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.


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

NO BAD KIDS: Toddler Discipline Without Shame

(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?

  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!

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