How do I set boundaries with a pre-verbal toddler?

We get variations of this question almost weekly. How do you set boundaries with a young toddler, who’s well into the stage of asserting their autonomy, but is still not saying very much? Are they actually able to comprehend our instructions and can they reasonably be expected to comply?

Regardless of verbal ability, we can and should set necessary boundaries clearly and kindly. All children, even younger children who are not speaking yet, need our support as they reconcile their growing independence with a desire to cooperate with us.

So here are 4 steps to setting boundaries with your young child using the example of mealtimes:

1. Set clear and developmentally appropriate expectations

Be attuned to your child so that you can have and set appropriate expectations. For example, it might be reasonable to expect a 2-year old to sit at the dining table for dinner but less so to expect them to sit through a 30-minute family dinner without needing to get up. Be clear about the expectation and communicate it upfront. “We eat at the dining table and food stays on the table”

2. Stay calm and set the boundary confidently

If (or when) a boundary is breached, remain calm and try to avoid big reactions. Instead, restate the boundary in a matter-of-fact way without using too many words. Let’s say your toddler decides that the peas on his plate would make excellent projectiles. Try to stay calm and simply remove the plate. A restatement of the boundary could sound like, “Food stays on the table, if you’re throwing it, it looks like you’re done eating”.

3. Allow time for a response

Young brains take longer to process an experience. Give children some time to process what they’ve heard. Don’t react negatively when they don’t immediately respond or react to what they’ve been told.

4. Provide necessary support and follow-through

Support your child if they are having a hard time following the boundary. This might look like physically restraining or moving them, as gently as possible. It could also look like showing them what they can do instead. Using the mealtime example, perhaps your child gets upset and reaches to grab for the plate as you’re removing them. You can acknowledge that it’s hard not to get to do what you want. “Looks like you were having lots of fun throwing those peas, but I won’t let you keep doing that”. Feelings of displeasure and discomfort are normal when a boundary is being held. Allow all feelings while continuing to hold the boundary with loving firmness.

Even if you’re not sure how much a younger child can understand, you’re practicing and training yourself to be the respectful, confident leader of the family. This will be invaluable as your child grows older and desires even more autonomy.

Are you struggling with boundary-setting in your home? Remember to subscribe to our mailing list because we’ll be addressing boundaries in our next workshop.

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