Even the most adorable toddlers will at some point begin testing limits — and their parents’ patience. It’s normal and healthy for children to explore boundaries, but it’s not healthy for them to frequently defy well meaning parents.

Children who defy and do the opposite of what parents desire often start doing so between 18 months and three years of age. When it occurs, it’s important to handle it promptly and carefully.

One caution, however, is that parents need to understand whether the behavior is truly defiant. Every child has a unique temperament and progresses in his or her own way. Children are bright and curious, and their hope can be taken away if adults misread these natural assets. Impulsiveness and aggression are cues that your child’s behavior warrants modification.

Developing consistent limits to behaviors is the first step in changing your child’s behavior. Understanding what’s behind the behavior — what the child wants and is not getting — and addressing those needs can often take care of the problem.

Otherwise, the child needs more predictable guidelines. Routines and expectations need to be clearly discussed and identified, as do natural consequences.

When a child complies, he or she should be rewarded immediately with hugs, verbal praise and even small rewards, such as stickers, if needed. Despite some appearances, children love to please their parents. Attending to your child’s positive behavior will encourage more of it.

When a child does not comply, consequences should follow immediately. Time-outs can be a highly effective consequence for negative behaviors, allowing both the child and the parent to take a break. Time-outs should be measured in minutes, and several brief time-outs are more effective than one lengthy one. Parents’ as well as the child’s ability to transition to calm, should be determining factors.

Whatever the case, it’s important for parents to keep their cool. When your child pursues an emotional response from you, focus on the exchange rather than giving an emotional response to an emotional outburst. You have to learn together as you expect change from your child.

As published in the May 18, 2003, edition of the La Crosse Tribune.