Setting Limits For Young Toddlers

As kiddos turn one and begin walking, I start to hear parents talk about all the changes that snowball from this newly-mastered skill. Typically, increased mobility brings with it a proclivity for exploring uncharted areas like the depths below the sink or the top shelf of the bookcase. These conversations naturally lead into a dialogue about how parents plan on disciplining their child as they become more independent, self-assured, and curious about their surroundings. In my years working with parents, I have heard the whole gamut of consequences including time-outs, saying “no”, putting the child in the corner, taking away toys, and “whoopins’". However, children in the early stages of toddlerhood don’t normally have the cognitive capabilities of their older counterparts to inhibit curiosities, not to mention understand the parameters of safety or the consequences of their actions. Because of this, I have found that some of the most effective and healthy ways to discipline children in the early stages of toddlerhood is to set limits.

Limits Make Children Feel Safe

Limit setting, both physically and verbally, is an important part of parenting. Oftentimes parents view themselves as “being mean” when putting limits on their children, but instead, the opposite is true. With limits, children understand that a more capable adult will not let them get into any dangerous situations or unwind out of control. Physical limits are ones that are placed on the environment so that a child does not have the option of exploring an unsafe situation. For example, if a parent does not want their newly mobile toddler wandering into the bathroom and unrolling the entire roll of toilet paper, let’s prevent this by closing the bathroom door! Seems simple enough, but just setting this physical boundary prevents the child from getting in trouble and the parent from a headache and a big mess. Physical limits are my number one go-to when parents complain that their toddler is misbehaving – structuring the environment so that the toddler doesn’t have the opportunity to “misbehave” makes everyone happier!

Setting Limits Help Children Learn What Is Acceptable

Toddlers are highly egotistical – they tend to want what they want when they want it with no regard for anyone or anything else. Parents’ role is to help children develop self-control to exist as a functioning and appropriate member of society. For example, if your child is hitting – be it during play, to communicate a strong emotion, or out of anger – I encourage parents to use a gentle but firm grasp to lower their child's hand and sternly state some variation of, “Hands are not for hitting”. Even before children are verbally communicating they can understand language, so use language to communicate your limits. Eventually, children will have the ability to internalize norms and standards for behavior and having had this reinforced in early toddlerhood will help them to consolidate this idea.

Limits Should Be Consistent

Decide what your rules are and stick to them. It can be very confusing (for everyone, not just toddlers) when someone is wavering back and forth, allowing a certain behavior one day but then suddenly not allowing it the next. Toddlers will be less likely to push your boundaries if they have a secure understanding of what your boundaries actually are. If jumping on the beds is never okay, don't allow it to happen on a lazy Sunday morning. Not only is it confusing, but it sends a message to toddlers that you aren't really in control and that can be very unnerving to them. I'm not saying come up with 50 house rules and stick to them; you do have to pick you battles and be mindful of age and developmental maturity. But come up with your "non-negotiables", the things that you want to enforce all the time, and then enforce them...all the time!


If you're struggling with a rambunctious or spirited toddler and need some extra support or strategies to manage your little one, let's talk!