Setting Limits for Toddlers

By Megan Cottrell

“No , sweetie. You can't play with that.”

“No, no, no. I told you no more cookies.”

“No! Stop hitting your brother!” 

As the parent of a toddler, you might feel like you say the word “no” nonstop. And “no” is like a boomerang: The more your toddler hears it, the more he’ll shout it back. So can you set limits on your toddler's behavior without using the word? Judy Arnall, family educator and author of Discipline Without Distress, has five tips to avoid “no” without abandoning discipline.

Use positive commands.

Although “no” may seem direct, your toddler might not get it. “They don't understand that no means 'not doing something,'” says Arnall. “It's an abstract concept for them.” Instead, tell your child what you'd like him to do. Say, “Let's walk” instead of “Don't run!” or “It's time for a quiet voice,” instead of “No yelling!”


Put the things you don't want your toddler playing with away and create spaces that are safe for him to explore. “It just saves a lot of aggravation on the part of the parents and frustration on the part of the toddler,” says Arnall. In a few years, your child will have the self-control to understand why he can't touch something, but until his brain have mastered that skill, it's better to keep off-limits things out of reach altogether.  


When her own kids were little, Arnall says she used this trick when they passed by the toy store at the mall. She would draw their attention to the stores on the other side, eliminating the need to say no. “If you want to draw them away from something, you dangle something more exciting in front of them and they'll naturally gravitate to it,” says Arnall.

Use touch.

Because toddlers are just learning to use language, physical touch can often be more useful for communication than actual words. Even better, says Arnall, use eye contact with touch to get your toddler's attention and keep his focus. For instance, bend down to your toddler’s level and place your hands on his shoulders so he’s looking squarely at you.

Say yes as much as you can, and honor their nos.

If it's not too much effort, say yes as many times as you can,” says Arnall. “Save your nos for the big things like hitting and biting, then your nos will have impact.” And when your child says no back? Try to honor his wishes, if you can.  “Saying no is a very good life skill. You don't want to squelch that,” says Arnall. “There are times in your child's life that you're going to want them to shout “No!” and know that they will be heard.”

See more: Coping with Toddler Whining