The Child Who Balks

Dear Parent,

This letter is a continuation of last week’s letter. Last week I wrote six simple steps for getting your child to follow directions: 1) create an environment for good behavior, 2) teach the expected behavior, 3) assess the situation, 4) communicate clearly, 5) praise specifics and provide information, and 6) listen and respond to your child. This is all you need most of the time. However, sometimes children don’t respond as we want. Today I’m writing about the child who balks—the one who argues or refuses.

I’m continuing to use the example of putting away toys, although these steps can be applied in any situation. At this point, you have given your child a direction that he is not following. First ask yourself: Was he looking at me when I gave the instruction? Did I present a clear message in one short and direct sentence? Did I use a respectful tone of voice and say please? Your child deserves the same respect you want from your coworkers, and will react childishly when treated harshly. If you said “yes” to all, then proceed with the next step. If you said “no,” redo the part you left out. It may be all you need. If not, continue on.

To start, hand your child a toy and say, “Here you go, time to put the toys away.” If he puts it away, praise him and provide information: “Thanks for getting started. I think you can do this pretty fast.” If he still balks, move his arm, his body to put the toy away— carefully and gently, you are helping, not hurting him. Even though you were the prime mover in the action, praise as though he did it on his own. Back off, wait for him to pick up the next toy. If he doesn’t, then repeat the process. Keep your face and voice neutral, except for the praise. Yes, you may need to do this more than once and your child may try to make a game of it. Just keep it up and remember to maintain a neutral face and voice.

For the child who usually puts toys away, but is going through a spell of testing boundaries, once you have put the toy in hand, stop and wait. If he remains non-compliant say “I see that it is difficult to put all of these toys away. There are just too many. You put away the ones you want to play with the next few days and I will get a bag and put the others aside until it gets easier to put toys away.” Then do that.

Notice what you don’t do. You don’t shout or yell. You don’t use a stern voice. You don’t put on a mad face. You don’t tell him how he’s going to be sorry and miss his toys. You don’t threaten to throw them out or give them to someone more deserving. You don’t make snide or unkind remarks. Just do as you said you would.

Once the toys are put away, remember that preschoolers communicate unease by becoming difficult. Look for the source. Is he testing boundaries because something has made him insecure? Is he having difficulty at preschool? Is he overtired, or perhaps starting into a cold or a flu? Does he need some alone time with you? To make parenting easier, find and fix any underlying causes of challenging behavior.

Evelyn Satterlee, M.Ed.

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