As a baby, your child followed your lead. Then you navigated the “Terrific Twos” and came out the other side. So, it’s all calm sailing from here, right? Our little people are constantly growing and developing, and at some point, they start to realize they are independent people who exist as separate entities from their parents.
This is when kids like to test boundaries. “Time to take a bath!” No way, I hate baths today. “Try some broccoli.” Nope, that’s going straight on the floor. As infuriating as this limit testing can be, it’s a sign of normal development.
When Do Children Start to Test Boundaries, and Does It Ever Stop?
We typically first see our kids test boundaries when they are around 3. This is because they are moving into a developmental stage where they are less dependent on you.1 Your child will start to do things like talk, feed themselves, use a potty, and even begin to dress themselves with limited input from you. However, with this growing independence and desire to assert themselves can come defiance. They are also learning how their behaviors influence others around them and will start to test the boundaries so they can make their own decisions. This all culminates in the testing to see what they can and cannot get away with.2,3
Although I would like to promise you that limit testing goes away, it still occurs right up into the teen years, just in a different context. Our teenagers go through another developmental phase associated with independence. We might continue to see these testing behaviors as they gain personal responsibility and crave increased opportunities to express their needs and preferences.
What’s Going on in Their Brains?
Defiance and limit testing are not only driven by regular developmental changes. They are also a way children can gauge their sense of security in the world as they start to navigate it without you by their side. In general, the human mind thrives off predictability; we like to know the rules and what to expect to decide how to react and respond. It also makes us feel safe when we can reliably predict or understand the rules and expectations.4
It’s no different for our children, except they haven’t learned the rules yet. So, consistency and predictability are vital for our little people as it helps them feel safe in an unknown and massive world. And rules and consistent limits reduce limit testing behaviors in the long run. Some of the most challenging behaviors we see, like defiance or dysregulation, arise when our children feel overwhelmed. When we give them clear limits, kids know where they stand, and they feel calmer and more settled because they know what to expect from themselves and you. Or from situations and how they should respond.2,3 But knowing what to expect doesn’t always mean compliance. Our kids need to receive the same messages many (many) times before they learn the rules. This is why limit testing can persist if we aren’t consistent.
Tips for When Your Kids Test Boundaries
Aside from being consistent, below are some tips to get your kids to respect and listen to your boundaries:5,6
Communicate the Limits
Ensure your child clearly understands the limits you have put in place. This could include getting them to repeat the rules or limit you have set. It also might consist of writing up or drawing steps they must follow. Remember that repetition is the key.
Prepare for Transitions
Transitions are hard for kids. They don’t want to stop what they are doing or don’t understand things like the concept of time (i.e., being late), so they struggle to move between tasks. Ensure you give them warnings, including telling them before the event/situation occurs (where practical) that a transition will be coming. Then provide them a warning and cue that the time is nearly up. For example, you could say, “Right now, you are playing with some toys, but we need to pop out to the shops a little later to grab some groceries. When we have two minutes left of playing with toys, I will let you know and help you count down so you are ready to come shopping with me.”
Offer Options If Possible
You can keep the boundary but still offer them the opportunity to be independent or make choices. It can trigger defiance when kids feel like they have no choice or control over their world. For example, the expectation might be they need to put their shoes on, but you might offer an option for when and how. You could say, “Okay, to get ready, you need to put some shoes on. You can put them on now or brush your teeth first and then put your shoes on. What would you like to do?”
Help Them Regulate
Kids love and need rules, but they don’t always like them. This might bring up some strong feelings, so ensure that you stay firm but still help them manage any big emotions. You could remove triggers, help them take calm breaths, cuddle them, or help them get some excess energy out with star jumps or running on the spot.
Let Them Be the Boss . . . Sometimes
Rules are great, but too many can be overwhelming for kids, and they can become defiant when they get no opportunities to be autonomous. This can lead your kids to try to test the boundaries. Try letting them be in charge sometimes. But this means managing your fears or challenges of letting go. Ensure you set both of you up for success by still putting some parameters in place. For example, your child wants to choose their clothes, perfect! Select a range of weather or event-appropriate clothes and put them in a special drawer that your child can reach and allow them to select their outfit.
Are you likely to go on your outing with a child who isn’t necessarily color-coordinated or looking as polished as you might like? Probably. But are you soothing them by giving them a chance to be independent, which reduces future power struggles because you have filled that cup? Absolutely!
Find the Positives
When we think about limits, it almost equates to one big “No; stop it; don’t do that; you can’t do that.” Instead, reframe the conversation and language to focus on the positives or change your attention to the behavior. For example, “I can see you feel like jumping; let’s jump over here instead,” or “Beds are for sleeping, let’s go and jump on your trampoline instead.”
Pick Your Battles
It can be exhausting to continually be on your child about rules (for them and you), and if there are too many, you run the risk of them tuning out and negatively impacting their self-esteem if they feel they can’t live up to your expectations. Decide which are the non-negotiables and focus on those instead. Is there an issue if you are five minutes late? Does it matter if they are wearing mismatched socks? Try and let the little things go so you have the energy, but also so they are more inclined to cooperate when you need them to.
The key to managing kids who want to test boundaries is consistency. You don’t have to have rules about everything, but for the rules you deem essential, be consistent in your expectations. Bending the rules or caving in will have the opposite effect you intend. It might momentarily make things easier, but it will erode your child’s sense of safety and trust, making them more likely to feel out of control. Build that trust in your child so they feel safe, which is essential in managing limit testing behaviors.