Already Exhausted by a 15-Month-Old’s Behavior

In this episode: Janet responds to an email from a parent who’s struggling with how to start setting limits with her 15-month-old. She says she wants to “parent with respect, with a gentle approach and natural consequences,” but her daughter’s constant testing has her feeling exhausted. “And I know the hard stuff is only beginning!” This mom suspects she should have started establishing limits when her daughter was younger, but she’s hoping Janet has some strategies and advice on how to proceed now.

Transcript of “Already Exhausted by a 15-Month-Old’s Behavior”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury, welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m going to be responding to a parent with a 15-month-old, who is feeling exhausted by her daughter’s testing behavior. And she wants to start implementing some strategies, but doesn’t know how to start.

Here’s the email I received:

“Hi Janet, I love your podcast, and I look forward to reading your books. I have a 15-month-old daughter, and I have such an image of how I want to parent, with respect, with a gentle approach, and natural consequences. I’m struggling though with how to start this with my daughter. How do I set limits appropriately? I see her trying to garner reactions from me, throwing food off her tray, trying to rip a painting off the wall in her playroom, biting things she knows are not food. I constantly reinforce that we, “Only put food in our mouth.” I’m feeling exhausted already, and I know the hard stuff is only beginning. Any advice for how to start implementing your strategies and approaches with a young child? How could I have started when she was a younger infant? Thank you so much.”

Okay, well I want to start off saying that I love the way this parent is thinking, and these are great questions. This mother notices, “She’s garnering reactions from me, throwing food off her tray, biting things she knows are not food.” We can see all of these activities as questions our child is asking. What kind of leader are you? How do you handle these situations with me? What is allowed? How are you perceiving my behavior? Do you still like me when I do these things?

Understanding that these actions are questions can help us to get very clear on what our role is. Our role is to give the answers from a place of understanding that this is very healthy behavior. Children are expert learners. They’re extremely compelled to want to learn about life and their place in the family and their place in the world. Where are they allowed to have power? And where does somebody stop them from doing what they’re doing? And how does that look?

I’m going to actually jump ahead to this mother’s last question, which is, “How could I have started when she was a younger infant?” The way we start to help children develop self discipline is creating an environment that is predictable, where there are safe places to play, where the care is as consistent as possible. We have a routine to the day that we ideally will develop with our infant based on their needs and rhythms. We can break the routine, but it’s easiest for children to understand boundaries and limits when they have a predictable routine for their day.

And Magda Gerber, my mentor, recommended beginning this early. It obviously takes months to really gauge our child’s rhythms and form a structure with them for their day, how long they can stay awake, and of course that extends as they get older. When we should start getting ready for bedtime? What are the steps that happens after they wake up? Do they eat first, then get their diaper changed, then have play time?

When children know what to expect, they get a sense of self-efficacy very early on. As infants a few months old, they can begin to anticipate what will happen next. The confidence it gives them to know things about this overwhelming world can’t be over appreciated. When children know their routine, they are able to relax into it. It actually frees them, rather than confines them, as might be our projection. It’s the opposite of boring for a child to have a routine predictable day.

And then within that predictable routine, parents will take care of their needs as well. Yes, of course an infant is going to take priority a lot of the time, but we can still assert, “I’m going to in the kitchen and make a cup of tea, and I’ll be right back with you.”

“I hear you saying no to that, you don’t want me to do that,” as you’re leaving, confidently, obviously not lingering, but not rushing either, and coming back. “Oh, you didn’t want me to go!” Every time we do that, we show our child that we are a separate person taking care of their own needs, so that we can be the best parent for them. And that sometimes we have to be the priority for a moment or two when our child is safe, fed, physically comfortable. And we welcome them to have their feelings about it, whatever those are.

So, in other words, within the boundaries of this predictable day, there are also momentary limits that are set. Now, in terms of this parent with a 15-month-old, what I would focus on first is creating an environment that will be geared towards everyone’s needs. And one recommendation for that is to have a 100% safe place, enclosed so that the child can’t wander out of it into an unsafe place. And that this place be where much, if not all, of the child’s self-directed play happens. This should be a place that’s comfortable for us to hang out in, as much as we want to, and also completely safe so we can leave without any fear that our child could get hurt.

