By Annie Keeling, MFA - Early Childhood Educator
If you have a child under the age of 5, then you have surely experienced their will. As they grow, the cries that make their needs known turn to more developed actions, words, and BIG emotions – especially when they don’t get what they want.
An example of this increasing will may be your child’s refusal to do what you ask. This can be one of the greatest frustrations for parents.
He runs from me and tries to hide whenever it’s bedtime.
She refuses to brush her teeth.
His favorite word is no.
She won’t stay at the table during meal time.
Your child’s refusal to do what you ask can wreak havoc on what might have been a previously wonderful day. A trip to the park might end in his refusal to leave. Or she might refuse to eat breakfast or get in the car seat, making you late for preschool drop-off. What if he continues with an unacceptable behavior like looking in Grandma’s drawers or standing up in the shopping cart?
If the behavior continues, you may find yourself tired, frustrated, annoyed, or even angry. Your energy – one of the most important resources in your family – might get drained. You may even have a snap reaction – or the child might respond with those big emotions, moving into tantrum territory. Either way, a sense of chaos and anxiety permeates the desired calm and joyful household.
Many parents try to penalize their child to help them learn a desired behavior. Research clearly shows that children learn best in a positive environment. Punishment and reward almost always involve some level of fear on the part of the child, even if it is the fear that they won’t be rewarded. Other parents default to doing nothing, hoping their child will outgrow the behavior. This works minimally for some, and not at all for others.
So what’s another way to support your child to develop their will and get needs met – while still doing the job of keeping your child safe and healthy? Let’s look at the example of not listening:
· A Good Problem: Let’s reframe the issue. When your child doesn’t listen, that’s a good problem. Your child is showing you what they haven’t yet learned. In this case, you will teach the child to listen and respond.
· Practice: You can help your child practice listening skills so they can learn what it is that you want them to do. This is followed by self-control games so they gain the skills to focus and do what you are asking. These games will help them practice the behavior you want them to have in real-life scenarios. The good news is that your child doesn’t know when they are practicing or when it’s the real deal - but you will know as you guide the experience and help your child learn.
· Stop Their World: If a child is upset and the parent is exhausted - then the world as the family knows it is already disrupted. Using tools that stop the child’s world gets their attention and prevents them from leading the family forward. Many subtle actions may have led up to the child feeling that no one is driving the bus. Tools that stop the child’s world can help the family get back on track. The key here is that they stop the child’s world, but not the parent’s.
Stop Their World with “I’m Drained”: When your child doesn’t listen, this is exhausting. This tool incorporates that energy loss into the experience and helps teach the child the desired behavior. In essence, the parent stops the child’s world.
Let’s say the parent has been teaching the child to be respectful to their cat. The child pulls the cat’s tail.
“The cat’s tail is not for pulling. Use gentle hands to pet the cat.”
Whenever the parent isn’t looking, the child runs over to the cat and pulls its tail.
“Every time you pull the cat’s tail, it makes me sad. That hurts our cat. That behavior is draining my energy.”
A few minutes later, the child asks the parent to roll out some dough and play.
“I wish I could. But I’m just too drained. Every time you pulled the cat’s tail, I got more and more drained. I have just enough energy to finish making dinner. Then I’ll need to go to bed and get some energy back.”
When this tool is repeated with other negative behaviors, your child will soon learn that their desires – and their world – get disrupted when your energy is drained. Then it’s easier for them to pay attention to what needs to happen to help you get your energy back. This works great with the overall theme of listening and responding to your voice.
Annie Keeling teaches parenting classes at The Nest. The curriculum for the Start Small Parenting Course is a collaboration of her early childhood background and her father’s 3R’s of Behavior Education, developed from over 45 years of marriage and family counseling. The course teaches themes instead of situations,develops educational consequences instead of punishment/reward, and builds a parent’s core of reliable emotions.