Q: I am struggling to set limits with my son who is not yet two years old. The thing I’m most concerned about is safety – he laughs and squirms away when I try to hold his hand or tell him he cannot go into the road or parking lot. He is so curious and adventurous; I don’t want to crush his spirit but I’m afraid one of these days he’s going to get really hurt. He does things like dig around in our key drawer where we keep all our important items. He outsmarted the child lock and doesn’t listen when I say ‘No’ countless times. I tried time-out once for two minutes in his crib and he cried the whole time. I don’t want to ruin the positive association he has with sleeping in his crib so I don’t plan to do that again. I would love your input on this! He is so sweet, and I think it is mostly developmental, but also an important time to start disciplining in an effective way.
A: Under two can be a tough age! They’re developed enough to be able to move around quickly but not mature enough to have a good sense of safety. Plus at this age they’re all about being independent so they want to do everything on their own, and when they sense there are too many boundaries they feel powerless, get angry, and have a meltdown. It’s a normal part of toddlers’ development, but you’re right, now is the time to start teaching about safe behaviors and part of that means setting limits.
It helps to understand that children of all ages have several developmental needs they are constantly striving to get met: the need to feel safe, to receive attention (positive or negative), to explore, to master skills, to feel powerful, and to individuate (become their own person and not be an extension of you as they were in babyhood). Tantrums stem from these unmet needs – and no, that doesn’t mean that when your child has a tantrum you’re a terrible parent because you didn’t meet their need. We can only do our best at knowing their need and meeting it right when they need it in just the way they want it. Children can be picky!
Here are some guidelines for effectively setting safety limits. First, anticipate and intervene, which you’re already doing because now you expect he’ll try to run into the road and you stop him. Guess at his intention: “You really want to cross the road all by yourself, don’t you!” With verbal children ask about their intentions in an honestly curious way and listen to their answer without judgment or shame. Then validate the intention: “It would be exciting to run across alone because we always make you hold our hands when we cross the street and you want to do it by yourself like a big boy.” It’s easier to validate when you link the unwanted behavior to the understandable developmental need (in this example, probably explore, master, individuate, feel powerful). Then set a limit clearly and succinctly, using positive language since negative language (“don’t) can actually be confusing for young children as they have to understand what they aren’t supposed to do and then figure out what they are supposed to do: “We always hold hands when we cross the street.” Give a brief explanation: “There are cars on the street that can hurt you by accident and I don’t want you to get hurt so you need to hold my hand to stay safe.” If he’s still fighting you and is not able to be safe give an honest choice: “You can hold my hand or I will carry you.”
Remember that helping your child learn to respect limits is a process, so don’t expect a complete change of behavior overnight! It’s important to continue teaching in between the actual events, since having a tantrum or being excited on the roadside might not be the best time for new information to sink in. Children learn best with by doing and playing. At home you could play “cross the road” with his toys, modeling safe steps for crossing the road and the positive consequences afterwards (safety, praise, maybe some silliness like a “Crossed the Road” song). Also, talk about crossing the road ahead of time. Even if it seems like he doesn’t understand, trust that it is sinking in little by little and he probably understands more than you think. Prepare him step-by-step for what will happen when you get to the roadside. Then when you get there follow through with the steps (while talking about them) and involve him in the process, ideally in an engaging way. Get down on his level and point in the different directions, if there are cars or not, demonstrating how to look with his eyes and listen with his ears, pointing out if there’s a red light, a “walk” sign and what that means, etc. In fact this can validate and meet his need to be powerful and have mastery in situations, because he may be able to take the lead in saying the steps he’s learned during play.
Rewards and consequences can play a role in behavior as well, though as you noticed time-out is generally minimally effective as a consequence. In addition to the above proactive learning-through-play, you could prompt that is he behaves well in various situations he will get an extra story at bedtime, or extended play during bath time, etc. (I prefer these relational and activity rewards to buying things). Likewise a consequence could ensue such as taking away his favorite toy for a day. But try positive approaches such as learning through play and rewards first, as they make him feel better about the situation, and use consequences instance by instance only if he doesn’t respond to the positive approaches.
And always remember that stages pass, and you will not have a 17-year-old son dashing across the road without looking. Probably.