How to Set Limits with Toddlers

IMG_0442How Do I Set Limits With my Toddler?

Many toddlers ages 2-4 go through testing limits. In fact toddlers and teenagers are a lot alike! they are both trying to learn boundaries and independence. It is important to remember how little they are and that they are still learning.

Here are Some Steps to Setting Limits

  1. Keep your own emotions in check and don’t discipline when you’re angry.
  2. Use a firm, but calm tone (hard I know sometimes).
  3. Keep language simple and concrete.
  4. Remove yourself from a power struggle by giving two choices.
  5. Use Encouragement!
  6. Be consistent with limits and don’t give in just to avert a tantrum

What Do I Say If my Child Has a Tantrum?

Sometimes you have to let a child calm down from a tantrum or meltdown before you can talk to them. I find it helpful to practice a few specific scripts to say to a child when I am teaching parents how to set limits. This helps give concrete things to say to a child who is upset or angry.

A great resource for what to say to a child when they are angry or having a tantrum can be found at You will also find many other useful articles on how to communicate with your child when they are upset, or if they are showing aggressive behaviors.

What is Discipline and How is it Different than Punishment?

Discipline is about teaching, punishment is about suffering. When you are parenting and setting limits, it’s important to ask yourself what your short term and your long term goals are for your child. What do you want your child to learn from his or her misbehavior? How will this experience help develop responsibility?

 Why is My Child Misbehaving?

I view behavior as purposeful. All behavior has a goal. This may or may not be a conscious goal. Misbehavior in children is often a misguided attempt to achieve one of four goals.

What Is Your Child’s Goal?

1. Gain attention?

2. Power and Control?

3. Revenge?

4. Having Feelings of Inadequacy?

Sometimes paying attention to your own feelings as a parent will give you an idea about what your child is trying to achieve. They will give you clues about the purpose of your child’s behavior.

How Are You Feeling in the Moment?

1. Annoyed? Your child may be trying to gain attention.

2. Angry? Your child may be wanting power or control over a situation.

3. Hurt? Your child may be wanting revenge.

4. Hopeless? Your child may be feeling inadequate.

When I first began working with children, I found it challenging to set limits and manage certain behaviors during group or in sessions. When I learned this it really helped me to realize that a child’s misbehavior is often not about the behavior itself, but a misguided attempt to meet their needs. Paying attention to my own feelings in the moment and using them as clues to my child’s needs really helped me to separate their behavior from my feelings and know how to respond.

A good book I could recommend (because I use it for my own kids!) is Toddler 411 by Meet authors

Dr. Ari Brown

and Denise Fields


What are some of your biggest challenges when parenting toddlers? Leave a comment below and lets get the conversation going!

One comment on “How to Set Limits with Toddlers

  1. Great post Jill and not just for parents of toddlers. I like your questions for how a parent is feeling, it’s hard to coach our kids how to process their feelings when we aren’t aware of our own (this would have helped Riley’s dad in Inside Out ) The list of what is your child’s goal is really helpful too. I think you would like Parenting Your Powerful Child by Kevin Leman if you haven’t already read it.

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