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Children will test the limits, that's how they will learn what is right and wrong.

Don’t worry when young children test the limits. That’s how they learn what is right and wrong. It is perfectly normal but it can test your patience. It can help if you have regular routines and some family rules.

You can help create order and structure to your day with consistent routines and family rules. Things are more likely to go smoothly when you and your child know what to expect. 

  • Routines will help your child feel safe and know what to expect. Your child will like getting into a regular pattern and knowing what’s coming up. You can make routines for young children around meals, snacks and sleep times. A bedtime routine might be taking a bath, brushing teeth, getting into bed, reading a story and then turning off (or dimming) the lights. For older children it could be explaining the night before that they have school or nursery the next day; who will drop them off and pick them up; and what will happen when they get home. Find the routine that works for your family.
  • Within your routine there can be some flexibility. If it's sunny, why not go for a walk or have your lunch as a picnic. If someone drops in for a chat, take time away from the routine to enjoy their company.
  • Let your child know if a change is coming. Some children find it frustrating when they have to change from one activity to another without warning. Your child will come to expect and accept change better when they know it’s coming. For example “After breakfast we are going to the shops“, “When you have finished your lunch then it will be time for a nap”, “When we have had a bath then it will be bedtime”.
  • Family rules teach your child what behaviours are acceptable. Having a routine supports this learning.
  • Keep rules clear and simple, in keeping with your child’s age and ability. The number of rules you have will depend on your child’s ability to understand and remember. With young children try to focus on two or three rules at any one time. For older children, you can ask them to repeat the rules back to you so that you can clear up any confusion and make them feel supported. 
  • Talk to your child about exactly what you expect of them. Tell and show your child what you want them to do instead of what you don’t want them to do. For example, say “Please put your toys in the box” and show them what to do, rather than “Don’t leave your toys out”.
  • Try to encourage everyone close to your child to support the rules in the same way. Problems can happen when parents, grandparents and others close to your child follow different rules. Your child may get confused if they are allowed to do something one day and then told off for doing the same thing the next day.
  • Set rules that work for your child’s age. Make sure your child is able to do what you expect of them. If your child is young they won’t be able to sit still for long or never spill a drink. It is normal for young children to be noisy and messy and it is normal for children to try to test the limits and question what is going on. You can adapt your rules as your child gets older and has the understanding and ability to follow them.
  • Reward and praise your child for following routines and rules. This makes it more likely that your child will follow the routines and rules in the future.

Keeping your normal daily routines going can make it easier for your child to deal with stressful events, such as the birth of a new baby, a family break-up, starting school, or a house move.