by Karen Miles
Reviewed by the BabyCenter Medical Advisory Board
Why preschoolers defy their parents
Your preschooler refuses to leave his friend’s house, ignores your request to put away his toys, and pushes his trucks down the stairs despite your repeated instructions not to. Why is he being so defiant?
Less dependent on you than he was as a toddler, your preschooler now has a stronger and more secure identity. He may even be developing a bit of a rebellious streak. “Defiance is how a preschooler asserts himself,” says Susanne Ayers Denham, a professor of psychology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
What you can do about defiance
Be understanding. When you ask your preschooler to come in for lunch and he yells, “Not now!” and then cries when you make him come in anyway, try to put yourself in his shoes. Give him a hug and tell him you know it’s tough to leave his friends, but lunch is ready.
The idea is to show him that instead of being part of the problem, you’re actually on his side. Try not to get angry (even if the neighbors are checking out the show your child’s putting on). Be kind but firm about making him come in when he must.
Set limits. Preschoolers need — and even want — limits, so set them and make sure your child knows what they are. Spell it out for him: “We don’t hit. If you’re angry, use your words to tell Adam you want the toy back” or “Remember, you always have to hold my hand in the parking lot.”
If your youngster has problems abiding by the rules (as every preschooler does), work on solutions. If he hits his little sister because he’s feeling left out, for instance, let him help you feed or bathe the baby, then find a way for him to have his own special time with you. If he gets out of bed because he’s afraid of the dark, give him a flashlight to keep on his nightstand.
Reinforce good behavior. Rather than paying attention to your preschooler only when he’s misbehaving, try to catch him acting appropriately. A simple “Thanks for hanging up your coat!” or “It’s so helpful when you share with your baby sister!” will go a long way toward encouraging your preschooler to do more of the same.
And although you may be sorely tempted to give your child a verbal lashing when he engages in less-than-desirable antics, hold your tongue. “When a child behaves badly, he already feels terrible,” says Jane Nelsen, author of the Positive Discipline series of books. “Where did we ever get the idea that in order to make children do better, we first have to make them feel worse?” In fact, doing so may only produce more negative behavior.
Remember, too, that disciplining your preschooler doesn’t mean controlling him — it means teaching him to control himself. Punishment might get him to behave, but only because he’s afraid not to. It’s best for your child to do the right thing because he wants to — because it makes the day more fun for him or makes him feel good.
Use time-outs — positively. When your preschooler’s ready to bust a gasket because he isn’t getting his way, help him cool off. Rather than a punitive time-out (“Go to your room!”), take him to a comfy sofa in the den or to a favorite corner of his bedroom.
Maybe your child would even like to design a “calm-down place” himself — with a big pillow, a soft blanket, and a few favorite books. If he refuses to go, offer to go along with him and read a story.
If he still refuses, go yourself — just to chill out. You’ll not only set a good example, you might get a much-needed break. Once you both feel better, that’s the time to talk about appropriate behavior.
Empower your preschooler. Providing opportunities for your youngster to make his own choices allows him to strut some of his newfound autonomy in a controlled environment. Instead of demanding that he put on the jeans you’ve selected, for instance, let him choose between two pairs you’ve laid out. Ask if he’d like peas or green beans with dinner, and which of two stories at bedtime.
Another way to help your youngster feel more in control is to tell him what he can do instead of what he can’t. Rather than saying, “No! Don’t swing the bat in the house!” say, “Let’s go outside and practice batting.” If he wants an ice-cream cone before dinner, tell him he can choose between a slice of cheese or an apple.
Choose your battles. If your fashion-savvy preschooler wants to wear his green camouflage sweatshirt with his orange striped shorts, what do you care? If he wants waffles for lunch and peanut butter and jelly for breakfast, what’s the harm? Sometimes it’s easier to look the other way — when he splashes in a mud puddle on the way home, for example, or stuffs his puppet under his bed instead of putting it on the proper shelf.
Distract and divert. Avoid situations that might spark your preschooler’s defiant streak. Why risk taking him to a fancy restaurant when you could just meet your sister for a picnic in the park? How realistic is it to expect him to behave in a clothing store or sit quietly during an hour-long community meeting?
If you find yourself in a tricky situation, use distraction to avoid a head-on collision with your child. If you’re walking through the mall and spy a toy store that tends to send your kid into a frenzy, quickly steer him in a different direction or divert his attention (“Wow, Jason, look at that fountain! Want to throw in a penny and make a wish?”).
Respect his age and stage. When you ask your preschooler to make his bed or sweep the porch, make sure he knows how. Take the time to teach him new tasks, and do them together until he really gets the hang of it. Sometimes what looks like defiance is simply the inability to follow through on a responsibility that’s too difficult.
Finally, respect the unique world your preschooler lives in, especially the way he perceives time (or doesn’t). Rather than expecting him to jump up from a game at preschool to get in the car, give him a few minutes’ notice to help him switch gears. (“Aaron, we’re leaving in five minutes, so please finish up.”)
There’s no guarantee that he’ll break away from his fun without complaint — in fact, he’ll probably grouse all the way home. But as long as you’re patient and consistent, your youngster will eventually learn that defiance isn’t the way to get what he wants.
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