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Toddler Boundaries

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When an infant approaches the end of his first year, parents begin to struggle with boundaries. Soft-hearted parents allow a child to climb all over them in my parent/infant class. The child is searching for limits and boundaries for his behavior. But moms and dads are often afraid to say, “I don’t want you to climb on me. You can sit with me. If you need to climb, there is a climbing structure over there.”


The sooner a caregiver can establish those limits, the easier it will be for the child to relinquish ‘testing’ and return to playing. Parents sometimes fear they will crush a child’s spirit if they are firm and consistent about rules. Truthfully, it is the other way around. A child does not feel free unless boundaries are clearly established.


Educator Janet Gonzalez-Mena used the following analogy to describe a child’s need for boundaries: Imagine driving over a bridge in the dark. If the bridge has no railings we will drive across it slowly and tentatively. But if we see railings on either side of us, we can drive over the bridge with ease and confidence. This is how a young child feels in regard to limits in his environment.


Seeking the ‘railings’ he needs to feel secure, a child will continue to test a caregiver until boundaries are clearly stated. Power struggles are a necessary part of the development of ‘self’ for the child; however, the outcome must be that the child knows that the adult is in charge. Children do not usually admit this, but they do not wish to be all powerful and the possibility that they might be is frightening indeed. Children raised without firm, consistent boundaries are insecure and world-weary. Burdened with too many decisions and too much power, they miss out on the joyful freedom every child deserves.


In the parenting classes I facilitate, it is not uncommon for a toddler to act out by hitting, pushing or throwing an object at a parent, or at another child. When this problem arises, I encourage the parent, if he or she is able to anticipate the hit, to raise a hand to block the child’s aggression and say firmly but matter-of-factly, “I won’t let you hit.” Or right after the strike a parent might simply say, “I don’t want you to hit.” If parents show anger, become agitated, or say too much, they risk turning the child’s undesirable behavior into an event. For instance, if a parent begins to lecture: “It’s not nice to hit! Hitting hurts people! We don’t hit in our family,” the parent may fuel the fire by giving too much attention to the child’s action and unwittingly cause the child to want to repeat the action. In the other extreme, if a parent responds with, “Oh no! Please don’t hit me, okay?” or “We don’t hit our friends do we?” the child is not receiving the clear authority that he requires. The child will then keep testing to prompt the parent to take charge. When children act out I see them holding up little imaginary red flags that say: “Help!”; “Stop me!”; “Rein me in!”; “Parent me!” A parent needs to respond with clarity, composure, and conviction.


If a child who is signaling a need for boundaries is not dealt with consistently and effectively, the child may resort to waving bigger red flags. I witnessed a big flag years ago when my three-year-old daughter and I were walking near a park playground. A boy who looked four or five ran around the entire perimeter of the playground to approach her and hit her on the chest. She did not cry, but we were both stunned. In other circumstances I might have been thrilled at what then came into view. A handsome and famous James Bond type movie star rushed towards me. He was the boy’s mortified father, who, unable to look me in the eye, mumbled a cursory apology and ushered his son away. This father and son had issues to sort through.


While all parents have to learn and adapt to understand how to best guide a child’s behavior, the absence of such guidance can have serious, long-term consequences. If these issues are left untended, a child might eventually experiment with destructive behavior, inflicting damage on others or himself as an unconscious call for parental intervention. It is always safest to deal with limits effectively at the earliest possible stage.


What we have in the beginning, though, is our adorably angelic baby. We are shocked when she first shows any sign of aggression. Most toddlers act out at some point, and a parent need not worry that the child is demonstrating an evil streak! In fact, children often misbehave to signal that they are tired and need to go home.


A toddler also acts out when there is a blatant failure to draw clear boundaries at home. Sometimes, the child is exposed to adults or older children who do not respect the toddler’s boundaries; they grab and tickle him, for example, depriving him of a sense of secure space. When a young child is overpowered and assaulted in this way, he becomes confused about physical boundaries with other people. If parents or older children need to roughhouse with the baby, they should wait until he is old enough to be a more equal partner.


Sometimes a child will suddenly act out in class because there are a couple of gaps in his ‘railings’ at home. Henry’s story aptly demonstrates the intensity of a child’s need for thorough boundaries as he grows in independence.


Henry is a charming, gregarious twenty-month-old, who greets parents as they come to class and hands toys to children who seem distressed. But one day Henry came to class and started to hit everyone. Henry’s mother, Wendy, was beside herself with worry. I asked Wendy if anything was different at home and she mentioned that she was frustrated while getting Henry to sit in his car seat when it was time to go somewhere. She was allowing Henry to do it in his own time, waiting while he played around inside the car. Wendy said she finally became impatient and after telling him what she would do, she placed him in his seat. She could not believe that Henry cried anyway, even after she had tried to be respectful, giving him so much time to sit in the seat himself! Wendy was confusing a transitional situation, a time when Henry needed to feel his mother was in control, with play time, a time when a child is best left to direct what will happen. I advised Wendy to give Henry the option of climbing into his seat by himself, but if he did not climb in right away she should place him in his seat, even if he cried. Wendy sent me a thankful note a few days later. When Wendy made it clear to Henry that it was not up to him to decide when to sit in his car seat, his need to red-flag his mother was abated. Henry had stopped hitting.


The clearest proof that I have ever found of a child’s desire for parental control came through a friend of mine and also involved a car seat. Holly was a tentative mom, someone who avoided setting limits. Holly told me she was having an impossible time getting three-year-old Eliza to sit in her car seat. Eliza screamed and refused to cooperate. I recommended to Holly that she say, “I know you don’t want to, but you must sit in your car seat” and then place Eliza into the car seat as gently and calmly as she could. Holly reported back to me that when she had insistently placed Eliza in the car seat, Eliza kicked and screamed. Then, as Holly started the car in complete dismay, Eliza said softly, “That’s what I wanted you to do.” 


Children do not feel hurt when the adults they desperately need establish behavioral boundaries. It is easier for a parent to indulge a child than it is to be firm and consistent, and children know that. A child may cry, complain or even throw a tantrum when limits are set. In their hearts, however, children sense when a parent is working ardently to provide a safe nest and real love.