Six Ways to Respond to Boundary Testing

by Heligirl on June 13, 2011

in Mom Tip Monday,Parenting Articles,Positive Discipline

With my both of my kids full on into boundary testing mode, I’m a mama on the edge. I spent the weekend pouring over my parenting books and notes to get some insight on how to best meet this challenge with positive discipline while also allowing our kids to explore and feel good about themselves.

The first thing to remember is there is no one reason kids are testing limits. The only hard and fast rule is they’re going to do it their first five years.

They test to learn about the world and to learn social rules. They’re testing to find out about us and how much we’ll tolerate. They’re little scientists. They love to see what kind of reaction they’ll get out of us, and that’s why they’ll call attention to their inappropriate behavior (“Mommy, look at me!”) to make sure we do react.

It’s really frustrating for us parents to have to set limits again and again. We blow our lids sooner and sooner the more they push.

One thing to keep in mind is this desire to test limits and abilities is a part of the developmental process. In their minds, the limits are arbitrary because they don’t understand the consequences, danger, etc. Our job, in their minds, is to stop them.

It wears out the kids as much as us. And it is never a personal thing meant intentionally to upset or victimize a parent. Kids are at the mercy of their developmental drives.

So what can we, as parents, do to keep from blowing our lids?

When the onslaught of boundary testing is coming your way, here are six things you can try with your child, care of Laura Davis and Janis Keyser’s book Becoming the Parent You Want To Be.

Honor the impulse. Respect your child’s drive toward autonomy, her necessary exploration of decision making.

Use active listening. “It looks like you have a different idea.” Or, “It looks like you’re curious about what happens when you bang your hammer on the TV.”

Set limits and give information. “I know you really want to be out of your car seat. But your car seat helps jeep you safe, so you need to stay in it.”

Redirect. “I see you want to hit the window. I can’t let you do that because the window is breakable, but you can bang on the couch all you want.”

Invite their initiative. As kids get a little older, you can say, “It’s not safe to hit the window. What could you hit safely?” Or, “Can you think of another way to touch the window?” When children are given the chance to come up with their own alternatives, they learn important problem-solving skills that can help them manage their own behavior eventually.

Cultivate an attitude of acceptance. Testing is an inevitable and important part of children’s growth and development. Cultivating an attitude of acceptance for what our children are trying to do while respectfully setting limits can help us get through this state of their lives with less frustration. In other words, let it roll off your back, don’t over react and don’t scorn.

Today at church I heard our reverend say something about our overall attitudes that seemed to speak well to how we can handle the frustration of the boundary testing.

You have three choices. You can look at the action (child misbehaving). You can look at your thinking (frustrated over child misbehaving). Or you can look above it all.

Think about it.

Maybe the best way to handle this trying phase is to look above it. After all, if they’re not about to harm themselves, another, or cause damage to property, perhaps calmly using one of the above suggestions is all we need to do.


StephanieinSuburbia June 13, 2011 at 7:49 pm

I struggle with this a lot when Wee ‘Burb says “No No” when she’s about to do something she clearly knows is wrong. People suggested removing things you say no to a lot, to keep their environment more positive. But I telecommute and my work items often have to be available, and these are her favorite things. I do try to tell myself this is her way of saying she wants more attention, but some days it’s hard to be so constructive. “I see you want to hit the TV with the hammer” is all well and good until you’re looking at a broken TV and they’re waiting for a reaction.

Twitter: Heligirl
June 13, 2011 at 9:16 pm

I so hear you on this. I do my freelance from home too and can’t tell you how many times my computer has been frozen from my daughter screwing with it. I feel like I’m going insane telling her ‘no.’ Most other stuff I’ve been able to put out of reach. I’ve also put consequences in play too. When she touches my computer, which she knows in a big no, she’ll not have her Wii time she craves in the afternoon (she plays Sports Resort for 30 minutes or so some days). At 3 1/2, she’s actually getting this. She knows and I’ve caught her pretending to touch my computer lately. It’s a step. I hear you on the hammer and TV thing. I quoted all of that from the book, but I envisioned stopping them before the actually do it, as you tell them. I’m not THAT progressive to let them try it. LOL! 🙂
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