Undoubtedly, one of the most important, but also most difficult and exhausting aspects of being a parent is setting healthy boundaries. These are the everyday rules and expectations you have about how your child behaves at home or outside, with you or with other people.
When your child is still a baby, it's quite natural to set limits that have to do with safety - "You can't touch this", "You can't swallow that", etc. As they grow older, their world expands, their experiences become more diverse, and thus the need for rules and restrictions increases. Toddlers are essentially little explores who want to show their innate curiosity and newfound autonomy at every opportunity. Their wishes and demands also rise in number and even volume, and here comes your key decision as a parent - to respond either by giving in or by setting a limit.
Many parents find it difficult to say no to their child and this could be for different reasons. Maybe they don't want to disappoint or upset the child, maybe they feel helpless or guilty, or maybe they just don't want to face the reaction which is likely to follow. When your toddler is crying and even screaming for more candy, toys or screen time, it just seems reasonable to agree and restore peace.
The problem is that even if your child calms down and it seems like you've done them a favour, it's actually quite the opposite. By doing so, you deprive them of the opportunity to develop essential life skills like self-control, self-regulation, responsibility and patience. You child needs to learns how to restrain their impulses, deal with negative feelings and be considerate of others.
Self-control begins to develop between the ages of 2 and 4, and continues developing for many years, even in adulthood. If everything a child wants is allowed, they will not learn how to control their wants and emotions and will face serious difficulties when transitioning from a home environment to a formal environment with strict rules, such as kindergarten, school, or the future the workplace.
A number of studies demonstrate that families who practice the so-calledpermissiveparenting, characterised by a loving and nurturing attitude but low demands and little disciplining, have children who are more prone to anxiety and depression, aggressive behaviour, poor school performance, being overweight, delinquency, substance and alcohol abuse.
What your child truly needs is a framework of rules and boundaries, in which to feel safe and secure. They need parents who clearly define what's allowed and what's not. Parents should be like competent and reliable leaders who know what's best for the child and are consistent in its affirmation. Toddlers and preschoolers (and even older kids) are definitely not ready to take responsibility for their own health and development - that responsibility and the accompanying decisions should be in the hands of parents.
This doesn't mean that your child won't protest and try to go around the rules. It's perfectly normal for toddlers to want to exercise their autonomy, assert their authority and repeat their favourite word "no" in all kinds of scenarios (I won't pick up the toys, put on my hat, brush my teeth, etc.)
It's the child's job to test the limits, and the parent's job to set them.
Children will keep on testing the limits until they are sure that the limits are firm. If we manage to react consistently, they will eventually accept the rules and be more calm in the future. In addition, when setting boundaries it's important to consider how old the child is. For example, we can't expect a 2-year-old to stand still at the table or eat without making any mess, but we can expect them to know that the table is for eating, not for climbing. On the other hand, a 5-year-old should already know what good table manners look like and can be expected to observe them.
Of course it's also not advisable to go into the opposite extreme - to set too many restrictions, be overly strict and demanding, and discipline by fear. Studies show that this style of parenting called „authoritarian“, which demands from children blind and unquestioning obedience, is associated with low self-esteem and shyness in children, inability to make decisions, mental disorders, and bullying at school (in the role of both victim and abuser). When boundaries are enforced through violence, threats, punishment and aggression, children are more likely to become aggressive and have behaviour problems when they grow up.
The successful method of disciplining is that of „authoritative“ parents, who know how to set clear boundaries, but at the same time offer their children understanding and support. Unlike in authoritarian parenting, children aren't afraid of parents, but on the contrary - they feel that they can trust them to accept their negative emotions and help them move forward. Authoritative parents also have demands, but they do not impose them "because I said so and you must obey". Instead they explain the rules, take into account the child's point of view and encourage positive behaviour.
Research shows that children who grow up in families with at least one authoritative parent are more likely to become independent, self-reliant, socially accepted and successful students. Depression and anxiety are less common, as well as deviant behaviour and addiction.
But how does effective limit setting look like in practice? And what to do when your child doesn't want to follow the rules? Find the answers in the next article.
"This publication was created with the financial support of the Active Citizens Fund Bulgaria under the Financial Mechanism of the European Economic Area. The entire responsibility for the content of this publication lies with the Health and Social Development Foundation and under no circumstances can it be assumed that this publication reflects the official opinion of the Financial Mechanism of the European Economic Area and the Operator of the Active Citizens Fund Bulgaria."