Setting Limits with Your Possessive Toddler

In this episode: Janet responds to a mom whose 21-month old son has become possessive about toys, and she’s worried that he’s showing aggression towards other kids. “I don’t know what to do,” she writes, “and I am so scared that through my mistakes of parenting he will become a bully.”

Hi, this Janet Lansbury, welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m responding to an email from a mother of a 21 month old who has recently become aggressively possessive about his toys, and his play space. This mom is nervous for other kids, and worried that her little guy might become a bully.

Here’s the email I received:

“Hi Janet, our son is 21 months old. Up until a month ago, he has always had an innate social ability of walking up to others, and trying to play, and sharing his snacks and toys with others. My husband and I never pushed any of those skills, because he did them all on his own. Then, about a month ago, he started getting really attached to toys, cars, and balls. He’s never been attached to toys before, and now, whenever other kids come over to our house, or we go to other homes, or children’s play areas with toys that he becomes fond of, he gets very territorial over them. He does not let anyone else play with them.

For example, our public library has a play train table, with the wooden trains, and tracks, and he loves it so much that whenever any other child comes up to the table, he gets super nervous, picking up all the trains while casting glance after glance at the other child, to make sure he won’t snatch them up. Then he holds onto all of trains for dear life, and will not let them go, or share. I try to encourage him to share, and convince him that the other kids are nice, and just want to play with him, not steal his toys, but he doesn’t seem to understand, or trust me that it’s okay.

Then, this week, he started getting more aggressive. Now, when another kid comes over to play, and he doesn’t want him there, he holds his arm out, and tries to push them away. His pushed aren’t aggressive, but I’m afraid they will become aggressive. It’s not just the trains, it’s the slide at the playground, part of the splash pad, toys in the public pool, that aren’t even his, et cetera, et cetera. I don’t know what to do, and I’m so scared that, through my mistakes of parenting, he will become a bully. On one hand I know that he’s 21 months, and developmentally can’t grasp perfect manners, et cetera, this young. On the other hand, I feel nervous when it comes to him doing things like that to other parents’ children, and I don’t know how to handle it. Please help.”

Okay, so the first thing that stuck out to me in this note is that something shifted about a month ago. And I would imagine that there may be something else that sort of began for him around a month ago or some other transition that’s going on. This mother doesn’t mention that, but when something changes, there’s usually a reason.

In this case, it sounds like he’s trying to hold onto some control in areas that really aren’t healthy for him to control. All the toys with other children, equipment in public places, holding on to things —  that can kind of represent, to a child, holding onto their feelings. So my sense, looking at this from a distance, is that he’s going through some stress, an emotion that he’s kind of trying to keep a lid on. But, of course, I don’t know that for sure. That’s just the pattern that usually creates this kind of behavior, or adds to it.

It’s also developmental. And the transition that children are going through at this age is they become full-fledged toddlers and are feeling that push-pull of independence vs. dependence. Wanting to feel their power and kind of being frustrated by the fact that they don’t control everything, and their power is limited in the world.

So there’s a lot of internal transition going on, a lot of change, a lot of reasons for a child to want to feel more in control of things and having it show up in this kind of behavior.

But our role with children, in this, is to be the one that has limits for them around what isn’t healthy for them to control. So I would definitely be setting more limits here. And as much as I believe in trusting children to develop their social intelligence, and learn from other children, and problem solve, that all has to be within a framework of boundaries that we have for our child.

Within that structure, the more free they are to explore and learn experientially, the better. But without that structure, we’re kind of leaving them high and dry, and actually adding to their stress, rather than helping them with it. And, as studies show, a little bit of stress is part of learning, but when stress is overwhelming, we don’t learn well. We can’t learn well if we are stressed.