The child’s bedroom could be this space, or it’s nice to have it in a place where the family likes to be a lot. So, if it’s near the kitchen, or in the general living areas. For some family there’s a bedroom, some people have very small homes, and apartments. Really, children don’t need a lot of room. A parent could make the living room, or just a part of the living room, or even a hallway into the safe place, knowing that this is temporary. Maybe two years.

Children often like to use these spaces longer if we’ve approached them positively, because this is where they feel free. They get to play, they get to do what they want, within reason. No one’s stopping them. And we recommend establishing a gate, or gates, or whatever the way of enclosing off the space is, as soon as possible. Not waiting until a child is mobile, because then the message becomes now I can move, and now you’re trying to stop me from moving.

Gates are very interesting to children. As parents we might tend to see them negatively, as we’re caging our child in, we’re putting them in jail. I’ve heard all those things from parents. Those are adult projections, not what a child feels. But if we feel that way about it, our child is going to pick up on the sense that this isn’t a positive, happy place. That this isn’t a good situation. That they should feel negatively about it as well.

But if we establish this early, children accept that this is just an interesting part of my play area. I often hear from parents who are traveling over holidays, or things like that. And they notice when they come back home how their child almost can’t wait to be in that space again. Exhaling, reveling in the familiarity, the freedom.

This parent talks about ripping a painting of the wall in her playroom. So, part of keeping this safe and appropriate would mean that wouldn’t be available, ideally. This is not only for our child, but for us. So, that we can sit, and relax, and enjoy what our child is doing, rather than having to constantly deal with the natural testing children do, the questions they ask. What do you do when I rip this painting? And wow, that gets a rise out of her! It’s positive learning for our child, but we don’t want them to get stuck in that as the way that they are exploring all day long, exploring our reactions, testing us. That distracts them from other kinds of more productive play that they could be doing.

This mother says, “I’m feeling exhausted already,” and I’m imagining that might be because she’s not sure of herself, and she hasn’t yet created the environments that are going to be peaceful and helpful to her and to her child. We’ve got to take care of ourselves and have that safe area. Make it a place that is totally appropriate. Even books, there can be times when children want to rip books, and do things like that. And we don’t need to leave those kinds of books in the safe play area. We can have them up on a shelf for a time when we’re available to sit with our child and enjoy that with them. Children will still love books just as much if they’re not always available.

But, mostly I would advise the kinds of objects that I actually recommend on my website, open-ended play objects. So, we want to use balls. Children like empty plastic bottles. We could have a basket of those in one corner. Stuffed animals, baby dolls at a certain age. Other manipulatives. We use a lot of kitchen objects, stainless steel cups and bowls that are small. Different sized bowls that reflect light and make interesting sounds. It’s nice for us to get to set them up in kind of an organized fashion. That can be our contribution to play, the set design, and letting our child be the lead actor, director, and writer of their play. That’s what Magda Gerber recommended.

And then we get to be the audience, and be surprised by what they do with it. It’s hardly ever what we imagine they’ll do. This can be the fun part for us, creating that environment that’s safe and appropriate, and allows our child to create, and discover, and make their own sounds,  combine different toys together in the ways that they imagine, in ways that interest them. This is in depth learning, and exactly the kind of learning that children need to do in these early years.

So, let’s talk about this parent’s example that she gave, “I see her trying to garner reactions from me, throwing food off her tray.” So the food thing, I would definitely limit. And this is how I would do that. Number one, paying attention to her when she’s eating, not leaving her with a tray, and leaving the room. Children don’t like to be stuck in a seat anymore than we would like that, and with RIE we also recommend child sized furniture for children. And at your daughter’s age, she could definitely be able to sit at a table. But that’s a whole other thing that I’m not going to go into in this podcast.

