When Young Children Push Boundaries

Estimated read time 5 min read

Being a mom of a 2, 4 &  6 year old, I have seen my fair share of boundary-testing. I’m nowhere near the end of this phase, but there are some key insights I’ve gathered on hindsight, if not in the moment, that I’ve mulled over with my husband and close friends.

For every boundary-test, there’s usually a good reason behind it, if we cut our kids some slack and just gently look for it! There are 3 main areas that are tested in my household, maybe you can relate..

Boundaries That Kids Love Testing

Learning what NO means: ‘So if I do this, then…WHAT exactly?’

At a friend’s house the other day, my two year old watched me talking to my mom, stood up, and while keeping eye contact with me, proceeded to do the following actions one after the other, in 30 seconds:
-kicked the dog
-splashed in the dog’s water bowl
-picked the bowl up, and threw the water out onto the floor
-Threw a cup of water onto the kitchen floor… get this…. ALL WHILE WATCHING MY FACE for a reaction, while grinning. We’d already been through each of these previously as ‘NO’ things to do, so he knew…and watched me with a ‘Watcha gonna do about THAT!’ expression.

I was dumbfounded! He is by far the most testing of my three children, and it amazes me each time he does this type of testing, as it’s just SO BLATANT! I am firm and quick to correct him, and give him a firm talk, and alternative things to do, as well as a firm reason as to why it’s bad to do.

Where the  ‘NO’ line lies

Children this age are learning the word NO – as something coming from you, as well as a powerful word they can use for themselves. They’re learning what they like and don’t like, want and do not want, what they are allowed and not allowed, and the delicious grey area in between is a great place to test in, and see how far they can push.
I think it’s important to stick to your NO, to offer an alternative action/activity and to gently guide them elsewhere.

 The Meltdown – ‘But what I feel and think is right, and you are wrong!’

My four year old is going through this phase. She will have the most monumental emotional meltdowns over certain situations, which usually result in her crying inconsolably, while yelling at me or one of her siblings ‘that’s not right, I AM RIGHT, and you are wrong!”

Through the drama that is so real to her, Ive come to see it as more of a need to feel validated and heard, rather than a ‘oh my word, my child threw such a fit in the store the other day; kids this age are just so hectic.’

Am I heard and understood?

I think that’s the heart behind her outburst, mixed with a VERY strong dose of emotion, which we’ll get to taming slowly, but that’s not the focus really. She can, and will learn to express her anguish and need for justification in a more controlled way, but if I look at her words, and hear her reasoning, I find that the drama can be calmed down pretty well if I just answer her ‘question’ that she’s really asking in all of it – I do hear her, I get how she saw the situation, and I hear how she felt when her brother did … whatever.

The Authority Test – ‘Just checkin’ to see if you’re still in charge here’

My six year old is in this testing phase. It’s a tricky one. If he privately disagrees with something we set as a rule, or say, he is often tempted to sneak behind our backs, and do it his way. This opens up a whole area we touch on now with him as we reason through different situations with him: the importance of honestly, and respecting our decisions as parents, even if he disagrees.

But I want it more than I want to respect your NO.

I think the key to this is a patient process of working on explaining the importance of honesty and self control with your child. They are free to have a difference of opinion but should speak with us about it, not sneak/lie/steal if there is a difference.

On the whole, I think the act of testing boundaries is  a process of self discovery for every child. As we teach them to tone it down a bit as they understand themselves and us better, I think it important that we keep focus on their hearts, not solely on their actions. It’s easy to label the years as part of the ‘terrible two’s’ or ‘defiant three’s’ but it’s so much more than that, if you focus on their  hearts.

What type of boundaries do your children love pushing, and testing? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

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