left to deal with her? Or is it a tag-team to accomplish all 5 steps? Do I attempt step 5 when I pick her up?

  29. avatar Elizabeth says:

    Hi, Janet! Thank you so much for your blog. I discovered it about a year ago, and it has become invaluable to me in my parenting journey with my 2 children, ages 2 and 4. I definitely struggle with setting boundaries, and I fall into the “tentative” category more often than I’d like. I could tell you all the reasons I believe this happens (my upbringing, namely!), but the bottom line is that I need to move out of that category and into the calm, collected, confident, nonchalant category! The good news is, when I can see situations clearly, I’ve gotten quite skilled with setting boundaries. Examples include carseat drama, safely walking in streets. Many times, though, I can’t see the situation clearly and I get tentative, my children begin to spiral, and inevitably I feel irritated or angry. My 4 yr old’s bedtime routine is one of these situations. After all sorts of attempts for her bedtime over the years, we have accepted that at least for now, I will sit with her, usually rubbing her back or holding her hand, until she falls asleep. Some nights this goes smoothly and quickly. Other nights, she seems to intentionally keep herself awake, singing and flinging herself about her bed. I stay with her, but as time goes on and on, I get so irritated, thinking of how tired I am and how much I still have left to do to finish out the day. I think if I could leave her, I wouldn’t be irritated at all. Sometimes I suggest to her that I’m happy to stay with her as long as she’s still and resting, but that if she’s not ready for that just yet then I’ll leave for a little while and come back after a few minutes. I never actually do that, though, because she gets a look of panic and I worry that if I leave, she’ll feel abandoned or as though she’s too much or too irritating, etc. Then we get stuck in this cycle of me continuing to suggest I should leave for a bit, or me beginning to seethe inside because I feel trapped in a situation that I dislike but don’t see a respectful way out of. If I don’t feel right about leaving her, but I can’t seem to tolerate staying with her on her testing nights, what should I do?

    1. This sounds exactly like bedtime with my 3 year old daughter.

  30. Thank you for this! Couldn’t come at a better time. I have been having so many issues when it comes to putting my 2.5 year old down for naps and bedtime – it becomes a 1-2 hour production where she constantly needs the potty or wets her pull-ups but whenever Daddy puts her down she will usually just go to sleep or have minimal issues. I couldn’t figure out why but after reading this can see that she is testing me and I haven’t given a her an “answer”. I get angry and frustrated with her so easily now with her constant need to potty even when she doesn’t or her constantly wetting her pull-ups. I end up going to a place where I don’t like being and I’ve noticed that she also gets upset at me as well. My issues is that I’m not sure how to clearly express the limit – I have tried to tell her to try to get all her pee out so she doesn’t have to go again or wet her pull-ups but it doesn’t work. If I don’t allow her when she gets out of bed and say she needs to go she cries and gets upset. And I don’t necessarily want to discourage her from going to the potty as we encourage it during the day. And I don’t know how to get her to stop constantly wetting her pull-ups. And I know that it’s not a matter of not being able to do it because she has way less incidents (sometimes none) when Daddy puts her down, it’s only with me that she is constantly getting out of bed.

  31. avatar Holly Hold says:

    I would very much like to email this, and other articles of yours, to my son and dip, they raise their boys as if they are dogs, but give them less teaching… help?

    Thank you. I’ve f/b-shared this, but they don’t do f/b.

  32. Hi, Janet!

    I have to start by saying that your articles and your book on toddler discipline have been God-sent for me and my son. I’ve learned so much from your work and I’m so sorry we don’t have RIE in Romania yet.

    My questions is: What about yelling and talking gibberish? What decisive action is there for these behaviours?

