Three reasons your child tests you
If you are a parent, you will be tested at some point. Here are three reasons your child tests you and what you can do about it. This testing we’re talking about often starts in early toddlerhood and it can be a bit of a shock to the system when your otherwise happy go lucky baby starts pushing back. What I want you to know is that testing is very normal, and ALL children do it. But first, let’s start by defining what we mean by test.
Testing to establish reliability
The oxford English dictionary defines test in the following way.
Test: a behaviour or measure intended to establish the quality, performance, or reliability of something, (especially before it is taken into widespread use).
Children can (and will) test your patience, the quality of your parenting, and your reliability. They want to know if you will do what you say you’ll do.
Another form of test is Protest.
Protest is defined as: a statement or action expressing disapproval of or objection to something.
As your child learns they are separate from you and can make their own choices, it’s natural that they won’t always agree with you. But at the same time, they’re also not old enough to fully manage themselves. Leaving you both stuck between a rock and a hard place. Tests and protest are deliberate (and different to overwhelm)
Don’t take it personally
It’s normal for children to test your boundaries and push the limits; either by testing or protesting. In fact, your child will push and test again and again in different ways. This is how they learn. The key is in how you respond.
You as the parent need to teach your child what is socially acceptable. Parents are key in setting limits and establishing social cues until at least five years of age, but from a parenting perspective I’m still largely involved in this as my children hit their teens (and testing boundaries starts again in earnest).
Don’t take it personally. Testing is part of being a child. Here are three common reasons your child tests you.
1. Are the rules still the rules?
kids will test you to be sure “one more time” that the rules are still the rules, and that the boundaries haven’t moved. Children learn from experience. They need to practice what they can and cannot do. And that’s because Consistency and predictability matter to children. They are looking for the same rules and the same response over and over (and over again). This is why they want you to read them the same book over and over again. Predictability is soothing.
Children literally thrive with stability and consistency. Children find safety, and security in knowing what comes next, knowing what to expect, and then having that expectation met. One of the best things you can do for your children is give them the predictability of your reactions. When they test you, act the same way. Resist the temptation to change it up.
Remember that children aren’t born knowing what you expect of them. They have to be taught… and this is cemented through practice. They’re practicing this each time they test you. That means having clear expectations and not changing the rules. That, dear parents, is your job.
A child without a clear structure, one who gets a different response each time they test the same thing, will act out even more, because they are struggling to know what you expect of them. They will test more and more to find the boundaries.
The easiest way for me to explain this testing concept is with a roller coaster analogy.
The roller coaster analogy
When you first get on a roller coaster, you put your safety belt on, right? Do you ever test it? (hint: most people do, and if you don’t test this yourself, the operator of the ride likely will). Are you testing the safety belt hoping that it moves? NO! You’re testing it hoping it stays secure. And this is why our children test us. They need to know everything is secure. The rules are still the rules. You and your responses are your child’s safety belt on the roller coaster of life. This applies especially to toddlers, teens and any anxious child.
I didn’t coin this analogy by the way (I’m not sure exactly who did sorry). But I find it a really powerful image. I love roller coasters, but if my safety belt wasn’t secure, I too would be screaming as the roller coaster starts. Thinking of testing this way, makes it seem much more logical.
2. Curiosity and acknowledgement
Children are children and they want to know how you’ll react. They are curious and learn through experience. They want to see what you’ll do if they test you. This is especially true in toddlerhood, when everything is still new and you’re only starting to lay the foundations. This is when you say “stop banging on the table” they might just look at you and bang a bit quieter to see what you actually mean by “banging”. Is quiet banging acceptable if loud banging is not?
At an older age your child will often know when they are doing something that isn’t allowed (and chances are you know they know by the look they give you).
But sometimes they just want you to acknowledge their feelings. They want you to agree that it’s hard or it sucks. Acknowledge they don’t want to do something.
But they still want you to hold those boundaries. That’s still important. It doesn’t mean you can’t negotiate (especially at an older age), but make sure it is in a structured way, at a suitable time (not bedtime for example). If you do change the rules, make sure there is a good reason for doing so; reasons that are clear to your older child. Don’t back down simply for the sake of backing down. This also leads on to our next reason…
3. Do you see me?
Your child can also test you if they feel forgotten or pushed aside, they may test boundaries just to get attention. They are simply saying “do you see me?”.
Life happens, we get busy, and a child can react to that in a seemingly negative way. If you’re not already spending quality one on one time with them regularly, set aside 15-20 minutes a day for them. Quality one-on-one time with each child. Get down at their level (on the floor) and let them lead the play, without screens or books. Pure interaction. This helps full their attention cup so they’re not having to act out to get your attention.
Six strategies to prevent acting out
- Be predictable. If you have clear expectations and household rules in place, make sure you abide to these daily. If you stick to the rules sometimes and not others, your child will just get confused and test you even more to see what you want them to do. If you don’t already have clear expectations and rules in place. Set some. But be prepared to follow through!
- Tell them what they can do, vs what they can’t. Instead of “don’t run” try “walk please”.
- Let them know what is happening in advance. Offer warnings and reminders to let them transition from one activity to the next. Be transparent so there are no surprises. A lot of the frustration a child experiences occurs when they expect one thing, but another thing happens. When that happens it’s a sure-fire way to encourage a tantrum.
- Give them some control – in a limited, structured way – by using “this” or “that” choices. If it’s time for pyjamas, would they like their red ones or their blue ones. For toddlers, keep it a simple this or that choice, any more can be overwhelming.
- Focus on the positives – the behaviour we give attention to is the behaviour that continues – so give your attention to the good behaviour, no matter how small. This way you’ll see more of the good stuff. Make sure you are specific in your comments, so your child knows what they are doing well, and they know what to do more of. Any attention is attention, even the bad attention that involves yelling and going red in the face. No of course we never yell at our children. I don’t do that either **cough.
- Monitor their outbursts, does your child always melt down or test you when they’re tired or when they’re hungry? When you know the trigger, you can counteract it. Look for the pattern, sometimes even certain foods can cause bad behaviour. I for one will never give my son Fanta again; that orange food colouring really works against us in this family.
Testing is part of a child’s development, and it will happen. But sticking to the rules, remaining calm and consistent, yes, even in the face of these seemingly constant tests, will see the tests blow over. At least until the next time. So set those limits and hold your ground, then after the test has blown over, reassure your child that you love him, tantrums and all.
Do you have any strategies not listed here that help? We’d love to hear them.
Keep breathing Mumma. You’ve got this.
Kim is a psychology major and Mum who helps parents solve sleep issues and establish healthy sleep habits. This often overlaps with behaviour, especially protest, as bedtime is a common time for children to act up. But it doesn’t have to be like that! If you’re looking for sleep help, check out Kim’s website and when you’re ready to make a change, book a free initial call to see how she can help you and your family.