Setting boundaries for toddlers and preschool children

Estimated read: 5 mins 

When a child is small, we often use boundaries to protect them and keep them away from harm or danger. But it is important that you explain why boundaries are there - for instance, if you pull away from an open fire explain why.

Key points: 

  • Coping with their resistance 
  • Understanding how they can test your limits 
  • What can help them grow their independence skills 
nan and her grandson

Coping with resistance

When parents ask a child to do something that they don't want it, it is natural for them to be met with resistance. One way to stop this happening is to let them know why something is important. Boundaries are about setting the bottom line or making agreements about what is acceptable and what is not.

Boundaries work far better if they are made and agreed by everyone. When children see the sense of it, or know you've taken their opinions into account, they are more motivated to co-operate. Although we can understand it is not easy trying to do this with young children. 

Testing your limits

As children grow, most will test the limits - this is quite normal behaviour. When they become older you may need to change or amend these boundaries to reflect different or new behaviours and experiences.

When you do this, involve your child so that you can negotiate the new boundaries together. Too many boundaries can cause resentment and be impossible to maintain. Work out what is really important to you and what you could let go.

Rules can help you keep your child safe, but as they get older you will need to negotiate and let them take more responsbility for their own safety. There may be times when your values conflict with the values that your children are learning from others or from watching something from the TV or online. This may be when you find yourself negotiating and setting boundaries. 

Things that can help

  • Remember that setting boundaries can sometimes make children feel safe when the world seems otherwise out of control.
  • Occasionally giving children responsibility for their own safety is a good thing.
  • Make a visual poster and ask them to help draw it with little symbols so they feel a part of it.
  • Get books to help you reinforce your message, the library or book stores will have lots of different books that are age appropriate.
  • It is ok to try lots of different ways before you find a method that works well for your family.
  • When your young child does keep within the boundaries you have set, give them lots of praise and positive attention.
  • Allow them time to practice and understand that they may slip up now and again.

Further resources 

It may help to chat to other parents on our forums to find out how they are dealing with this issue within their family life. You can also talk to us online via our live chat service, email us at or call us on our helpline on 0808 800 2222 to speak to trained family support worker. Alternatively, you can speak to your Health Visitor for some guidance. 

 Watch your video about a toddler's need for independence


This page was update on June 2021.

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