Toddlers & Boundaries

Here is something I hear about toddlers all the time… they are “high on will, low on skill.” So true!! There is so much going on in a toddler’s young life, a lot of playing, a lot of learning, a lot of desire for independence. Independence they don’t know yet comes with the responsibility of learning how to be independent, so it’s our job to help them be as independent as we allow. 

Every child I have ever known or worked with has been happier living in a world with structure and boundaries. Giving your little one free reign to do as they please sounds fantastic, but it’s too much for a child that age to navigate. The feeling that they’re completely untethered leaves them with no direction or expectations, and they end up feeling overwhelmed and unguided.

One of the best ways we can help our toddlers be independent is by being consistent. As the parent, we need to provide them a routine and structure each day. This allows them to learn the rules, and know what to expect so they can best follow them. 

Think of it this way, if your friend wanted to know how to get to your house, you wouldn’t tell them to just drive; you would give her directions and possibly even cautions to look for. You may even provide directions on where to park once she gets there. All things she’d need to make it to your house. Same concept with a toddler and the rules for the day.

Now I’m not talking about a schedule or routine that covers every minute or even every hour of the day, but a routine based on activity; rules on how they move on to the next activity. Let’s say you allow them to play with play-dough at the kitchen table for 30 minutes (maybe it only lasts 10 minutes if we are being realistic) and then they want to go read books. The rules and expectations could be they need to clean up or help you clean up before going on to the books. 

What this does is create consistency and therefore no surprises when you ask them to do the cleaning up part. This can limit temper tantrums and allow your child to feel success and the independence that they are always striving for.

This concept of independence, consistency, and rules should apply to bedtime too! This is one of my favorite concepts to teach the parents I work with. More time than not, this is the time of the day where the parents are more in the driver’s seat, which I completely understand. Your toddler is standing in between you and your “me time” you get after they go to sleep, which is just as important as their sleep!

If you are having sleep troubles with your toddler, getting them involved in the bedtime process will go a long way. It provides structure, excitement, and expectations that always end with them going to bed… on their own. When they are able to be a part and feel the success of accomplishing this task on their own, they will continue to want to do it for themselves and for you.

Here are a couple of ways you can get your child involved in the bedtime routine: 

  1. Put up a bedtime routine chart, in their room, and have them point or check off each step as you go.
  2. Continue to remind them of ALL of the steps, not just the next one. We really want them to know the last step is getting into their bed and going to sleep.
  3. When it is story time, you choose 5 books and out of those they get to choose 2. Having too many to choose from can create a stall and overwhelm them. 
  4. Have them choose their pjs to wear.
  5. They can start by trying to brush their own teeth but know that you will brush their teeth in 2 minutes.

These contributions from them may seem small, but it allows them to be a part of bedtime. I believe if they have a role in the routine they are more willing and better learn the rules and steps. 

Now with this independence also comes responsibility. I’m not talking about intense responsibilities, these are toddlers. But they need to understand they are allowed to take part IF they follow the rules. And if they don’t follow the rules, there will be consequences.

If they try to stall, don’t want to get out of the bathtub, run away while you’re putting on their  pajamas, etc. then their independence starts to get taken away. They need to learn to show you they can do this. 

Things to consider when consequencing:

1. Give a warning – Even if your little one knows that what they’re doing isn’t allowed, I always like to try to give one warning before implementing a consequence. There are always exceptions, but for the most part, it’s best to make sure they know that what they’re doing will earn them a reprimand if they keep it up.

2. Set up a separate area – Have a space where your child can go to serve out their consequence. Make it somewhere out of the view of everyone else, but also where there’s nothing they can get into that could be dangerous. We want them to dislike their punishment, so somewhere boring it best. 

3. Set a timer – I find the best approach is to set a timer, show your little one how long they’re in time-out for, and then reset the timer every time they get up out of the chair, or leave the room. They might pitch a fit and get up to leave the first several times they’re put in the chair, but after a while, they’ll realize that they’re just prolonging the situation by refusing to listen. I use their age to set the allotted time. 

4. Keep it boring – I know parents whose idea of a time out is for their toddler to sit on Mommy’s lap for five minutes while stroking their head and singing to them. I’m all for soothing a child who’s lost their cool, we need to remember that a negative consequence needs to be at its heart, unenjoyable. We don’t want to reinforce undesirable behavior by consequencing it with a cuddle session or a treat just because it will ease the situation.  We want this to be a little bit unpleasant, otherwise it’s not going to steer the child away from the behavior in the future. Make sure their time-out is spent without any attention or entertainment.

5. Consistency is key – If you explain the rules to your toddler but then only enforce them some of the time, they’re not really rules after all. It’s confusing for a child when they don’t know if the rules apply in a specific situation, and they can end up feeling really frustrated if they end up getting punished for something that was clearly not an offense the night before. So set clear rules and enforce them 100% of the time.

The important thing for you to remember, is independence and boundary setting can be used throughout their entire day, not just bedtime. The more guidelines they have to learn to follow the easier each scenario can be. With practicing those expectations during the day, nighttime expectations will look the same.

I know it’s not always easy. I’ve been plenty tired before when the last thing I wanted to do was keep walking my child back to their room, but if your little one is waking up during the night, sticking to the rules on your end will only have a positive impact. 

Because if not… we know WE will face the consequences.

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