EXPERT Q&A

How many times should I repeat myself so my toddler will listen?

Nearly all young children test limits or defy rules, which can be difficult for parents to navigate—especially when they want to keep their children safe. CareNectar expert Shenley Seabrook shares tips for how to best respond to children when they aren’t following important rules.

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Question

We have a bright and strong-willed 4-year-old who seems to know right from wrong and is able to explain what types of behaviors are appropriate for most situations. She also knows the house safety rules (such as couches are for sitting, we use our walking feet inside, we ask for permission before going outside to play, etc.). There are times, however, when we have to remind her over and over again to stop doing something that she knows is against the rules. For example, recently she was climbing on the couch and we reminded her that couches are for sitting. She sat down immediately, but as soon as our backs were turned, she was back up climbing on the couch. Typically we give her two reminders before removing her from the situation and give her options for other things she can do instead. And we are aware this behavior is age-appropriate, but we want her to be safe and to understand why some rules are important. We have also learned that she behaves this way at times in preschool after her teacher reported that she was the only child who wasn’t following rules, putting her safety at risk.

We want to raise our daughter in such a way that she is an independent thinker and can protest injustice when necessary. But we also want her to follow basic rules when she needs to. Do you have any suggestions on how we can do this?

Answer

This does sound frustrating and I can tell that you and your partner want the best for your child! I completely understand wanting to find a balance between making sure she knows that her voice and needs are important while also ensuring that she can follow directions and is safe. And I love that you want to raise her as an independent thinker! Also, you are absolutely correct that this behavior is age-appropriate. Testing limits for toddlers is not only how they attempt to assert their authority, but it’s how they learn whether or not you will respond to them consistently. Here are some ideas you can try when your daughter is not following directions or engaging in unsafe behavior.

  • Give a better or safer option. If you know your child wants to jump on the couch, offer a few different options of things she can do instead. You can say, “It’s not safe to jump on the couch. Would you like to jump on the trampoline? Or maybe we can play a jumping game together on the floor.” I would not recommend repeating yourself more than one time. You can give one reminder (i.e. I don’t want you jumping on the couch because it’s not safe. I need you to get down and find something else to do), and if the jumping continues, provide a better option.
  • Pick and choose your battles. Toddlers are not always going to make good choices. You are going to have to decide what types of behavior you are willing to allow and behaviors you will always step in to stop. Obviously, safety will play a factor here. The most important thing to remember is that if you set a limit or say no, you will need to follow through. This might look like letting your child know you will be picking them up and putting them on the floor, gently holding their hand so they can’t hit, or putting toys away that are not being used safely.
  • Rephrase your statement. As caregivers, especially when we are frustrated, it can be easy to say things like, “Stop that right now!” or “Just knock it off! I’ve told you three times already to get down!” Instead, you can try asking your child for help. This might sound like, “I need you to help mama keep you safe. Please come down off of the couch and we can find something else to do.” You can also say something like, “I can’t let you scream at me. Help me take five deep breathes so we can both stay calm.”
  • Remember that behavior is communication. Sometimes, limit-testing behavior is a child’s way of communicating that they are in need of connection or attention. If you notice that this behavior occurs more frequently while you are attending to a task, talking on the phone, or engaged in something other than playing with your child, it’s likely that this is the case. If so, empathize with your child in the moment. You can say, “I know you want mama’s attention and it’s hard to wait. I will only be a few more minutes. Help me find something safe and fun for you to do while you wait.”

Also, it can be so hard to hear that your child is being defiant at school or to watch the behavior occur at home. For caregivers, this usually stems from wanting your child to behave appropriately and not to be labeled a problem child. Please know that it’s healthy to set boundaries for your child. In doing so, you are not controlling or shaming them, but simply outlining expectations and clearly communicating when their behavior is inappropriate. It’s a toddler’s job to push the boundaries and it’s their caregiver’s job to uphold them and keep them safe. It’s a tough job, but we’re here for you!

Meet The Expert


Shenley Seabrook

Shenley Seabrook is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor who works primarily with children and adolescents in a private practice setting. She is also a foster parent and lives with her husband and daughter in Indiana. Shenley recently wrote her first children’s book, We Have the Same Heart, which celebrates diversity, inclusion, and community service.