Toddlers pout "no" with a hopeful grin to remind you that they are still lovable with their new-found sassiness. Preschoolers cajole their way out of longstanding rules building a resume for future hostage negotiator. Is it normal that toddlers and preschoolers can have so much attitude? Yes, rest assured, it's normal. It's also a developmental necessity that young children experiment with finding their voice and their power.
Here's how to steer the power-seeking interaction so it doesn't get out of control and enormously exhausting:
- As with any teachable moment, stay calm. Children cannot hear your message if your pushed buttons are buzzing. Try not to make a big deal out of inappropriate words or attitude. The last thing you want to do is turn all this attitude into attention-getting behavior. That only reinforces the very behavior you don't want to see continue.
- Be the wise, reasonable parent. The mantra of the wise, reasonable parent is: "I can handle anything". I can handle tantruming toddlers, whining shoppers, game-playing night stalkers - the rude, the defiant and the dramatic. You CAN handle anything, particularly when you realize that all this attitude and testing isn't indicative of long-term misbehavior. A calm clear response today actually teaches your child the difference between acceptable behavior and unacceptable behavior.
- Contain and diffuse the challenging behavior. Your child is stuck in an emotional reaction to an unpleasant situation. She either needs help regaining control and perspective or she's using her emotions to change your behavior. Remember too, how fun it is to be dramatic, to vent, to whine, to act out uncomfortable emotions. Calmly redirect your child to other ways to act (and can save the drama for some very satisfying pretend play).
- Help your child to focus on different choices and better behavior. For example: I hear you trying to tell me you don't like something but I can't help until you use a different voice. Grandma doesn't like it when you talk to her like that. It actually hurts her feelings. So let's think of a different way you can talk to grandma. I see it's hard for you to ___________ right now. I'll wait while you get yourself ready to _________ (walk with me, leave the playground, move the food you don't like off your plate, etc.)
- Step back from power struggles. Watch out for harsh directives that can fuel a power struggle. Tone of voice matters as much as the particular words. For example, there is a difference between calmly setting limits (as in "You may not speak to grandma like that") and using a more threatening authoritarian (as in "Do not speak to your grandmother like that"). The difference is: one "demands" immediate compliance; the other expects the same compliance but creates space for the child to step up and actually take that responsibility. You know it's a power struggle when you feel caught in a spiral of defiance (you feel powerless to your child's growing power). When in doubt, step back and wait for your child to listen and understand. Sometimes, this means a short pause like leaving the restaurant or sitting in a quiet place for a minute.
- Find the "truth" underlying the unreasonable, inappropriate behavior. Your child needs to experiment with power and attitude. He needs to try on different roles - being the rule-maker and the rule-follower, being the leader and the follower, being the aggressor and the peace-maker. That's the only way children learn about themselves and the world. Listen to what your child is trying to say, even though they say it less than perfectly or less constructively than they will when they learn about consequences and context.
- Create child-friendly outlets for all that attitude. All children need pretend play with dolls, pretend animals, super heroes. They need construction activities, or possibly destruction play, with blocks and forts, or building and destroying sand castles. Most of all, they need silly songs, dance and movement. Let them act out sassy and mischievous characters in songs and stories. Play is the most perfect outlet for self-expression, for testing and experimenting, for learning how it feels to act out. Play is also the place where all inhibitions and constraints of "being good" are released and kids can be kids.
Calm teaches calm. Of course, it's not always possible 24/7. Still, the more calm you are, the more you teach about emotions and about behavior. And a child's crazy-making is not personal; it's not defiant. It's only a child trying to figure out a very confusing world.