Annoying But Age-Appropriate
Coping With Preschool Behavior
By Robyn Des Roches
For several months last year, my neighbor waged daily battle with her 3 ½-year-old daughter. First, the preschooler rejected the outfits her mom picked out, then she wouldn’t wear her coat, and finally she resisted getting dressed at all. Infuriated and concerned, my neighbor sought the advice of a pediatrician. “I have good news and bad news,” he said. “You have a perfectly normal child.” He added that he’d be more worried to hear that a 3 ½-year-old was not insisting on dressing herself—or that she did not interrupt, occasionally act bossy, refuse to share toys or engage in a range of other irritating but totally predictable preschool-age behaviors.
Annoying and Age-Appropriate
- Difficult and provoking behaviors such as these are set in motion by an array of developmental factors typical of children between the ages of 3 and 5. These include:
- The drive toward independence. This hard-wired, instinctive urge leads children to strive to do things for themselves, and in their own way. When they are thwarted, tantrums and power struggles can ensue.
- Deficient impulse control. The brakes that help slow down reactivity simply do not work well yet.
- Undeveloped emotional intelligence. Young children do not understand the roller coaster ride of their own feelings, let alone others’.
- Inadequate vocabulary to express their needs and desires. “Using their words” is not as easy as it sounds.
The upshot of all these factors is that preschool-age children tend to lash out instead of speaking out. Tears and physical aggression are their knee-jerk responses to many difficult situations.
Why You Can’t Just Say “No”
Because of their lack of impulse control, preschoolers cannot stop on a dime at the word “No.” Better cooperation will result from establishing clear limits on behavior, as well as relevant and reasonable consequences for noncompliance. When enthusiastic bathtub splashing soaks the floor, explain calmly, “You may play in the bathtub as long as there is no splashing. If water gets on the floor, bath time will be over and cleanup time will begin.” Children learn far more from their own experiences than from anything their parents tell them, so be prepared for testing. When splashing inevitably begins again, announce in a pleasant voice, “I see bath time is over. Please put on your pajamas, and I’ll show you how to mop the floor.”
Experiencing the logical consequences of their poor choices can help children learn to choose better in the future. It also allows them to gain practice in taking responsibility for their mistakes—in this case, by cleaning up spilled water. Discuss with your children the three or four limits you consider most important, and enforce them consistently. The teaching and training you do will require thought and self-control on your part and will pay far richer dividends than punishing and scolding.
Focus on the Message Behind the Behavior
One key to thriving during the preschool years is to channel your child’s needs and desires in positive directions, rather than to lock horns and oppose them. When demands for attention interrupt you on the phone, don’t shoo your child away. Instead, recognize her need for reassurance that you haven’t forgotten about her. Continue your conversation while pulling her in for a wordless hug, or bring out a special basket of toys or art supplies that she is allowed to use only when you are on the phone. You’ll put an end to the annoying behavior while providing your child with acceptable alternatives—a first step toward independent problem solving.
The daily battles at my neighbor’s ground to a halt once she let go of some of her authority and began training her daughter in independent self-care. Soon, not only was her daughter choosing her own clothes and dressing herself, she also was sorting her dirty laundry and putting her clean clothes away. The outfits weren’t always to her mother’s taste, but the morning routine became smooth as silk.
Reading up on child development or participating in a parenting class might make it easier to take annoying but age-appropriate behaviors in stride, with a sense of perspective and confidence that “this too shall pass.” When the going gets rough, bear in mind that the transition from babyhood to early childhood is hard on children, sometimes leaving them exhausted, bewildered, and at their wits’ end—feelings you can probably relate to!
Dealing with Challenging Behaviors
- Practice benign neglect. Energy flows where attention goes, so any type of attention—even scolding and lecturing—will fan the flames of bad behavior. Ignore mild infractions and your child will drop them sooner.
- Notice what your child is doing right. Use your attention to nourish the positive behaviors you want to encourage. “I saw how you stopped yourself from hitting your baby brother when he took your crayon away. That took patience and self-control.” Accompany your words with friendly body language, such as a warm smile, a thumbs-up or a hug.
- Accept your child’s feelings. Take the wind out of a brewing tantrum by agreeing instead of arguing, “Yes, wouldn’t it be great if we could stay at the playground all day and night? We could use those sticks to build a house. Do you think it would keep us warm?”
- Lighten up and be playful. Use humor and distraction to avoid conflict. Announce dramatically, “It’s time for the Amazing Speed Clean!” (set the timer or sing a clean-up song). Make your “No” sound like “Yes”: “You’re in the mood to jump! We can’t use beds for jumping. Let’s go put the couch cushions on the floor and make a trampoline.”
Robyn Des Roches is a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP). PEP teaches classes and workshops to parents of children from birth through the teen years. PEP’s free workshop “Parenting With a Plan,” for parents of infants and toddlers, will be on March 3 in Kensington. Visit PEPparent.org or call 301-929-8824 or 703-242-8824.