How To Handle Stubborn Preschooler

Does 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,  “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.

Don’t force me!
There are two main reasons that preschoolers can act frustratingly stubborn,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.

It 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.”

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

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

It is suggested that 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
that parents choose their battles. “If it can work to compromise on an issue like clothing or food, then do,” . “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,” .

“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. “It’s important that parents stay in the lead with respect to children,”. “Be willing to say no and help your child adapt to the inevitable frustrations through gentle understanding and continued efforts to connect.”

“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 over explain with a stubborn preschooler. That is a battle you cannot win.

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


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