"Listen to me," I snarled to my daughter through clenched teeth, "I have authority over you and you will do exactly as I say." My four-year-old scowled at me and declared, "Well, I have TWO thorities over you, and you'll do what I say!" She then ran into her bed room, closed the door, and cried. I found myself wondering when my sweet, cuddly baby had turned into an angry teenager. I'm not the first mom to deal with defiance in preschoolers. Like adolescence, the preschool years are characteristically marked by defiance and clashes with authority. Nevertheless, this stage can be extremely challenging both to preschool-age kids and their parents.
I don't have all the answers and I've only barely succeeded ending this maddening stage. But, after consulting several other moms, my daughter's pediatrician, and my personal library of parenting books, here's what I've found out about conquering defiance in preschoolers.
1. Accept it. By this, I don't mean that you should dismiss your preschooler's defiance as normal without making efforts to change it. You should, however, understand that it isn't uncommon behavior for his age and that it does not make him a "bad" or even unusual kid. Understand that the stage may persist for some time before waning as he matures.
2. Pick your battles. If your preschooler always says that she absolutely, positively will not eat spinach, everyone's life will be easier if you don't force her to do so. If she's insistent about always dressing herself, wearing her shoes on the wrong feet, or some other harmless antic, let her have her way.
3. Be firm and consistent on the big stuff. Some things are not negotiable, like holding Mommy's hand in the parking lot and riding in a booster seat. On these points, you need to stand your ground and make it clear to your child that some things can not be compromised. Consistency is key. When you say "No," to your child, be clear that you mean it.
4. Give your preschooler choice and freedom. Preschoolers are less likely to rebel when you command them if they feel like they have some degree of freedom in their daily choices. Let your child pick out her ice cream flavor, the color of her juice cup, and whether she wants sauce on the spaghetti or separate. An empowered child is generally a well-behaved child.
5. Use time-outs the right way. This is the only effective punishment for my headstrong and sometimes rebellious daughter. A time-out isn't just a punishment, but a time for parents and kids to both cool down and take a minute to re-compose. Often, after just a few moments to herself, my daughter can see that she's acting silly. She'll dry her tears, sigh, and apologize for her behavior. The time-out, as I see it, is God's gift to the parents of four-year-olds.
6. Talk to her other caregivers. Be sure to talk to your preschooler's teachers, daycare providers, and other adults in her life about her defiant behavior. Do the others note any specific triggers, associations, or patterns in her rebellion? Find out if something outside the home, such as missed naps or preschool bullying, could be contributing. Then work with your child's other care providers to address the underlying problems.
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