Lonely little boy being sulkyRead the first part in this 3-part series

In my work with parents of young children, I can honestly tell them one thing no matter the challenge they are facing: You are not alone. You don’t have the only two-year-old who has had a meltdown because you gave her the blue cereal bowl instead of the red, or the only three-year-old who has denied taking an extra cookie as the crumbs are falling out of his mouth.  These are all totally normal behaviors for young children; and while maddening, they are not purposefully trying to drive you crazy.

Here are two key guiding principles that can help you reframe “misbehavior” as your child’s efforts to cope with challenges and feel in control of their world. Looking at your child’s behavior through their eyes can help you figure out the meaning of their behavior — what is driving their actions — which can lead to less anger and frustration, and to empathic responses that are also ultimately more effective in helping your child cope.

Young Children are Strategic, Not Manipulative

Toddlers and preschoolers are not trying to drive you crazy. Children feel compelled to get what they want and will use any tools at their disposal to help them reach their goal.

If throwing a tantrum or making threats results in getting extra iPad time, a later bedtime, or more of your attention, your child is putting 2-and-2 together and making an important assessment: “Excellent strategy! Put that one in the win column.”

This is not manipulation, it is strategic. Your child has cleverly figured out the “system,” which means you are raising a really competent kid. They are assessing the situation and figuring out successful ways to get what they want, which is a skill that will serve them well in life. As the adults, we help shape children’s development in positive ways and teach them which strategies are effective and which aren’t; if tantrums aren’t successful, they won’t become your child’s go-to strategy!

It helps to keep in mind that you can’t actually make your child do anything — eat, sleep, pee, poop, or stop having a tantrum. What you do have control over is how you respond to your child, which is what guides and shapes their behavior.  Take this example of three-year-old Cassie.

Cassie is pushing the limits around bedtime, demanding an increasing number of books and songs. Then she calls out that she is hungry after her moms have said goodnight, which draws them right back in — bringing her food after lights out.  Cassie’s moms are concerned that things have gotten out of control, that Cassie is calling all the shots, but they don’t know how to turn it around. This morning, however, they realized they had to do something when Cassie woke up and announced to them, “I just want you to know that tonight after you put me to bed, I am going to be really hungry.”

Cassie’s moms worked to establish a clear, consistent and loving routine that they stuck to, confident that even if Cassie didn’t like it, it was good for her. This routine included offering small, healthy snack during reading time, making clear that this was the last chance for food until breakfast. Naturally, Cassie tested this limit; on the first night of the new plan, she refused the snack and said she wasn’t hungry — but then cried out that she was starving just 10 minutes later after her moms had said goodnight. When her parents stood firm, she ultimately adapted, having her snacks with books and no longer demanding food after lights-out.

Don’t Take the Bait!

“I hate you! You are the meanest mommy and you are not invited to my birthday party!” announced a 3-year-old who was told she could not get a toy on a trip to buy a present for a friend.

“I will stay up all night and never go to sleep!” exclaimed a 4-year-old after to being told he could not sleep in his parents’ bed.

“You’re not the boss of me!” yelled a 3-year-old after being told he would have to go in the stroller if he continued to run into the street.

Any of these proclamations sound familiar? Remember: You are not alone! Young children are unbelievably clever. When set on getting control, they can show tremendous skill at honing in on what yanks their parents’ chains — otherwise known as bait.  

Any big reaction from you puts them in the driver’s seat and reinforces the behavior, even if your response is negative (which is naturally confounding to parents). The best way to respond to bait? Ignore it. Behaviors that don’t get a reaction tend to decrease. This doesn’t mean you ignore your child — you just don’t engage around the provocative behavior.

What can you do instead?

Acknowledge the underlying feeling: “I know how disappointed you are not to get a toy today. I can hear how mad you are.” One way to ensure children won’t talk to you in a disrespectful way? Show them that it doesn’t register a big reaction. Getting revved up about it instead reinforces the power of their words.

Restate the limit in a calm, loving, non-reactive way: “When you choose to do something dangerous, like running into the street, we will always keep you safe, even if you don’t like it.”

For the child who is insisting he’ll never go to sleep, you might respond: “Goodnight, sweetie. We love you and can’t wait to see you in the morning!” to show him with your actions that you are not going to get drawn into a bedtime battle. Keep in mind that the more you insist your child does something that you have no control over (such as falling asleep, eating, peeing/pooping on the potty), the more likely they are to show you they are in control by defying your demand.

When we take the bait and get reactive, we actually lose control, which is not the healthiest route for parents or children, and makes it less likely that children will make good choices in the future. In the final article in this three-part series we’ll talk more about managing our own reactions to those inevitable, exasperating experiences that arise in the early years (and beyond!)

About Claire Lerner, L.C.S.W.-C

Claire Lerner, L.C.S.W.-C is a licensed clinical social worker and child development specialist. She served as the Director of Parenting Resources at ZERO TO THREE (ZTT) for over 18 years, overseeing the development of all parenting content, print and digital. Recently she has taken on the position of Senior Parenting Advisor to focus on expanding the organization’s reach directly to parents.

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