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Setting Boundaries With Empathy For Toddlers

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

Children can be challenging. Just when we've done just about everything we can think of for them, they turn around and do or say something that really scares us. And then we have to decide how to react. How can we manage to set boundaries and model empathy at the same time?

Especially when our own emotions are brewing.

As teachers and parents of the very young, we should be able to reach out to each other for support and love. But with the way things are today, we're often getting shame, blame and criticism instead.

I'm not having any of that today. This early period in the lives of young children is too important to let our egos get in the way.

Here's what the National Research Council has to say about it:

"It is no surprise that the early childhood years are portrayed as formative. The supporting structures of virtually every system of the human organism from the tiniest cell to the capacity for intimate relationships are constructed during this age period." From Neurons To Neighborhoods, The Science of Early Childhood Development-National Research Council of Medicine (2000)

But when we signed up to be parents and caregivers, we didn't sign up to be held to impossible standards with little reward.

Since I've seen this happen over the last 40+ years working directly with very young children and their families, I'm going to share with you, (my favorite people in the world), some of the most important lessons I've learned over the years as an early childhood scholar and family educator. It comes down to this.

What we do and say is so important.

So.... what do we do or say when our toddler reacts to a request with these dubiously scary words:

"I don't like you!"

Here's what I might say, (on a good day):

l can tell that you really don't like the fact that it's bedtime but look at the clock. It is.

I don't like to hear you say that you don't like me cuz it kind of hurts my feelings but it's still bedtime and sleep is an important thing.

Do you want to brush with your blue toothbrush or your Elmo toothbrush tonight? Let's do it now so we have time for all 3 books in bed.

I always try to make it so their good behavior pays off for them. It keeps their attitudes hopeful and hope is a very important attitude to nurture.

A tantrum at this point would just mean I'd need to adjust the bedtime a little tomorrow night and I may only have time for one book or 2 short ones tonight instead of the usual 3.

This is a minor consequence but important to them. Minor consequences usually work much better than major threats that may be super hard to follow through on.

My rule of thumb is to never threaten a consequence that’s too inconvenient for me if I have to enforce it.

My philosophy on my best days about tantrums is, Don't give in and don't get mad. Not easy, I’ll admit.

Here's another common scenario. When a toddler says:

I hate you!

Try this:

I can see that you're really having fun with your friends but we need to leave right away or in two minutes because the bus won't wait for us. We need to get to the stop on time. Two minutes?

OK, thank you. I'll set a timer on my phone so we don't forget.

Two minutes is up. I can hear you saying you don't want to go. It would be super helpful if you could walk so I don't have to carry you out. I'll count to three and you decide. We need to leave now. 1,2,3…….

Since this was a real 2-year-old child and his mom, she followed through to pick him up at which point he held out his hand and decided to walk with her.

Wow, what a great choice of words! And actions

And what a good job of keeping her cool during a tense encounter in front of a seasoned provider at pick-up time! And if you think that should be a piece of cake, try it sometime. This was a challenging child at a challenging time of day, 5:00pm.

Thanks so much for stopping by today!

Want more ideas for setting boundaries in a developmentally appropriate and respectful way? Join us here and you'll get one new idea to use each week. Plus you'll immediately get a copy of the slideshow I developed that tells you exactly what to say in a developmentally appropriate way when children misbehave.

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Get the exact words to use when dealing with common childhood issues like cleaning up, tattling, or positive communication .

Early Childhood Rocks is a nonprofit organization dedicated to changing the world through early childhood education

Nanci J Bradley is an early childhood and family educator, author, teacher, family aerobics instructor, and an all-around fun-loving person. She believes in the power of sleep, healthy eating, lifelong learning, and most of all, PLAY! (click on the word) She studied early childhood ed at Triton College and received her BS in education in 1986 from NIU. She received her MA in human development from Pacific Oaks College in 2011. She lives and teaches in Madison WI.

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