Your child is not testing you

Babies are physically exhausting to parent, but as they grow into toddlerhood and beyond, the physical exhaustion is slowly replaced by emotional exhaustion. For much of babyhood, needs and wants are identical, but over time needs and wants start to diverge, which means that parents need to start setting limits.

We can’t let our kids run into a busy street.
Occasionally they need to take a bath.
Sometimes ice cream isn’t an appropriate breakfast.

Figuring out how to set effective and appropriate limits can be one of the hardest parts of parenting. How do you choose the right limits? How important is it to stick to them every time? What should you do when your kids try to ignore your limits?

A common framework in our culture for answering these parenting questions is to suggest that the parents should make the rules however they see fit, stick to them every time, and when the kids fail to adhere to the rules, there should be consequences. A kid who fails to follow the rules is “testing” the parents to see whether they will be consistent in enforcing the rules. I don’t believe this is true at all.

Like adults, kids have their own agendas for what they want to do at any given time. All humans have a need for adventure and exploration as well as safety and security. We also have the need to do meaningful work and to rest.  When we are feeling adventurous, we don’t like being reigned in. When we are feeling insecure and scared, we want to receive comfort from a loved one. When we are deeply engaged in a project, we don’t like to be interrupted to do some boring task like cleaning up. When we are at rest, we don’t like to be prompted to work. Kids are no different from adults in this regard.

So what does this mean for when your toddler wants to run into the street after you’re already told her that it isn’t safe? Or your preschooler refuses to clean up his crayons? If your child isn’t testing you, then what is going on??

There are several possibilities.

1. She is following her own agenda.

Just like you, your kid has her own agenda. It may be your priority to get the house cleaned up, but it might be her priority to keep her multi-day coloring project going. No one likes to be interrupted in the middle of a big project. Your desk at work might be a mess, but chances are your boss doesn’t come through and suddenly announce that all your papers have go to into your drawers or in the trash. If she did, you would probably be offended. What about your work? What about your plans? What if you can’t find what you need later?

Of course, there may be a very good reason why you need your kids to follow your agenda instead of theirs. Maybe they set their project up in the middle of the hallway and everyone is tripping on it. Maybe you have new guests coming over and you would like to keep up the illusion that you live in a clean and organized home. It’s ok for the adults to call the shots sometimes, but if our kids don’t want to go along with our plan, chances are it’s not because they are hatching a scheme to “test” us, it’s because they are simply as wrapped up in their own plans as we are in ours.

2. His impulse control is still developing.

For most parents, there are things we tell our kids what seems like a million times. Shouldn’t they already know that we don’t touch those glass figures in the store because they are breakable? Chances are, by a certain age your child has internalized the message intellectually, but still lacks the impulse control to reign in her behavior.

A recent survey by the Zero to Three Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on early childhood development, found that 56% of parents believe that before age 3, children could resist doing something that their parents had forbidden. In fact, children do not develop this ability until about 3.5 to 4 years old, and even after that, often require help. Just because a kid “knows” what the rule is, it doesn’t mean their brain development has gotten to the point that they can follow the rule consistently. This will come with time and gentle guidance. Studies have consistently shown that “clear, consistent, but nonpunitive parental control” is associated with the development of children’s self-control.

3. He is “acting out” his emotions.

Some kids will look you straight in the eye and prepare to do something they know full well they shouldn’t, like picking up a rock and poising to throw it (or even throwing it). If this kid isn’t testing you, what is he doing? In these cases it’s likely that your child has what Dr. Laura Markham of Aha Parenting calls a “full emotional backpack,” meaning that over time, the little stressors of the day accumulate and are carried with a kid until they can release those feelings with someone they trust.

Young kids know when they feel bad inside, but they generally lack the cognitive ability and vocabulary to understand that the feeling they are experiencing is frustration and that there are ways to cope with it. They know that they are really uncomfortable emotionally, but without the ability to express it verbally, they express it physically. They literally ACT OUT their frustration, like a really unenjoyable game of charades. Helping them label their emotions and working on some coping mechanisms together will improve their ability to deal with frustrating situations.

4. She needs more risky play.

Both human and animal children are designed to play. As developmental psychologist Peter Gray notes, young mammals “gallop, leap, swing about in trees (if they are primates), and chase one another, they continuously alternate between losing and regaining control over their bodily movements. When they leap, for example, they twist and turn in ways that make it difficult to land. They seem to be dosing themselves with moderate degrees of fear, as if deliberately learning how to deal with both the physical and emotional challenges of the moderately dangerous conditions they generate.”

Animal studies have shown that when young primates are deprived of play, they grow up unable to cope with stressful situations as adults, becoming overly fearful and sometimes aggressive. Gray argues that the decline in play over the past half century is a direct contributor to the increased rates of anxiety and depression in adolescents and young adults.

If you find that your kid is regularly blazing past your warnings of “be careful” and “slow down” and “don’t climb on that,” perhaps it’s because her brain is built to know exactly what it needs, which is to play, explore, and take some risks. Chances are she isn’t testing you. She is testing out her skills, abilities, and her coping mechanisms.

What has your experience been? Does it seem like your kids are testing you? What do you think is really happening?


6 thoughts on “Your child is not testing you

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  1. Thankyou for this, as a parent of very strong-willed primary school aged kids its easy to fall back on thinking they are “doing it to you” when its actually not about you at all. Can you follow this up with some practical advice for parents who might be struggling to cope with feeling like their kids are “testing them”? How can one take a step back and regain perspective when they are overwhelming us? Similarly, how can a parent help encourage slightly older kids to handle their own decision-making in a way that is healthy and generally sensible, and manage their emotional loads?


    1. Thank you. Yes! Great ideas for a series of follow up articles. In the meantime, also has lots of great practical advice too.


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