What to Do When Your Children Test Your Limits

There are times when your children will test your limits. In these cases, don't miss these tips to improve their behavior.
What to Do When Your Children Test Your Limits
María José Roldán

Written and verified by the psychopedagogue María José Roldán.

Last update: 27 December, 2022

It’s not easy to set limits for young children when, time after time, they just want to do what they want. They try to test your limits and undermine your authority to show they have a say or to get your attention. But it’s important that, as a parent, you think about your child’s future. Don’t worry if you have to say things over and over again (calmly and lovingly) until they understand.

It’s important that, when you talk to your children, you’re clear about what you want to tell them so that they know exactly what you expect them to do at any given moment. We often say, “No!” “Stop!” And “Come here!” Over and over again, hoping to avoid a fuss, because it takes even more time. And frankly, it can be very tiring for parents to be like this every day.

Are they testing your limits?

You may feel like your children are “testing” you because these often adorable, charming, and joyful little ones look us in the eye and hit or bite or ignore us yet again. But here’s the key with toddlers: they need us to be calm and consistent.

A toddler thinking.

They need us to communicate in very clear words, to teach them patiently. And often, they need us to express exactly what we want them to do, learn and how to be better every day.

Ideas for guiding your child in a positive way with boundaries

If you want to know what to do when your children test your limits, we’re going to give you some ideas for guiding your little ones in a positive and productive way.

First, describe what you see: after spending all day trying to put the clothes away in drawers, you see that your child’s busy taking them out again. Once you see them, you can go to his side and say, “Mom’s just finished putting all those shirts and socks in the drawer. Can you put them back in with me? One, two, three…come on!”

What if your child looks at you with that mischievous glare, runs around in circles, and comes back to pull your hands out of the drawer? Instead of, “No!” Or “I told you to stop!” Try this, “It’s too hard for you to keep the clothes where they belong now. I’m going to pick it up and put it away.” Next, say something such as, “Since the clothes have to be put away in the drawer because they’re not for playing, let’s go read a book or play with your blocks.”

Now, you’ve followed up on what you said (that the clothes belong in the drawer). You’ve given the option for your child to join you and, by keeping them happy, you stay emotionally connected without disrespecting them at any point. You’ve stopped the behavior without punishment, consequences, or harsh words. And you’ve helped them move from a “trial” moment to a better one.

You’re their best guide when they test your limits

Now, your child can learn a little more about how to control themselves. You’ve stepped in by being the guide they need instead of the disciplinarian whose really more concerned about control and authority. So, what about the more extreme moments? Hitting, biting, tantrums, crying, etc.?

A toddler girl having a tantrum on the sidewalk.

Stop the painful behavior by saying something such as, “I’m going to stop you from biting me because it hurts.” Then state the feelings involved and describe what you see, “You’re really frustrated because you’d like me to play with you and I’m too busy talking to Daddy.”

Offer them what they want and how you can participate in that. For example, you can say, “It’s so hard to wait when I’m busy, isn’t it? Would you like me to hold you until I’m done talking to Daddy?” It’s okay to pause the conversation with your spouse and give your full attention to your toddler in order to ease the tension.

Afterward, you can say something such as, “Daddy and I need to finish talking now. Do you want me to keep holding you or are you ready to go downstairs and find a book to look at while you wait?”

When your kids test your limits…

With less focus on the “wrong” behavior and much more on their needs and how you’d like them to behave in difficult times, you’ll discover the real growth that’ll occur. You’ll be their best guide, which means, in the long run, that you’ll have a “disciplined” child. Someone who can handle themselves, who’ll know what to do and how to be, who’s likely to listen and respond, and who’ll cooperate or collaborate.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.