So, all of that said, how do we handle these specific situations? The first one she mentions is when kids come over to their house. One thing that really helps with that, with children’s feelings of being territorial at their own home, which is the most understandable thing, especially if they’re going through other stressful things. “Hey, I need this to be my place. I need to at least control things here, with other children, with my stuff.” I would say most toddlers go through a stage where, when children come to their house, they don’t want them to touch their toys, and play with their toys. So that one’s very understandable.

One thing that helps is letting children know, so they have a sense of control over the situation, that this person’s coming over, and offering them the opportunity to put away toys that they don’t want to be part of their play time with this other child. Or to just only put out toys that they do want to be open to this other child coming over. So giving them that bit of choice, in the beginning, so they can come into it with a sense of healthier control.

But then we still might see this behavior. And I would allow it to a certain extent. I mean, obviously within the realm of safety. If our child is starting to push aggressively, we’re going to make sure they can’t touch that other child’s body. Very calmly intervene in that. All the while, not judging this behavior.

The really important thing here to remember is that, when we’re setting limits, it’s gotta be from a place of understanding the behavior, seeing it as normal. But we’re still there to cover things for our child. We’re still the ones that have to have their back, while they’re doing these normal things. So we’re not disgusted at our child for their possessiveness, or angry, or frustrated, or in fear that, “Oh my gosh, I’m creating a bully, here.”

We see that there’s a reason for it. We understand that it’s normal. But we’re still going to set the limit.

So having your hand there if he starts to push. Acknowledging feelings. If it becomes something where the child won’t let this other child touch anything, then I would probably intervene to say, “Well, you don’t want him to touch those things, but we really need there to be some things that he can touch. So let’s find those things.” And then, if our child resists that, then we have to physically prevent him from taking those away from the other child.

So there’s no exact right or wrong in terms of setting limits there, but we do want to help our child to not be making it impossible for this other child to do anything, so I would intervene in that way.

Now, when he goes to another home, I would not let him take all the toys. I would just let him take one, just keeping in mind that we’re here to keep him appropriate, and show him that there are boundaries in social situations. That it’s not just whatever he wants to do is okay. We’re going to help him with that.

Now she says that in the public library with the wooden trains and tracks, whenever another child comes up to the table he gets super nervous, picking up all the trains. So I would not let him pick up all the trains when another child is coming near. I would, very firmly, and calmly, and kindly let him know “I can’t let you pick up all those trains. I’m going to take those.” And take them out of his hand, and allow him to take one train, and say that these are for everybody, and we can’t let you take all of them. Have him take one, or two, or whatever seems right to you.

If he screams, if he complains, if he has feelings about this, that’s what’s behind this behavior. That’s what he needs to share. That’s what will help him to let go of some of this holding on. In a sense, you’re really helping him, there, to open the lid and let some of that stress out of his body. So it’s a positive thing if he reacts.

He’s going to react, because he’s doing this for a reason that’s not a comfortable, “I’m enjoying play time with other people, I’m settled in myself,” reason. It is something that he needs to vent. That’s one of the ways he’ll do it, through these limits. So, just another reason to feel really confident and positive about “disappointing” him, in these situations when he’s doing something unreasonable and that isn’t okay, socially. So always being open to the feelings being positive and that you’re helping him there to do something important.

So this mom says, “I try to encourage him to share, and convince him that the other kids are nice and just want to play with him,” but that isn’t what this child needs. He really does need the limit, not trying to talk him out of his behavior.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t work with children this age, generally. When he’s doing something unreasonable, speaking to him reasonably is not going to get through, because he’s in an emotional, unreasonable place, right there. He may not look emotional on the surface, but he’s got feelings that he’s trying to keep a lid on, and he’s trying to hold it together, and he has this feeling, “Maybe if I get everything in my hands, I can hold on. I need this.”

He feels like he needs it, but what he really needs is to release the feelings.

So that’s why she says, “He doesn’t seem to understand, or trust me that it’s okay.”

Yeah, he needs more help. He needs the firm limit. Firm with a smile, and firm with love. Again, there’s nothing judgmental about this on our part. It’s really helping our little guy out when he can’t do it himself.

