For the last two weeks, I've seen the same scene re-enacted time and time again in my living room. My daughter, who is almost 4 years old, requests something. As soon as I give it to her, she immediately decides she doesn't want it.
"I want some apple juice," she says. As I hand it to her, she frowns and says, "I want grape juice." At this point -- if I do get her grape juice -- she insists that she wants apple juice again, then grape juice again, then apple juice again -- never settling on one thing. Whether I "give in" or not, it eventually escalates to a tantrum that lands her in time-out. As I wait for the tantrum to end, I find myself wondering how on earth I'm supposed to deal with this behavior: a preschooler who constantly changes her mind.
Of course, I consulted the all-knowing Internet for help with this problem, and discovered that I'm far from alone. Responding to a mom with similar complaints, Dr. Rebecca Resnik of MedHelp states that this behavior is extremely common in preschool-age children. And, fortunately, it's a phase that eventually passes as children grow and mature.
My daughter's behavior of constantly changing her mind apparently stems from a well-known psychological phenomenon. People always want what they don't have and tend to be anxious about not getting something they could have gotten. When my daughter decides that she wants grape juice -- no, apple juice -- no, grape juice -- she's ultimately experiencing a mild state of panic because of fear that she has made the wrong choice, and that she will miss out on something special because of that choice.
Preschoolers also frequently change their minds because of their natural inclination toward mood-swings and an inability to understand cause and effect. They have trouble forming the exact connection between requesting an item and receiving it, especially since they often ask for things they can't have. My daughter can't understand why she gets juice when she requests it, but has yet to receive an electric car or a baby tyrannosaurus. This apparent inconsistency confuses my daughter more than she can comprehend or explain.
This stage does seem to resolve readily as children mature, but parents should, of course, deal with preschoolers' constant mind-changing appropriately. Now, when my daughter asks for something, I do not give her any take-backs or second chances to make a choice, and she has started to find comfort in the security of knowing that I will be consistent about it -- even when it frustrates her or makes her angry. I expect that, if I continue to be consistent and refuse to give in to the mind-changing games, she will outgrow this phase soon.
If your preschooler has a persistent or severe problem with changing her mind, try to help her get control of the situation by exercising consistency and predictability. If the behavior continues for several months, consider mentioning it to her pediatrician. A persistent behavioral problem -- especially one that is very disruptive or distressing -- may benefit from professional attention. Always defer to expert judgment if your child is experiencing significant behavioral disturbances.