Expert Advice: How To Handle Your Child's (Completely Normal) Boundary Pushing & Tantrums

Step one: Remain calm.

Written by Katie Cloyd

There’s so much beauty in your child’s journey through their first few years. The memories start etching themselves into the fabric of your mind the first time you lay eyes on their perfect little round face. Watching your baby grow into a full-on child and find their way through the process of becoming who they are is enchanting.

Most of the time. Your child is fully human, and in between the exciting, impressive, beautiful moments of parenting, your kid will start trying to figure out their place in this big world by testing their boundaries. When you tell them they’ve found the edge of what is safe and acceptable, the lesson can quickly turn into big feelings and even tantrums.

Parents navigating this stage of life with their child might have questions and even some self-doubt.

Drawing on her more than twenty years of experience in child development and education, Dr. Lauren Starnes, senior vice president and chief academic officer at The Goddard School, assures parents that this new behavior is actually a good thing. “A child saying ‘no’ is indicating a desire for independence,” she tells Romper. “This is an important developmental milestone as this shows the child’s recognition of himself as an individual and his understanding of social interaction.”

Handling your child’s big feelings can be challenging, but it will be easier if you’re prepared. Here are some things you should know about this new milestone.

1. Defiance and tantrums are developmentally appropriate.

Your child is ultimately just trying to communicate their needs, desires, and preferences. Dr. Starnes encourages parents to remember that behavior is communication. Your child might be sharing a need for more independence, or they may be frustrated because they can’t quite work out how to express what they want or need.

“Observe what happens before the behavior, during, and after,” Dr. Starnes says. “This is often the best indication of what is triggering the reaction and also, potentially, what may be reinforcing the behavior.”

2. Providing choices is a way to help them feel seen and heard.

When your child says no and refuses to do simple tasks, they are learning. There are social dynamics all around them that they don’t fully understand yet, and they are seeing where they fit in. Dr. Starnes advises parents to think about where they can give the child control and autonomy on smaller, less consequential choices. Giving them choices about things as simple as their clothing, snack, or play activity lets them see that while you set the outer limits, within that established boundary, they have some freedom and the right to choose what makes them comfortable.

3. How you respond when a tantrum ensues makes all the difference.

Bearing in mind that all behavior is communication, a tantrum should be seen as one more way your child is trying to tell you something. Of course, tantrums are frustrating! When they happen in public, they can be embarrassing and anxiety-inducing. But no matter where the tantrum happens, Dr. Starnes has the same advice: “Tantrums are high emotion and high reactivity and need to be matched with the opposite: calm and neutral.”

She recommends calmly narrating what you’re observing (loud screams, clenched fists) and verbally acknowledging what triggered the behavior so your child feels understood. If possible, don’t even move them from wherever the tantrum began. Stay close and give them time to work through it.

Remember: A tantrum is not evidence of parental failure. It’s just communication.

4. Equip your child to handle big emotions ahead of time by providing them with social-emotional skills.

Social-emotional learning is practicing skills that allow your child to communicate their needs and feelings, make choices, and interact with people. The Goddard School helps children build a solid social-emotional foundation by teaching relationship skills, responsible decision-making, self-awareness, self-management, and social awareness.

“Social-emotional skills develop with time but can be encouraged by teaching emotional vocabulary, pointing out emotions in self and others, encouraging behaviors that promote positive interactions with others, and practicing how to interact with others in different social situations,” says Dr. Starnes.

Parenting young children isn’t always easy. They can test your patience as they test their boundaries. Do your best to remain calm. Understanding that all behavior — even the frustrating kind — is communication can help you know your child better and help them through this challenging phase of life and onto their next big adventure. If you’re seeking additional support, Dr. Starnes and The Goddard School’s experts offer a wealth of actionable insights and guidance via the Parenting with Goddard parent community.