You might find yourself surprised at how quickly your child’s attitude can shift. One moment he is affectionate and sweet and next thing you know he’s acting out and refusing to follow instructions. While this will definitely test your patience or push you to your limit, it’s important to know that this is typical behavior of children, especially when they’ve reached preschool age.
Preschoolers can think for themselves and are eager to test their newfound independence — and it begins by grown-up adult rules and expectations. No matter what you say, or how nicely you say it, they just won’t budge. Many parents have wondered whether they have completely lost control.
Before you lose your temper over a disobedient child, here are three things to try to curb the misbehavior:
1. Identify the stressor.
Children are sensitive and emotional, not to mention impulsive. So even when you’ve spoken to your child kindly and asked them to stop whatever it is they’re doing wrong, they won’t be able to process it as fast as an adult. Read: they won't follow you right away.
“Their feelings get the better of them. They get stuck. They need us to do more than talk to them in those times,” explains Janet Lansbury, a parenting educator and author, in her podcast Janet Lansbury Unruffled.
In one episode of her podcast, Lansbury reads a story of a 4-year-old who roughhouses with his younger sister and distracts his mom while she’s caring for his newborn sibling. The parents are asking for help because their positive parenting techniques don’t seem to work.
Lansbury says there is always a reason for the change in your child's personality. Is he struggling in school? Is he having trouble with his peers? In the case above, it looks like the child is feeling overwhelmed by the arrival of a new sibling — he’s jealous and trying to get mommy and daddy’s attention.
2. Get physical.
Most parents who employ positive parenting think that they can stop their kids from misbehaving by treating them nicely. In reality, however, using only words won’t be enough. Lansbury offers this advice: think of yourself as a mama bear or a papa bear. Be ready to provide physical help — pick him up, stop him, put the object away, or help him move away from his sister, says Lansbury.
Since your child is feeling vulnerable, showing negative emotions might aggravate his emotional crisis. “That amplifies the discomfort and fear that they have,” Lansbury says.
3. Set limits and be consistent.
Positive reinforcement is good but when dealing with preschoolers, “the basic challenge is that parents very often speak without understanding how their children receive the message,” shared Dr. Michael Thompson, a US-based child psychologist and co-author of Raising Cain.
Children can only take so much information at a time, so sentences that are too long and conversations with too many topics and big words will be hard to understand. Lansbury says offer brief explanations.
If your child is being aggressive with his sister during play, say, “That’s not safe. Yes, you want to pull your sister around the house. I’m going to stop you right there. I can’t let you grab her that tightly. And sounds like she’s saying no. So, I’m going to stop you.” Then physically prevent him from doing any more actions.
It goes without saying that both parents must be on the same page when disciplining their kids. “They [children] need both their leaders to be solid and comfortable in their role and understanding of the child so that they can feel safe and feel a little more settled,” Lansbury explains. “When children are more settled, there’s less of the behavior.”
If you’re wary that getting physical with your child will make him afraid of you, and only worsen his behavior, Lansbury reminds us that physical care is one of the ways that our children feel our love.
“It’s not just when we’re hugging and cuddling and doing those things that feel clearer to us as loving. It’s in these other moments when we’re using a gentle but firm hand to help him when he needs help,” she says.