If she’s sitting at a highchair at a tray, if that’s where she’s going to sit for eating, get all your stuff ready. The food, the bib, the washcloth to wipe her hands. Have it all ready so that you can sit, let go of all your other thoughts, distractions, and pay attention to this little girl. You can usually see it in a child’s eyes when they’re about to test.

So, you’re engaged with her, you’re focused. You’re just there, you’re available. And you see her picking up her food, and it looks like she may throw it. You gently put your hand there to block her from doing that. And right there, you can say, “Looks like you want to throw the food. I don’t want you to throw the food.” I would be very direct, I would be very connected.

This parent uses the example, “I constantly reinforce that we only put food in our mouth.” Think about being a young child, and hearing that. “We only put food in our mouth.” It’s not direct, and it’s not connected. It’s a little bit distant. Oh, we do this. Instead of looking in her eyes, “I’m not going to let you do this. I want you to keep the food at the table, or in your mouth.”

We’re not angry, we’re not frazzled, we’re just giving our child that clear answer that she’s asking for. So, I wouldn’t say we, I wouldn’t say, “Mommy doesn’t want you to,” or, “Daddy doesn’t want you to.” We are in a relationship. You and me. So you’re asking me questions. Is it okay if I put this food on the floor? You deserve a clear answer, and I’m going to give it to you.

And then I would say ahead of time, if you haven’t been doing this, I would say, “Here’s your lunch,” or, “Here’s your food. Some stuff that you like. Oh, by the way, I don’t want you to put food on the floor. This food is for you to eat. And if you don’t want to eat, you don’t have to, and I’ll get you right down.” Being clear, being succinct, being direct. Teaching your daughter that she is an important person. And that you’re not afraid of being honest with her. And that you think better of her than to believe that she’s somebody that needs to fling food around, or put it all on her face and mess around with it. She already knows, she’s known for a long time that you didn’t want her to do that.

That’s another thing I think can get in our way: maybe somebody told us, or we heard that, “Oh, children need to rub it all around their fingers, and throw it on the floor and see how it lands. And do all this kind of experimentation.” They don’t. They can do that with other safe materials in their safe play area. They don’t need to play with food. And they know quite well that even if we are allowing it, that we’re not so happy about it. I mean children can figure that out. They are very intuitive and tuned in to us, most of all, and our moods and our feelings.

And we don’t want them to learn that it’s okay to do whatever they want with food, because that means then they might test other situations with other people, or do this at a restaurant. There’s just no positive in underestimating children that way.

So, I guess that’s another basic aspect of this that I want to share: children can do it. They can hear no. It’s better that we don’t use the word no all the time, but they can hear, “I’m going to stop you, I won’t let you.” And it’s okay for them to get mad about that. It’s got to be okay for them to scream about that, to complain about that. They’ve got a right.

So, I think when this parent gets more clarity herself, which I’m hoping to at least a little bit provide in this podcast, that she will not be so exhausted. It may be scary to let her child have a reaction to things, and cry, and not approve of everything her mother does or says, or stops her from doing. But if we can perceive that as healthy, we’re free. We’re free to be the leaders that our children desperately want us to be. Our children receive those clear, connected answers.

I’m going to list some articles and podcasts that I have on this podcast in the transcript of this podcast, which will be posted on my website, I’ll give you some more resources there, because there’s a million examples, my No Bad Kids book is all about this. And yes, it does start now, and it can start even earlier. But you’re certainly not too late. This is great timing to be thinking about these things.

I really hope that helps, and all my other podcasts are on my website,, index by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in.

Also, both of my books are available on audio. Elevating Child Care, and No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline About Shame. You can get either one for free by following the link in the notes of this podcast, or you can go to the book section of my website. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon, and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.

More on this topic:

When Toddlers Throw Food and Other Mealtime Mischief

Baby Discipline, Person to Person

Baby Table Manners

No Way to Treat a Baby

Baby Play by Magda Gerber

Magda Gerber Uncut – Discipline is Learning and Nurturing Combined by Magda Gerber

Does Your Toddler’s Desire to Climb Make YOU Want to Climb the Walls? by Lisa Sunbury

It’s All Routine by Lisa Sunbury

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