Life with children can be a whirlwind. Sometimes it feels like you're simply surviving the moments between naps, being blown by the toddler tornado of testing and tantrums. You count yourself lucky when they agree to a bath or finish an entire meal sitting at the table.
But, wait a minute. Who's the boss here? How did we get to the point of walking on eggshells around these tiny humans hoping to avoid another public outburst?
WATCH: How to handle toddler tantrums. Story continues below video.
One of the most difficult parts of parenthood has got to be setting clear, consistent limits and then following through when our children don't want to cooperate. It makes us feel guilty, frustrated and just plain exhausted. And aren't we supposed to be setting them free to conquer the world unhindered? That seems to be what they want.
Toddlers need parents to be leaders
The truth is that young children need us to be strong leaders who set clear boundaries so that they can feel safe to explore within those guidelines. In fact, without firm limits, children can feel aimless and unfocused, constantly testing and searching for where and when we will step in to stop their behaviour.
This causes further testing and heightened tensions for both parent and child.
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But a child who knows exactly what is expected of them feels confident to go further, knowing they will be reined in if they get out of bounds.
So, how do we set these boundaries respectfully and, more importantly, help our little ones to stay within the lines?
Keep it simple
First, parents and other caregivers should agree on a few family values that they want to pass on to their children. Remember that every interaction with a young child is a learning experience. What do you want to teach them about how your family behaves and treats others?
Once you've figured out these core beliefs, you can set a few rules for the household. For example, "In our family, we treat each other kindly." This principle is simple, but it encompasses a lot.
If your toddler is pulling the cat's tail, you can quickly step in, gently remove the child's hand and say, "This hurts the cat. In our family, we are gentle with each other's bodies. Do you want to try again?"
Say 'no' sparingly
"No" is a very powerful word. Chances are, if you live with a toddler, you hear this word about a thousand times a day. But how many of those times are from your own mouth? And how much does your child pay attention?
"No" from a parent's mouth can lose its power very quickly, so try using other phrases unless the situation is dangerous. This way your child may hear you when you say, "No, I cannot let you cross the road without holding my hand."
Choosing other wording also lets you set a limit without getting your toddler's knickers in a twist. For example, "I can't let you pull the leaves off this houseplant. Let's go outside and pick some flowers for the dinner table." Or try, "I'm concerned that you are going to fall off the couch if you continue jumping. Let's make a fort on the floor and hop through the pillows."
Follow through and be consistent
Once you've established clear limits, be consistent in restating expectations, and ensure you follow through with logical consequences. The keyword here is logical. Remember that you are trying to guide your child's behaviour, not have them resent you or, worse, hide their mistakes or missteps.
A logical consequence stems from the behaviour and is immediate. Telling a child they won't get to watch TV later because they are running in the grocery store doesn't make sense to them, and will not led to stopping the behaviour long term.
Instead, if your child continues to run after you've stated the limit ("I can't let you run in the store. I'm concerned you will get lost or knock into someone's cart."), you need to step in calmly, narrating what you are doing. "I see you are still running. This shows me that you need my help to stop. I will help you sit in the cart and we can try again later." Then do it.
If they scream and you let them continue running in this moment, you have taught them that screaming makes you give in. If you put them in the cart or leave the store, then they have learned this limit is real and consistent.
Don't take tantrums personally
Wouldn't it be lovely if, after setting limits and establishing boundaries, our little people would just fall into line every time? Yes and no. It would be easier, that's for sure, but it would be very strange behaviour for a toddler.
Their job at this age is to figure out the world and how to be in it. They're constantly exploring, pushing and trying new things — especially when they're with people who make them feel safe. So, lucky parents, how can you best respond to your child's big feelings when they don't get their way?
First, don't take it personally. This is healthy age-appropriate behaviour. Try to understand external factors that may be contributing to their frustration. Are they hungry? Tired? Overwhelmed? Sometimes a logical consequence won't make sense and, instead, removing them from the situation is the most respectful response (as in the grocery store scenario).
Second, remember that big, ugly feelings are scary to express. Your child is not having fun during a tantrum. They're asking for help.
If you can respond calmly, with understanding, you will be building a relationship of trust with your child. "I see you are frustrated. You really do not want to leave the park. We need to go home for dinner now. I'm going to use my gentle hands to put you in your car seat so we can get home in time to eat with the family."
This keeps the limit while demonstrating your compassion for their feelings. It shows that you understand them and that you are not afraid of their anger or sadness. You can handle it and you can show them how to handle it too.
Remember you're building a relationship
As you practice setting limits and following through, you will see your child's behaviour begin to change. Through the ups and downs, remember that you are sowing the seeds of firm, loving boundaries now to reap the rewards of a healthy relationship later.
You are your child's guide through life, so how you respond to their trickiest behaviours will show them how you expect them to behave in the world. Down the road, when they are having trouble with a friend at school or struggling to create their own boundaries, they will feel safer coming to you with their worries.
They will remember that you love them, even through the hardest times. Because, of course you do.
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