An Answer to Toddler Testing

The words we use with our children matter, especially in trying moments. They convey perceptions about our child and the situation at hand. For example, if our infant or toddler tests us by hitting and we say, “I won’t let you hit” (with all the calm and confidence we can muster), while gently holding his or her hand, our child then learns:

My parent is a capable leader who isn’t thrown by my behavior and feels confident about preventing me from hurting him/her.  I am safe. 

My parent speaks to me honestly and directly. I am respected.

I won’t let you…” also affirms to us as parents:

I am a capable leader and on top of this behavior, not at all threatened or challenged. 

Even though my child is too young to share her thoughts with me, I engage with her as a whole person deserving of my respect.

“Thank you for letting me know…”  is another powerful phrase I was reminded of by this note from a concerned parent:

Hi Janet,

My husband and I are struggling with how to handle our two year old. He’s testing limits like crazy lately, which we know is developmental and to be expected, but we have to tell him we won’t allow him to do this or that over and over again. We’re also aware that his mood and behavior are affected by the presence of a new sibling.

Our major concern is him not listening in situations where he could get hurt. For example at my brother’s house there is a door and then stairs that go down into their basement. The stairs have no siding and a big drop. S will open the door and start going down the stairs backwards, unaware of how close he is to the edge. We remove him and close the door telling him he’s not allowed to play on the stairs. We explain that he could get hurt, but he continues to do so if the door is unlocked. How can we handle this in a way he understands that there’s danger?

And, of course, there are times we need him to immediately listen to us. For example if he starts running towards the road. I feel like he should be listening better, and part of me feels like I’m parenting wrong because he isn’t. We’re struggling and would so appreciate any guidance you may have. Thank you.



“Testing like crazy” sounds like your little guy is having a bit of an emotional crisis, which makes perfect sense since you have a new baby. This is a scary and sad transitional period for almost every child. He’s grieving the loss of the exclusive relationship he had with his parents. The feelings will come and go. This is a process you can support, but neither you nor your boy can control.

Your son is listening, but he’s too overwhelmed to be able to follow your directions. He doesn’t need to hear what you won’t allow him to do over and over again — he knows –because he is attuned and aware, like all young children are.

What he does need you to do is communicate that you understand that his feelings are all over the place (that he’s testing like crazy because he feels crazy), and that you will always love him and keep him safe.

So when his behavior is unsafe, help him by locking up unsafe areas, putting away unsafe objects, calmly removing him from situations, holding his hand so he cannot bolt, or holding him on your lap, while sincerely assuring him you understand. “You wanted to keep playing on the stairs, but that isn’t safe. Thank you for letting me know you need me to keep you safe.”

“Thank you for letting me know you aren’t safe around your sister right now. You and I can sit together as soon as I’m done nursing her. “

“Thank you for letting me know you need me close to help you stop pushing your friends. I’ll stay next to you.”

“Thank you for letting me know you need me to help you stop bothering the dog.”

“Thank you for letting me know…” works because it lets our children know we:


Aren’t angry

Have their “back”

Want to know what’s going on with them

Through this simple phrase we can:

Model compassion, respect, manners

Remind ourselves that our children’s challenging behavior is not a personal attack, but rather a call for our attention and usually a manifestation of their discomfort

Be our child’s safe zone, provide relief

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