Three Tips for Setting Kind and Firm Boundaries for Young Children.

20130124-121744.jpgEvery once in awhile we will get into this bad phase, my son and I. When big events are happening or family is visiting the rules slip a little and BAM, chaos ensues. I flounder for a bit and wonder why my sweet child has all of the sudden turned into a wild mess. Then it happens, every time, that a light bulb comes on and I realize that the boundaries and limits have slipped away and need to come back immediately.

Today at nap time I had about had it. No, no, no at every turn and this erratic behavior that does not come with a healthy child. First I cried for a few minutes (preggo hormones!) and then set up my mind to change things. I told my son that it was rest time and that I needed rest as well. I told him that I was in control and he would stay in his room for an hour, whether he slept or not. I would come and get him when that time was up. At that very moment he stopped saying ‘yayayayayayayayayaya’ over and over and visibly relaxed with a deep breath. Within 3 minutes he fell asleep in my arms, finally feeling the protection he was begging me for.

Do you know what happened behind that? Inside of MYSELF I found the control he needed. He felt that ‘I’ve got this’ attitude that he needed. For most toddlers not having firm boundaries feels like standing on the edge of a balcony without a railing. You know the feeling. You stand there and feel bit nervous to move freely, the anxiety building and the vision of falling off clear in your mind. Once those railings have returned, THEN you can actually move around freely without fear.  There seems to be this idea that unabashed freedom for small children makes them feel empowered, sometimes I fall into this as well. The reality is that complete freedom without boundaries creates a chaotic lost feeling during these years when they already feel so overwhelmed with everything new. It’s not even the kind of boundaries or the amount given, there are not rules for this, it’s their desire that WE feel that ‘I’ve got this’ attitude. They want to know that we are their safety net.

Having a small child can feel really overwhelming and chaotic so how do you accomplish kind and firm boundaries?

1. Take a moment to prepare inwardly. WHAT is the limit you need to set? Envision the limit you need and imagine the possibilities of the scenario. Often stating the limit and giving 2 choices to our children can bring the best result. “It’s time to sit for lunch. Would you like to climb up to the chair yourself or would you like me to help you?”. They feel it when we feel in charge; when we feel lost, so do they. This takes practice of course, but eventually it will click. Again, follow through.

2. Be kind and calm. This is important. When our toddlers feel our anger or anxiety, they will not cooperate AND they may even feel fear and nervousness from the limit. After you have set the limit if they cry or have a meltdown, remain calm and be present with them during this time while you continue to follow through. For some this means snuggles and for others, like my son, it means staying put and allowing them to run into their room and come to you when they need.

3. Make sure they have freedom within these limits. For instance, I set firm boundaries around our routine; sleep, eating and outings have specific limits that I stick to. When it’s play time, I let him play freely. In his room and the playroom nothing is off limits because I have set it up like this. He may toss his toys all over the room, joyfully scream and yell and even climb the furniture. (Of course I am just realizing that I may have to change the scream and yell thing before this new baby comes!) I have already set the limits in the space itself by making it safe and limiting the amount of mess he could make. During these times I am also available for him so he can get me to play and while he plays HE is in charge, directing me from his own imagination.

When we do have good times with nice limits, I see how my son feels so much more content. He sleeps better, plays better and generally has a calmer demeanor. This is because during these times I am not a lost woman with a wild child, but a solid rock for my ever changing son to cling to.

Want to read more on limits? Here’s a long, detailed post full of resources. I highly recommend reading this post at

If you want to know WHY toddlers really set limits, read this post by Janet Lansbury or read this post for tips on how to set limits with gentle leadership. Also, search her site for many more posts about working with toddlers and babies respectfully.


11 thoughts on “Three Tips for Setting Kind and Firm Boundaries for Young Children.”

  1. Perfect timing! Thank you for the insights! My 3 year old just had a meltdown because I wouldn’t let her watch her 30 min of TV time she gets after her morning getting ready routine (so I can get the baby and I ready) because she was making a a crazy amount of noise when I was trying to get her baby brother to sleep. I felt guilty as she was crying and screaming that i was being too hard on her but once she calmed down and i got him down i could see her whole mood improve. Yes, when your baby comes you’ll have that challenge with the noisy play :). Thanks again.

  2. Great article, we have a horrible day yesterday with our toddler, we totally lost control of boundaries and he couldn’t understand what was going on, the poor chap. Thank you for sharing this, it was very grounding for me.

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