19 - 21 Months

3 steps to setting toddler limits with empathy

You’ve told your toddler not to jump on the couch or pour water over the side of the bath, and yet they keep doing it again and again. As your frustration builds, try to remember that a little empathy can go a long way. 

Setting firm but empathetic limits is often easier said than done. Being the one to upset your toddler can be really hard, and it’s easy to second guess your limits when your toddler pushes back. Here’s what to do when things get tough: 

1. Do a feelings check

If you’re feeling really frustrated, take a moment to slow your heart rate and relax your muscles so you can respond with calm confidence. Take another moment to recognize how your child feels and why they’re doing what they’re doing. For your toddler, pouring water out of the tub or jumping on the couch is probably really fun and interesting. Remind yourself that they’re caught up in the moment and not trying to “break” a rule or make you mad.

2. Show understanding, then restate the limit

You might say, “You really like pouring that water. Water on the floor is not safe. Water stays in the bathtub.” When you start with their perspective, you let your toddler know that you understand how they feel and what they want while also setting a clear expectation.

Because toddlers tend to focus on the end of a sentence, “Don’t dump the water!” can sound like “Dump the water!” to them. Instead, try to tell your toddler what TO do rather than what NOT to do. “You can pour water into the bath instead.”

3. Help your toddler move on

If your child gets upset when you hold your boundary, stay firm but understanding. Try comforting them and naming their feelings with an empathetic tone: “You’re frustrated. You really liked doing that!” Show them through your voice and words that you get how frustrating this is for them.

If your toddler doesn’t stop the behavior, try redirecting them to something that meets their initial desire. For example, try showing them a new place to pour water, like in a big bowl that can float in the bath or onto another bath toy. If you’re engaged and excited about the alternative, your toddler is more likely to join in.

Or, try distracting your child with something else they find interesting, like hiding the cup under a washcloth and finding it again. Redirection and distraction are some of the most effective ways to help your young toddler learn how to regulate their emotions and behaviors.

What empathetic boundaries teach children

Setting limits with empathy means acknowledging your toddler’s point of view without backing down. When you set an empathetic limit, your toddler learns:

  • Their feelings matter. What they want and how they feel is important to you. They are important to you. 
  • They can handle big emotions. They may feel disappointed and frustrated, but these feelings are temporary and can be managed with your help. 
  • You’re on their side. You’ll help them figure out what is safe and acceptable behavior.

Be prepared to repeat these steps

Your toddler learns through repetition. They won’t be able to control their impulses on the first—or fifth—bath, so remind them of the limit and move on each time.

Learn more about the research

Houck, G. M., & Lecuyer-Maus, E. A. (2004). Maternal limit setting during toddlerhood, delay of gratification, and behavior problems at age five. Infant Mental Health Journal, 25(1), 28-46.

Juffer, F., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J., & van IJzendoorn, M. H. (2017). Pairing attachment theory and social learning theory in video-feedback intervention to promote positive parenting. Current Opinion in Psychology, 15, 189-194.


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Posted in: 19 - 21 Months, 22 - 24 Months, Social Emotional, Behavior, Lovevery App, Parenting, Child Development

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