    I have a 3-year old son that I plan to unschool, so I’m trying my best to make our relationship work.
    I offer him plenty of outdoor play daily, we have friends we meet almost daily, I include him in my house chores when he wishes and I try to encourage independent play. But it’s difficult and progress is quite slow.
    Instead of playing by himself, he prefers to hang around me, obviously bored, and just ask me a lot of questions, talk giberrish (although he speaks perfectly and I have always talked normally to him) and yell or talk really loud for no apparent reason.
    I have tried to explain to him that in the mornings I need to get us ready for our daily park outing and that means I have things to do around the house and that it’s his time to play with his toys (that we have been carefully picking out for him to be open-ended and not overwhelming).
    He is, I think, past wanting my attention and down to testing me, but what is the response that will satisfy him? I’m just out of ideas.
    I have asked him to speak normally, I have said I don’t like yelling and can’t understand giberrish and I would like him to stop so we can understant each other. I have asked him to at least go to the other room if he won’t stop.
    I don’t know what else to do or what would be an appropriate limit here. I have on occasion left the room after I’ve told him my ears hurt and I can’t stay near him if he continues. He just follows me. I know it’s stupid, but it’s getting out of hand and I get mad easily because of it. Needles to say, I wasn’t raised anywhere near RIE-oriented, in fact I come from a disfunctional family.

    Can you help?

  33. Janet – my daughter has been screaming at the top of her lungs lately. I allow her to scream and say things like “You seem very frustrated”. But I’m unsure if it is a test or just an expression of her emotions? Should I be setting a limit on screaming or should it be allowed to be expressed? I find it uncomforatbale when e.g. I’m in the car with a friend and her child and she is screaming so loud we cannot have a conversation! Or if she screams when I ask her to come onto the footpath, not the road. Is this just ‘developmentally appropriate’behavious for a 2.5yr old? I also wonder if it is a sign of deeper unmet needs and just acknowledging it does not address the cause. Thanks, I love your work!

  34. Pretty desperate mom here. My two toddlers (4,5 and 2,5 YO) are managing to drive us absolutely crazy every night.

    2,5 YO wakes up in the middle of the night or very early morning (5 am) and just starts playing. He obviously wakes his brother up and the rest of the family after that and there is absolutely no way he will go back to sleep.

    We’ve tried everything from being patient and explaining to almost eating him alive (continous sleep deprivation doesn’t help keep our nerves in line). Rewards won’t work either.

    I feel this is some kind of limits testing but I honestly don’t have a clue how to deal with it.

  35. Hi Janet. I luckily found a link to one of your articles a couple of months a ago. Since then, I have read both of your most recent books. I can’t tell you the weight that has been lifted off my shoulders since realizing I don’t have to make my almost 3 year old son happy all of the time. He cried or was fussy for the first nine months of his life nearly all the time he was awake. I got into the habit of soothing him because once he started crying, he wouldn’t stop for sometimes an hour or more. This led to me (and the rest of my family) to cater to his every whim.

    Now I have learned that expressing his emotions is good for him. I feel like I am doing the right thing for once! Thank you! I am having difficulties with the way he interacts with people, though. He is extremely candid. I’m not sure if this is a personality thing or if it is him testing. I don’t want to teach him to bottle his emotions. For example, he will tell my mom, who he admittedly does not like as much as my mother-in-law, “You are my pretend grandma. My other grandma is my real grandma.” That is very hurtful. It is a true statement, but I feel it is inappropriate. If he doesn’t want someone to sit by him, he will tell him/her to move. How do I address his behaviors (some of them are testing like when he tells me he doesn’t like me if I have been at work a lot lately and others are just his true feelings)? Like I said, it is important to me for him to be able to express himself, as I didn’t grow up in a house where I could.

    One last thing, I wanted to thank you for opening up in your book about your relationship with your mom. It made me reflect upon my own upbringing by my parents (especially my mother) and guilt parenting. I have vowed to raise my child in a more respectful manner.

