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Setting Effective Boundaries With Your Toddler

How To Set Effective Boundaries With Your Toddler

Kids may not believe this but it's true: We set limits because we love them. We nab that 1-year-old before he toddles into the street and let him know by our obvious fear and disapproval that it's dangerous. Limits are just as important later when children become involved in school activities and in their social life that parents are not directly supervising. Setting limits from the beginning in a reasonable, loving way will help a child develop a sense of responsibility and self-control that will serve him or her well all through life.

According to most experts, what's probably most important is the parent's ability to set reasonable limits. In its position statement on effective parenting, The National Association of School Psychologists writes: "Limits can help children feel that the world is orderly, predictable and safe. Parents should consider the child's age and development when setting limits. Limits should be enforced consistently, and there should be clear and appropriate consequences when those limits are challenged."

In other words, life should not be a series of negatives, especially for the very young child. Studies have shown that children who are raised with too many rules and regulations often don't develop effective social skills and can become rebellious later in life.

Expert's Opinion

Dr. Thomas Phelan, a clinical psychologist for more than 25 years specializing in children and families and author of I Never Get Anything! (Parentmagic, Inc., 2001), says this is often a problem because parents have what he calls the "little adult assumption." In other words, parents think children are merely small adults and should be able to respond in an adult manner.

"This is a particular problem with very intelligent and verbal parents who have children that are very intelligent and verbal," says Dr. Phelan. "Parents tend to forget they're just a kid and the parent will continually explain and then become furious when the child keeps doing the same thing 'wrong' in spite of that. The job of the parents is to help, model and praise in a nonjudgmental way."

Growing Boundaries

Up to Age 1:
Baby proofing is the key here, but for things that can't be put up or moved, Mom and Dad have to be on the move. Divert baby by physically removing him to another room or distracting him with a different toy. Make eye contact and say "no" in a pleasant way.

At mealtime, babies tend to throw food. Guide them with your actions, taking their hand and putting it back in the tray, telling them nicely, but firmly, that the food stays on the plate.

Ages 1 to 3:
Toddlers are curious about everything; that's how they learn. When they try to pull off the cat's tail or push a cracker into the VCR, they aren't misbehaving. They merely want to see if the tail is attached or if the cracker will make the television's screen light up.

Tell your child not to pull the kitty's tail, but as you do so show him how to gently pet the kitty and point out how the kitty loves it. Tell him that the kitty's tail is attached and it hurts the kitty when you pull. Divert him from the VCR and find him a toy or play a game that helps him learn cause and effect.

Ages 3 to 5:
Somewhere at the midpoint of this age range children will begin to understand right from wrong. Early on, diversion with explanations is still the best tool for setting boundaries. As they move toward age 5, explanations alone will become increasingly effective. But keep it simple: A 5-year-old doesn't need a course in neurology to understand why he shouldn't conk his sister over the head with a toy truck.

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