And she says, “This week, he started getting more aggressive.” Yes, because it’s like a steam gathering inside him. He’s not releasing it. He’s still kind of being left holding on to things, and he isn’t having those limits set for him that help him release, so it’s going to build up.

She says she’s afraid he’ll become aggressive.

Yes, so we’ve got to help him with this right now, in these little possessive things he’s doing.

The slide at the playground… Now there are people and even experts that will say it’s okay for children to climb up the slide when other children want to climb down, that really, the children all have to work this out, and I strongly disagree with that. I believe that it’s our job to help our children succeed in these situations, and learn social boundaries, and I wrote a post about it called “Helping Toddlers Succeed at the Park, Play Dates, Outings, and Other Social Situations.” And I go into depth as to the limits that I recommend, and being able to see what’s needed, in these situations, and when to let go, and let children solve the problems, as much as they can, themselves, and when they need our help.

Monopolizing play equipment or toys in a public situation is an area where children definitely need help. They need to not be that child that cuts in front of the line, or prevents other children from using equipment, or hoards things. It isn’t really hoarding, but it appears like that, and we want our children to be in the most positive light, in public, and with other people. They deserve that, even if we don’t consider it selfish, or mean, or any of those things, because we understand development, and we understand the reasons for this behavior.

We can’t control what other people think, and we don’t want to expose our child as the brat on the playground or at the library. It’s not fair to our child, and I actually think it’s negligent to let children walk over others or be unkind.

So this parent says, “I don’t know what to do, and I’m so scared that, through my mistakes of parenting, he will become a bully.” Yes, so she doesn’t have to let this happen. She has a lot of power, here. We’re very powerful, as parents, and we need to be, and our children need us to be. They depend on that, so we can’t put this in our children’s hands, completely.

I would listen to that nervousness that she expressed about doing things like that to other parents’ children. He needs her to be his hero, here. And the hero is not afraid of making him angry. In fact, that is what being heroic is about, as a parent. Not being afraid to be the bad guy that disappoints our child, because we see the bigger picture, and we know that we’re being the good guy. We’re being the good guy that saves our child from himself. We have to be the ones that see beyond what our child wants in that moment. And, of course, we want our children to be happy all the time, but what makes them happy is when they know that they’re safe within our leadership, and that we have their back.

One of the misconceptions about the respectful parenting approach that bothers me the most is not what this parent is saying at all, but I hear a lot of people say, “Oh, you’re saying just to sit back and let them figure it out.”

There’s nothing about this approach that’s sitting back. This approach is observant, mindful, working hard to let our children do the most they can in that situation, because we know that that will empower them and help them learn the most. So we’re holding back on a lot of our impulses to over intervene, perhaps, but there’s nothing sitting back and kicking back about this. It’s very present. It’s very, actually, hands on. And right away.

But we’re working hard, through our observation, to see the difference between a struggle that our child can handle with another child, in the situation where that is appropriate and okay, like in a play group, where everyone’s working on this approach, and allowing children to interact, socially. Even then, though, we would have limits. So understanding the environment, understanding the situation, being able to see our child as a emotional person that, in these early years, they need to vent a lot. It’s probably gonna happen at least once a day.

Being clear, being unafraid to be imperfect leaders that make mistakes and share their mistakes with their children and apologize, and change their minds, sometimes, but we’re still the leaders.

So I hope that helps.

If you enjoyed this podcast, there’s lots more to choose from on my website, at Janet Lansbury dot com. And I have books on audio at Audible.com, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.

Also I have an exclusive audio series, Sessions. There are six individual recordings of consultations I’ve had with parents where they agree to be recorded and we discuss all their parenting issues. We have a back and forth that for me is very helpful in exploring their topics and finding solutions. These are available by going to sessionsaudio.com and you can read a description of each episode and order them individually or get them all about three hours of audio for just under $20.

Thanks for listening. We can do this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

More From Janet

Books & Recommendations