Toddler Pushing Boundaries? Learn Techniques to Help you Best Handle the Situation

For example, I am a stickler for children speaking without whining. As such, children in my care know that I expect them to speak in a nice voice if they want me to listen. That is the boundary I set. If I let them whine sometimes because I just don’t feel like saying no right now, I am being inconsistent and am sending them a confusing message.

If you have decided that a certain behavior isn’t okay, you have to uphold that boundary every single time that behavior happens. In this example, when I hear that whiny voice, I stop them immediately and say, “I cannot understand you when you use that voice. When you are ready to use a nice voice, I am ready to listen” or something along those lines. If they continue to whine, I promptly ignore them until they make an effort to speak nicely. The very worst thing I can do in this situation is give them any sort of positive attention while they are whining.

In case there is a need for clarity, "Positive attention" includes:

  • Giving them the thing they are whining for
  • Hugging them
  • Picking them up
  • Being silly or playful
  • Smiling at them

These are all things that they either want directly, or enjoy getting from you, even if it isn’t exactly what they’re whining for. If I give into them during the undesirable behavior, the message they are getting is this: “When I whine, I get things I want.” It gives them more motivation to whine more often and for longer periods because they have learned that whining is an effective tool.

As an important side note, whining, screaming and tantrums are all learned behaviors, which parents have unintentionally taught their children starting in early infancy. These unappealing learned "skills" are accidentally taught and reinforced through a lack of consistency when a boundary is broken even as little as 2-months-old (see previous article). Every time we give in and allow undesirable behavior, we are unintentionally giving their poor choices our stamp of approval. When we have children who others might describe as entitled, bratty or poorly behaved, that is not the child’s fault. What we are seeing, is exactly what the adults have taught that child is acceptable and effective behavior.

As much as it isn't the child's fault, it is really not 100% the parent's fault either. It's just a giant miscommunication between parent and child. Most parents simply don't realize how small decisions to not set and enforce a boundary, make such a huge long-term impact on behavior. Parents also tend to not realize that setting and enforcing boundaries starts as young as it does, within the first 2 months of life. Which is exactly why it is important to talk about this and bring it to the attention of parents who want to make a change. Or, if you are lucky and reading this while your child is still a baby, you can actually prevent this massive miscommunication between you and your little one from getting out of control in the first place.

Here’s a real life example from a client of mine:

She has a 13-month-old who has had 13 months of being the boss at home. In every way, she has her parents trained. Diaper changes happen standing up because “she doesn’t let me” change her laying down. Getting undressed for bath takes forever because “she doesn’t let me” get her clothes off. Mom’s arms and back are always sore because, she “doesn’t let me” put her down. Mom isn’t able to do anything from 7pm-midnight because “she wakes up and I have to rock her back to sleep”. See the pattern? This baby has never had a boundary set or enforced. This baby has learned that if she cries or fusses or gives an ounce of physical resistance, that mom will give in. This wonderfully loving mom only realized this was a problem when she found out she is pregnant again. Imagining holding her toddler all the time, and losing sleep as her belly got bigger and then later, with a second baby, it struck her that this just isn’t sustainable.

Manners & behavior

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