You’re saying no to a cookie before lunch, or insisting that he be strapped into the car seat before you leave the driveway. Your four-year-old folds his arms, digs in his heels and declares, “You’re not the boss of me!”
So now what do you do?
Take a deep breath. While preschool defiance is terribly frustrating, it’s a sign of normal development, says Victoria parent educator Allison Rees. “Defiance is all about independence. Kids are realizing ‘Hey, I have ideas. I have things I don’t want to do.’”
Defiance can lead us straight into power struggles — the kind that tend to end with both the parent and child in tears. “It can also lead to a sense of urgency about gaining some control over our kids,” says Rees. “We tend to think: ‘If he acts this way now, what’s he going to be like as a teenager?’”
The last thing you want to do is tighten the belt and get tough, she says. Obedience isn’t all it’s cracked up to be; after all, we want to raise a child who has the gumption to stand firm in the face of peer pressure down the road. “It’s healthy for kids to begin to unplug from us — to start thinking for themselves, making their own choices.”
Dealing with defiance is a matter of thinking creatively about how we can give our kids more independence, not less. There are lots of opportunities throughout the day to offer your child choices (“Would you like French toast or pancakes for breakfast?” “Do you think you’d like to wear your sneakers or your sandals to the park?”). Having plenty of experiences where she has a choice satisfies her need for independence, so that when there’s no choice, she’s less likely to defy.
Pick your battles
We can also pick our battles by distinguishing between situations where we can offer a choice and those that are non-negotiable.
When it comes to non-negotiables, it’s important to back away from a power struggle by standing firm but staying calm. If your little one is refusing to get into his car seat, you can insist quietly, “You have to be buckled in before the car can go.” It may take a few more minutes to get going — and that can be a problem when you’re running late for work.
If the car seat battle is a regular occurrence, Rees suggests bringing it up at a neutral time. Explain that the two of you need to be on time. Ask “What do you think we can do to make getting into the car seat easier for you?” You’re being firm about the safety rules, but at the same time giving back some power to your child (“What can you suggest?”). It may be that climbing into the seat, then checking his own buckles to make sure they’re done up properly, will give him enough of a feeling of control that he doesn’t balk so much at the prospect of buckling up.
Bear in mind that defiance may, in fact, be an emotional overload. “The part of the brain that allows a child to name and talk about feelings isn’t up and running yet in a preschooler,” says Rees. “We often say, ‘Use your words’ but, in fact, that’s really difficult for a four-year-old. When he’s angry or frustrated, he’s more likely to express it physically: grabbing, throwing, stomping.… We have to be an emotional scribe for our kids when they can’t find the words to express their feelings.”
Fear of independence
There’s also a flip side to defiance, which is a fear of independence, says Rees. After weeks of insisting she can put on her own shoes, your child surprises you one morning by insisting “You do it.” Our instinct is to push back: “You don’t need help with this, you’re four years old — you can put on your own shoes!”
But, says Rees, “the normal pattern of development isn’t full speed ahead; it’s more like two steps forward, one step back.” Sometimes kids need to return to a comfortable place to gain the confidence they need to shoot ahead. As you fasten the shoes, you might say, “I think you feel like you need help with your shoes today. I bet tomorrow you might feel like you can do it all by yourself.”
Perhaps the best thing parents can do is to empathize when kids become defiant. A power struggle over brushing teeth or waiting for dinner can often be defused by acknowledging that it’s really hard to wait or to have to do stuff that’s a bother. Marrying empathy and clarity (“We have to brush even though we don’t like it so that we don’t get holes in our teeth”) ups the odds that, eventually, kids will get it.