I remember it as plain as day: my four-year-old Sam squaring his shoulders, folding his arms and glaring at me. “You’re not the boss of me!” he said, as I insisted he help put his bike away in the shed.
While moments like these can be tricky to navigate, this kind of defiance is pretty normal at this age. Preschoolers are learning to be independent, capable of making decisions on their own. In fact, says Toronto parenting educator and parentingnetwork.ca founder Beverley Cathcart-Ross, “if they’re not asserting themselves, you should probably be a bit concerned.”
Sometimes children use their words: “You can’t make me” or “Bad Mommy” is a very direct way of expressing frustration with the situation. When a four-year-old says, “I don’t like you, Daddy,” she’s probably trying to hurt your feelings because you’ve hurt her feelings in some way, says Cathcart-Ross. A young child doesn’t have the self-control to resist saying hurtful things, or the language skills to express feelings in more socially acceptable ways. “And we can hurt our children’s feelings simply in the way we treat them,” she adds.
But the dawdler who takes forever to get ready, or sits in the corner oblivious to our pleas to get moving, is also sending a clear message. One way or another, defiant behaviour is a child’s way of expressing that she doesn’t like the demands being made on her.
Kids also have different priorities than their parents, and that can lead to conflict. A child engrossed in building a block tower, when you call him to the dinner table, may resist because what matters to him is finishing his project. “What’s bugging him is the power and control you have,” says Cathcart-Ross. The pitfall, of course, is to escalate the conflict with threats, shame or blame: “If you don’t come now, they’ll be no dinner for you.”
Creating an atmosphere in your home of co-operation rather than competition may help avoid power struggles, says Cathcart-Ross. “When kids feel they’ve lost the competition, they are likely to take the conflict to the next level, which is rebellion, revenge, retaliation (‘I don’t like you, Mommy’) and the blocks go flying in all directions.”
Dealing with defiance
Here are some suggestions from Cathcart-Ross for dealing with your child’s defiance:
1. Explain the needs of the situation
As you get ready to leave the house in the morning, try saying “It’s leaving time. What do you need to do to be ready? Are you going to carry those shoes to the car or get them on? We’ve got to brush our teeth now or we’ll be late for school.” Sometimes parents forget to let kids know what’s expected.
2. Ask a question
If a child is demanding cookies five minutes before lunch is ready, you might ask, “When do we have cookies in our house?” Questions encourage kids to stop and think about the situation. And they help us to avoid saying no, which can escalate the conflict.
3. Offer information or an alternative
For example: “I can tell that you’re really hungry. Would you like to eat some carrot sticks now? Then we can have cookies for dessert later.”
4. Use humour
“Uh-oh, the cookie monster is on the loose!” Kids are born to test your limits. Humour is a great way to head off a potential power struggle. Sometimes just a grin and a raised eyebrow will do the trick.
5. Involve your child in routines and decisions
We often decide the routine, then expect our kids to follow it without question. If your daughter protests when you insist on a bath, you might say, “It seems like you really don’t like taking a bath. Let’s look at the calendar and see if we can decide on three days each week when you will take a bath.” When kids are treated as competent contributors, they tend to be more co-operative.
Some conflict is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean you have to engage in the power struggle. Parents can model effective ways to deal with conflict: “It seems like we’re having a struggle over turning off the TV before dinner. Let’s both take some time to cool down, then talk about it and see if we can come up with a solution together.” By doing this, you help kids learn to take charge of their own behaviour. They have a choice and a voice in the situation.