This article will outline tips for limit setting with your toddler or preschooler. Although I will use sleep in some of the examples, the tips can be used outside of sleep, too. Because my first son is very persistent, I have had to learn early ways to set limits.
In general, the most important thing you can do is focus on the positive things your toddler or preschooler does. Always give positive reinforcement about what he is doing RIGHT to encourage repeat behavior. Sticker charts are good for positive reinforcement and very visual for both parents and the child. Some kids simply test more than others and it highly depends on personality and temperament. For those testing moments, here are 16 limit setting tips for your toddler or preschooler:
1. Focus on behavior, not the child
It is important when your toddler misbehaves that you focus on what they did, not them as a person. You don’t want to cause self-esteem issues. Avoid saying things like “No one likes you when you cry,” for example. For me, it’s also important for my son to know it’s ok how he feels (like when he gets angry), but it’s not ok what he might do with that feeling (hit).
2. Be direct and specific
Don’t be too general in your instructions. If your toddler is known to stall, you might tell him “I want you to put all your toys away in the box before we play that last game of Chutes & Ladders before bed. If the timer goes off and you aren’t done, we won’t play the game tonight.”
3. Use your normal voice
Being firm does not mean you have to yell. And, being firm is not being mean. Being firm means you are in control of the situation and confident in your decision, so use your normal voice and lead by example.
4. Tell him the consequences
If your child is strong-willed, like mine, it is very effective to state consequences before he has a chance to disobey. It takes practice, but works very well once you master it. You can use the same example as above. Another example might be “If you get out of bed tonight after bedtime, I am going to close the door for a few minutes. If you want the door open, you must stay in bed.”
5. Make sure he understands
Make sure he understands your instructions and consequences. We always ask our son “Do you understand?” to make sure he has digested what we said to him.
6. Don’t argue
If your toddler or preschooler pushes back and challenges you, it’s easy to get sucked into an argument about it. You explain yourself, she challenges back and it repeats over and over again. At some point, you need to just stop. You are the parent, she is the child. I do give my son an explanation such as “No, you can’t do that because it’s dangerous and it’s mommy’s job to keep you safe,” but then after that if he is still trying to argue about it, I will say something like “No, and I don’t want to talk about it anymore.” I don’t make a practice of ignoring my children, but I will ignore continuous pleas for something once my decision is final.
7. Limit choices
It is easy to overwhelm children with choices, so it’s best to limit them. For example, “Do you want to brush your teeth first or put on your pajamas?” They like control and it gives them a sense of control to give them a choice, either option is fine with you. Another example is when they are doing something you don’t want them to like using a crayon on the wall: “You can keep your coloring on paper or I will put the crayons away.”
8. Use a timer
If your toddler or preschooler stalls, use a timer and tell her what the consequence is if the timer goes off before she does the thing you are asking her to do. This will especially help if your child is easily distracted or perceptive. This is also helpful if your bedtime routine has gotten to be way too long. In that case, a timer can do well, as long as your schedule is set properly. Sometimes too much resisting at bedtime is due to a too-early bedtime once your toddler or preschooler is older.
9. Hold Firm
It is tempting to “give in” to whatever your child wanted if they promise not to do it again, however, they are testing you and if you then give them the privilege they lost, you lose ground. Instead, use it as a teaching moment that you mean your consequence by saying “That is a good choice for next time, but this time
10. Allow cool-off time
Everyone gets angry and emotions flare, including the parents, especially if one or all of you are intense Sometimes it’s best for everyone to take a cool-off time out and then address the situation at a later time.
11. Don’t be afraid to apologize
Sometimes even we lose our tempers and might yell or do something that goes against the very thing we are trying to teach our children. Don’t be afraid to be human and normal (we all make mistakes) and apologize. It doesn’t mean what they did was okay or you give in to what they wanted.
12. Don’t think it’s you
Some parents might have the tendency to take things personally and think your child is doing something TO you or getting back at you, but it’s their job to test and figure out how the world works. It’s nothing against you.
13. Immediate Consequences
For most misbehavior, it is best to have immediate consequences. As soon as that toy is thrown, it gets put away. If your toddler gets out of bed at bedtime, you might close the door (assuming he wants it open) for 2-3 minutes each time he does it, as a consequence.
14. Be Consistent
Consistency is key. You see that everywhere. But, it’s true!! When your toddler is testing you over and over again, it must be met with the same answer every time. It’s with inconsistency that more testing happens and problems linger.
15. Relate consequences
If possible, relate consequences to the action. A toy is thrown, that toy gets put away. If he makes a mess, he cleans it up. A child hits, remove them from the situation. It is not always possible to relate the consequences and for us, sometimes it’s been more effective to find out our son’s “currency” at the time. He could care less about money at this age, but he loves his matchbox cars, so if he is having trouble “being a good listener” then we might say that his cars will go on time-out. This has been more effective than he going in time-out many times. Tips for implementing time-out is a whole other article, so I won’t get into that here.
16. Don’t harp
Once your child has “paid the price”, tell him a brief summary about what happened, why the consequence happened, and then let it go. He has already paid his due. We say something like “You got a time-out for talking back.” and we ask him to apologize and then we hug and off we go.
Limit Setting Reading
For more reading, by far the most useful books I’ve read on the subject have been Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child and 1-2-3 Magic. I’ve read at least 3-4 books on the subject of discipline. For less strong-willed children, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk is also a good one.
It’s not easy having a persistent son, but I try to look at the positive and know that there are many good reasons to be persistent and strong-willed. Doctors don’t become doctors without being persistent. I’m sure Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, or Angelina Jolie were told no a few times before they got their first break, too. It will be our job, as parents, to direct their persistence in a positive way.
If you need help on dealing with your toddler’s sleep problems, I encourage you to get our free guide, Toddler Sleep Secrets, or consider purchasing our comprehensive e-Book on toddler sleep, The 5-Step System to Better Toddler Sleep. You can also consider our consulting services. We’d love to help!