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How to Handle Your Stubborn Preschooler

Published on: July 29, 2011

How to handle your stubborn childDoes your preschool child refuse to wear anything but the color blue? Does she pitch a fit when it’s time to leave the house? Does she refuse to sit in her car seat because her dress feels funny? If you help her change her dress, do her socks now feel uncomfortable, requiring new socks? Will she refuse to eat bread with crusts? Does she ball up her little fists and scream when things don’t go her way? Will she cling to a toy like it’s the last life preserver on the Titanic when another child wants to play with it?

If any of this rings true, take solace in knowing that you are not alone.

Preschoolers are notorious for their stubborn behaviors, which are completely appropriate from a developmental perspective, says Carolyn Pirak, a social worker and parent educator at Talaris Institute in Seattle. “There are so many sources of input to the child,” explains Pirak. “It takes years to be able to manage all of that input and have output that is socially acceptable. As a result, small children get overstimulated. With a newborn, parents expect lots of crying and fussing. Preschool children experience the same overstimulation, and they still can’t control their responses.” Parents sometimes think their preschoolers are trying to be difficult. Preschoolers are really just developmentally stuck in these behaviors in the same way infants are, says Pirak.

Don’t force me!

There are two main reasons that preschoolers can act frustratingly stubborn, according to Cindy Leavitt, faculty member of the Neufeld Institute, an international parenting education program based in Vancouver, B.C. Leavitt says the first main reason for stubbornness in preschoolers is “counterwill” — an instinctive, automatic resistance to any sense of being forced.

Counterwill can rear its ugly head any time your preschooler feels coerced. This is an adaptive instinct to resist and helps vulnerable, small children avoid coercion from strangers. We all want our kids to yell “No!” if someone is about to hurt them. It’s just that this system is so very good that they yell “No!” at us, too.

The answer, says Leavitt, is to connect with your child. Your child’s attachment to you makes him want to cooperate with you. “Preschoolers can only hold on to one attachment at a time,” explains Leavitt. “If they are not attaching to you, they are attaching to something else. There is no back of the mind to hold on to their attachment to you. When you ask a child to do something and you get a big no, they are not feeling attached, so they feel coerced rather than connected. Counterwill is the appropriate response. For a preschooler, you must constantly connect and re-engage that attachment instinct.”

Ballard dad Scott Steinhorst confirms that this is true for his daughters. “When they get disagreeable,” he notes, “I realize we need to get more connected.” Steinhorst offers lots of hugs and play time. “I try to frequently make the invitation to connect,” he explains. “I seek them out without an agenda and show genuine interest in them.” And this, he says, makes life run much more smoothly.

Finding themselves

If this is all true, then why do preschoolers become stubborn even when parents are well attached and noncoercive? After all, can it really be a parent’s fault every time a preschooler acts stubbornly? The answer, says Leavitt, is the second main reason for stubbornness in preschoolers. “Preschoolers are in the midst of a psychological birth of their own sense of agency.” In other words, they’re finding out who they are as individuals.

This new sense of agency, says Leavitt, is a delicate thing. “Young preschoolers who are coming to know their own minds can be ferociously protective of their own ideas,” she explains. “Preschoolers get so stubborn in part just trying to protect their budding sense of self.”

Ballard mom Sara Easterly knows firsthand about this ferocious protectiveness of ideas. Her daughter, who has been potty-trained for months, has started to resist using the potty when they are out of the house. “When I tell her to go,” explains Easterly, “she refuses even though it’s clear she does have to go.” Recently, Easterly sat in the stall and just hugged her daughter for several minutes, without any discussion. Her daugh­ter insisted she didn’t have to go. Easterly told her, “It’s OK. I can stay here until you need to go.” After a few minutes, her daughter decided to use the potty.

To some extent, the ultimate solution to these challenges is time, and children will outgrow these behaviors. “Realize counterwill is an instinct,” says Leavitt. “This is what leads children to becoming viable human beings. Make room for this growth.”

Leavitt suggests strategies to help parents avoid triggering counterwill. For example, make your agenda less explicit. Don’t impose bedtime. Instead, ask, “Do you want to walk up the stairs one or two at a time?” Then, “Do you want to wear the red or the yellow pajamas?” By the time you are finished giving your child opportunities to exercise his agency, bedtime will have happened.

Easterly has found this less obvious approach works well for her daughter. Rather than insisting that her daughter use the potty, she will just say, “I have to use the potty. Let’s go.” And her daughter will join in because no one has tried to tell her she has to go.

When to compromise

Pirak agrees and suggests that parents choose their battles. “If it can work to compromise on an issue like clothing or food, then do,” assures Pirak. “Or give a choice of two things, both of which are acceptable to you. Often kids will be happy to choose something that is acceptable because they are focused on the power of choosing.”

It can be hard to stay a step ahead of your kid all of the time. It can also be frustrating and even embarrassing to experience a preschooler’s stubborn behavior, especially in public. “Take a step back and understand why it’s so frustrating to have a stubborn child,” encourages Pirak. “Often parents think it is reflective of their parenting, but usually it is not. Try to separate your feelings about the child’s behavior from the behavior itself.”

So, should we just resign ourselves to being tyrannized by our preschoolers? Not at all, says Leavitt. “It’s important that parents stay in the lead with respect to children,” she explains. “Be willing to say no and help your child adapt to the inevitable frustrations through gentle understanding and continued efforts to connect.”

Pirak agrees. “Parent and child have to work together in daily life. Sometimes that means the strong will can’t win. Parents need to impose clear, calm parameters when appropriate, in the simplest terms.” Don’t argue about details and overexplain with a stubborn preschooler, says Pirak. That is a battle you cannot win.

Keeping your cool in these situations is perhaps the hardest thing, but Leavitt really encourages parents to focus on being cool. “When we are triggered,” says Leavitt, “it takes us out of the leadership role and puts the child into the leadership role.” Preschoolers are not ready for that.

Tera Schreiber is a freelance writer who, at this moment, is raising her third daughter through the preschool years, making her all too familiar with stubborn preschool behaviors.

Resources for handling your stubborn preschooler

Parenting Counts, Talaris Institute
Healthy Children, American Academy of Pediatrics: Information on developmental guidelines for children of all ages.
The Neufeld Institute
Hold On to Your Kids by Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D., and Gabor Maté, M.D.

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