  36. great article! My 14 month old hangs onto my legs in the kitchen while I am trying to prepare a meal and it drives me mad. She wants to be held but I need both hands for some things which makes that impossible. Any suggestions? I have a gated “yes” playroom adjacent to kitchen but she screams uncontrollably if I close the gate. I’m at a loss…

  37. Hi Janet, I would love your perspective on my situation. My 19 month old daughter puts her finger down her throat and chokes herself when we ask her to stop or do something else. It is upsetting, embarrassing in public, and concerning! I have tries ignoring the behavior, kindly asking her to not do it, and setting her down when she does do it. Suggestions? Thoughts?

  38. Hi Janet,

    This article hit very close to home for me because I’ve been through a tough week with my 2.5 year old and the car seat. Instead of getting better it seems to get worse. I am patient and give him 5 minutes to explore the car and pretend to drive before getting into his seat, usually after a few minutes he climbs in without a problem. This past week he has refused to get into his seat and screamed like crazy when I finally manage to get him in. Do I physically force him in? While explaining that I understand he doesn’t like it but it’s for his own safety? It’s actually very difficult to force him in so I have been waiting and talking about it until he finally gets in but this method is taking way too long and isn’t very successful. I’m just not sure on the physical force part. .. I understand the talking and explaining.

    Thank you

  39. Janet you are brilliant. This is one of my favourite articles of yours uet… And I have read a LOT of them!!!

    Thank you thank you thank you, you inspire me so much not just as a parent but as a woman. Your compassion, PASSION and kindness is so evident in all the work you do.


    1. Aww, thank you, Allison! Parents sometimes say that things I post come at the perfect time for them… Well, that’s how I feel about encouraging comments like yours. This came at the end of a long, rough day and couldn’t be more welcome and appreciated. So thank you again!

  40. Hi Janet,
    I’ve been finding your blog and Facebook page enormously helpful and interesting. My husband and I love the RIE approach since being introduced to it by a friend.
    Our 13 month old is getting into a habit of throwing her food, even when I know she’s hungry. I try not to react and simply say “you seem to be throwing your food, have you finished?”. The next step I guess would be calmly taking her out of her high chair if the food throwing continues but I know she hasn’t eaten so I’m concerned about her not having the opportunity to eat some of her meal. I am also wondering if she is too young to be removed from her chair if the food throwing continues? I notice that she studies my face for a reaction after she throws the food so I try to stay as unemotional as possible. Is it just a phase that I should ignore and hope she gets bored (or hungry!)? Or should I start removing her from the chair calmly as soon as the throwing commences?
    Many thanks for your advice!

  41. Great post. I just printed it to have on hand as a reminder. With that said, I need some guidance…my 3yr old is having a very hard time going to bed. He has never been one of those kids who willingly goes to bed, it’s always been a struggle. However, it’s more of a challenge now because he is in a toddler bed, which means he can easily get out of bed. The real problem is, if we try to tuck him in and simply say goodnight and leave, he screams/cries and comes out of his room. It’s as if he has lost all independence. So, in order to get him to sleep we find ourselves with one parent laying in bed with him until he falls asleep. Even then, he will try to play in his bed and not lie down for bedtime. We are truly at a loss for how to handle this. PLEASE help!!

  42. Ok, but what about when the behavior just doesn’t stop? With twins and needing to get places, while I try to leave enough time to deal with issues, things do need to get done. Or food/ dishes need to not be thrown on the floor. Or we do not hit our twin or bite! And etc. I try the compassionate approach, the I hear you, reflection of emotion at appropriate level approach, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. What can I do that will actually get through? Is there anything at this age? They will be 2 in a few weeks. I know they understand things and I know certain brain development just hasn’t happened yet. But there has to be some consequence or way to enforce good behaviors and stop bad behaviors. The approach described in the post does not seem to get through a lot of times. Any pointers are helpful!

