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Setting Effective Boundaries for Toddlers

If you’re a parent of a toddler, this might be an all too familiar scene. (And perhaps it occurs several times a day). Your toddler is playing quietly. It is time for you to leave or move on to the next task.

So you say, “Ok! Let’s go now. I need to do XYZ and I’m running late already.”

Subsequently follows the tears, the protests, and possibly an absolute meltdown.

And then, either one of two things happens

  • You either pick up a screaming, kicking toddler and physically remove him or her from the scene or,

  • You give in to the protests. You say, “Ok. You can play for five more minutes but no more”. You might also try to reason with your toddler and ask him to “Calm down”

Setting boundaries and limits for toddlers are hard! Toddlers often seem to fight the limit that you set with everything they have.

Starting from the age of one, your baby begins to test and explore her need for autonomy. The important thing to bear in mind is that it is developmentally normal and appropriate, and this is an important skill that will serve her well in the future.

Conventional wisdom dictates that children need to be trained to listen and follow. When they don’t, they need to be punished.

Fear based parenting can work temporarily to achieve almost immediate results but what it also does in the process is, breaks down connections between parents and children. A disconnected child is clingy, whiny, or defiant and is likely to test boundaries more than a connected child.

At their core, children are born with a need to please, to cooperate, to learn and with a keen sense of fairness and equity, and understand right from wrong.

Enforcing boundaries should not be about a set of rules that a child “must” obey. Instead, boundaries should be used as an important tool to give your young child the necessary safeguards that she or he needs to effectively, securely, and confidently navigate this world.

Boundaries are like the trainer wheels on a bicycle when a child is still learning to ride. They give the child the opportunity to practice pedaling confidently before they can come off the trainer wheels and cycles independently.

As a parent, you can provide loving, safe boundaries that are based on the foundation of respect and parent-child connection while allowing the child to explore safely and exercise their autonomy.

The goal is to not completely eliminate an emotional reaction from the child. In expecting that, we are essentially expecting that the child not react at all, or react in a way that is agreeable to us.

There are two parts to the process of setting Respectful Boundaries:

  • Fairness and realistic expectations before setting a boundary

  • Acknowledgement and empathy after setting the boundary - that, it is a natural and normal response for a child to be upset when a limit is set, especially when they are not ready to make that transition yet.

Here are 6 things you can do to help set boundaries and limits more effectively:

Keep the Trust

Keep your word so that the child can trust you when you say something. It doesn’t matter if what you say is in their favor or not. This is a general parenting tip.

Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts when it comes to building trust. A kid that trusts is a connected child and a connected child is more likely to cooperate.

Lots of Verbal Reminders

Toddlers hate surprises and changes to their routine. For them, switching from a task to another requires a huge mental effort. This is probably why leaving a fun activity, a play area or a pool is so hard for them.

Reminders doesn’t have to be serious though. Be creative and make it fun.

Identify Meltdown Triggers

Every child, like adults, has specific moments that makes it hard for him or her to accept changes or boundaries.

For my child, it’s hunger and extended separation (physically and mentally) from me. When I try to set a limit when she is already triggered in her mind, there may or may not be obvious signs in her behavior already, I try to anticipate and handle the situation with more care.

For example, I don’t make plans to go grocery shopping after swimming classes because she is usually quite hungry, even after a snack.

Get down to their level

Kneeling and getting down to their eye level is an effective way to establish connections. Adults look huge and intimidating to young children and furthers the disconnection in trying times.

Whether you are communicating a limit or empathizing, talking TO children versus talking AT them makes a difference.


Despite your best efforts and preparations, it’s reasonable to see a toddler who may still be upset. It’s ok for them to feel what they feel because emotions can never be right or wrong.

Allow them to feel what they feel while you acknowledge and empathize with their experience. At their most intense moments, you can offer physical comfort, stay close and wait for them to calm down.

I usually say, “I’m here. You’re safe” and it really seem to calm my daughter down. Save the more detailed conversation for after they have calmed down and you have cuddled a bit.

Toddlers’ brains can’t see reason or logic in their intensely triggered state. It will just make things more frustrating if you ask them questions, however gentle, while they are in the thick of it.

Fill Your Cup,Stay Calm

My final tip is to take time to fill your own cup. When your own cup is full, you are able to be present and connected.

Different people fill their cups in different ways - taking some time to yourself, spending time with adult friends, even a long, hot shower helps to rewind and recharge.

Pick one and prioritize without guilt because it will help you be a more patient and be a less triggered parent.


Namrita Bendapudi is a Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator (LCCE). She will soon be a Certified Breastfeeding Counselor with Childbirth International. She is also undergoing training to certify as a Savvy Parenting Sleep Coach and a Hand in Hand Parenting coach along with Pregnancy and Infant Loss Advocate training.

You can follow her work on and Instagram at​thenestingheartparenting



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