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Setting Limits

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If you’re sheltering in place with a tiny tyrant, this article is for you.

Raising a two- or three-year-old? Meltdowns, irrational insistence on doing things their way, and difficulty following the rules go with the territory.

Just when you’ve got the whole sleeping-through-the-night, diaper-changing, solid-food-eating thing down, your baby becomes a whole new person—a toddler. They discover that their wants and needs are different than your wants and needs. Developmentally, this is great—exactly what should be happening at this age. Practically, not so much. Most toddlers lack the words to describe what they need and the self-regulation to remember and follow rules.

It’s important to keep in mind that changes in your household may result in more challenging behavior than usual. Even babies sense and react to their parents’ stress. Most of us are having a hard time combining working from home, caring for children, and cooking every. single. meal. The stress of weeks of 24/7 togetherness may start to weigh on the adults in your family, and your children may pick up on it. As a result, they may be whinier and clingier than usual. They may seem to go back to more “babyish” behaviors—demanding a pacifier or waking more at night. And, they may have more tantrums or seem to be extra-sensitive.

So how do we set loving limits during stressful times? Try the Feel-See-Do approach to focus on teaching, rather than reacting to challenging behavior with anger.

  1. Feel: Take a moment to be aware of your own feelings. Focus on what is going on in your mind and body. What buttons are your child pushing? What else is going on? (Maybe you’re worried about your family’s health or financial situation, or struggling to fit too many demands into a 24-hour-day.) Think about how you can calm yourself before responding to your child. In the moment, you might try a few deep breaths or another strategy that helps you feel calmer. (See our mindfulness tips for more ideas.)
  2. See: Think about what your child might be telling you with their behavior. For example, are they:
    • Responding to a change in their environment—like a departure from their usual routine or a parent who is under stress?
    • Hungry or tired?
    • Overstimulated, for example, up past their bedtime while the bigger kids watch a loud movie?
    • Experiencing a challenge that’s too much to handle (like not being able to get their shoes on)?
    • Making a transition that is hard—like going from playtime to PJs?
    • Wanting something, like a favorite toy?
    • Wanting to avoid or protest something, like bedtime?
  3. Do: Respond to your child with a clear, calm, and loving limit. Be consistent and calm.

Here’s how this approach might work with a 30-month-old. Your coparent is in the bedroom, trying to focus on some work. Your child is at the door, trying to get in. When you try to move them to another spot, a full-blown tantrum erupts.

Step 1: Feel. You note that you’re feeling completely overwhelmed and stressed to the max. Plus this is the next of many tantrums and demands that you have already handled today. You walk away for a minute and take some deep breaths to get calm.

Step 2: See. You recognize that your child is struggling, missing his usual routine, and confused about having a parent in the house, but not accessible.

Step 3: Do. You get down on your child’s eye level and let him know you understand how hard it feels to be separated: “I can see you want Mom. It’s hard when the door is closed and you want to go in.” You explain the limit by saying, “I see how frustrated you feel. But Mom has to work right now. She will come out when she is done.”

To help your child cope, you might offer a choice: “Would you like to play with your puzzle in the living room or come hang out with me while I make a snack?” If the tantrum continues, you may have to gently pick your child up and move them away from the door.

Your calm presence (even when your child’s behavior is challenging) builds trust, and your loving approach to limit-setting helps your child learn and grow over time.


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