  43. Hi Janet. Thank you so much for this article. I feel like my 4 yr old daughter is constantly in this mode with me. I have a 2 yr old son who is also starting to test and this seems to increase 4 yr olds testing too as someone else is now taking my attention. I very much feel like I am losing affection for her as all day every day is a battle. The trickiest time I have with her is getting changed for preschool in the morning. I have tried giving her the option of “now or in 5 mins”, encouraging her to dress herself etc but she just continues to refuse. Do you have any tips on making this time more pleasant or any ideas on how I can help her with this. I want to improve the relationship with my daughter. Thank you x anna

  44. Thanks for this – it seems to make a lot of sense and I’m intrigued to read your book. One question…at the end you give examples of shaming…I wasn’t clear if you encourage those kinds of responses or not?

    1. No, I don’t encourage shaming. Thanks, Brittany

  45. The phrase “… removing an unsafe object from her hands …” sounds easy! What happens when there is a running away, a big struggle then screaming? Is there a better way to get the unsafe object?

  46. It is always really helpful and motivating to read your articles. The only thing that I am missing is how can I set a limit and go through with it when I am alone with two children. In the example you talked about you say the child would have to leave the room and go to Daddy, but how can I handle the same situation if I am on my own? I really don’t know what to do, because if I escort my son out of the room after two seconds he will open the door and come back in. Unfortunately I had to put him in his room even if I don’t want to. It’s the only way that works when he is testing limits and I have to put the baby to sleep. Do you have any other ideas on how I could handle this situation? I really don’t know what to do anymore!

  47. avatar Cheryl Agra says:

    I’m wondering how to navigate testing limits with a real need. Lately my 17 month old is putting up a battle on the return trip in a car (from the store, from day care – which is new). It has also coincided with her being truly sleepy and ready for an extremely early bedtime or nap. Not always, but many times. Her full body resists the car seat, but every once in a while I can find the momentary distraction that gets her attention, so I do think part of it is testing limits.

    However, it feels uncomfortable as a parent to force her into the car seat as she protests. Even if I am following steps calmly, acknowledging her strong feelings, telling her what mommy is going to do.
    Do you have thoughts to help me in this situation?

  48. avatar Rebecca Lora says:

    Dear Janet,

    I love your blog and try daily to put your philosophy into practice with my 3.5 and 1.5 year olds. My oldest is a very easygoing and funny kid, but has become much more headstrong and stubborn lately, leaving me feeling out of options on how to get him to stop certain behaviors and listen to us without battles. This paragraph jumped out at me: ‘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!”’

    I have definitely told him at times that he can have an ice cream if he behaves well, but not if he keeps up xyz behavior. To be specific, tonight he went to a restaurant and he wanted to put coins into the well outside. I told him that we would definitely do that, but only after we sat down and placed our order. He whined incessantly anyway about wanting to go to the well, and I repeatedly stated that he would be able to go after we ordered. He didn’t stop. Finally I said that unless he behaved and tried to be patient, he would no longer get the ice cream we had promised him for dessert. That got him to behave better. Is that different than the shaming example you listed?

    Thank you,

  49. Great post! Could you elaborate on how to handle the back-and-forth testing? My 2.5 year old son is driving his father and I batty with this — “I want milk. I want water. I want milk.”, “I want to come with,” “I want to stay with daddy,” “I want to come with!” etc. I see how setting and vocalizing clear limits is the key for the other expressions of testing, but how would you suggest putting an end to this? I tell him he needs to make a choice and that’s the one we go with in a firm, decisive way, but so far that hasn’t worked. I also don’t want to be unreasonably inflexible. What is the limit to set here? Thanks in advance for your insight!

  50. I am already in a daily cycle with my daughter (23m) hitting other children and have been for months. She doesn’t do it out of frustration or anger, but bc she thinks it’s a game and looks and me smiling when she does it. I don’t know how to ‘acknowledge her desires and feelings’ because they are just that it’s a game. When she was much younger, i showed her alternative hand actions like waving and high five, which she’d do and then hit again. When I take her out of the situation, it seems to be part of ‘the game’ too and accepts that’s what happens. Help!

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