Toddler says No

Question: Our just-turned 4 yr. old continues with defiance, “no!”, running from me, etc. I try to be consistent, use withdrawal of privileges,etc., but still having difficulties. A major problem, I feel, is that bedtime is always much too late for his age. Ever since our 9-month-old was born, my husband gets our older son ready in bed, but at his convenience. After I’ve gotten the baby in bed, I’ll try to get our son in bed. Since he knows he can stay up with Daddy, he runs from me and throws a fit. Then my husband will say, “just let me take him.” I know consistency is very important, but getting my husband to get it together has been impossible. Any advice?
– Nancy

Answer: I would assume that your 4 year old is in a “testing” stage. Defiance and opposition are his way of defining himself in a changing world. He is checking the rules and the predictability of your responses. Your best strategies, as you already know, are consistency and consequences. You must remain steadfast even though the testing continues. It is a law of childhood; he MUST test for as long as he needs to. Saying “No” is a powerful way for a child to say “I am here” and “I am becoming a person separate from my mother”. Just as importantly, the parent recognizes the child’s independence and, as best she can without a power struggle, exerts the security of a predictable world. Choose your battles. If you find you are having conflicts over multiple issues: work on one issue at a time, let go of less important issues, use humor and distraction for the rest. Evaluate the effectiveness of your consequences. Can you really enforce them? Does your child make the connection between his actions and the loss of privilege? For a young 4 year old, a negative consequence must immediately follow the behavior. It is effective to take away a cup of juice that a child intentionally pours on the floor. But taking away a privilege tomorrow for misbehavior today may only increase your resentment and his, while not solving today’s conflict.

A new sibling in the house has brought a few new factors into the picture. Your son may be reconfirming his status with attention-getting behavior. Be sure he has time as the center of attention with each parent. Let him see he comes “first” once in a while. Play a game saying, “I need to kiss someone wearing blue first (your older son) and someone wearing red second” (the baby). Then, change the order and the criteria regularly but be sure your 4 year old realizes he comes first sometimes. Second, your son has discovered a new division of labor that he can use to “divide and conquer” his parents. If it really is Dad’s job to do the bedtime routine, say your “good nights” and leave it to Dad. (Talk to Dad separately if you need to discuss a uniform bed time.) Avoid, at all costs, the good parent/bad parent routine. Especially in this case, you presumably have a sweet, intimate routine with the baby followed by resentful, frustrating routine with your 4 year old. You might consider mom and dad alternating bedtime duties between the two children. Use a bedtime routine that you and Dad both like. Give your son “warnings” that bedtime is coming (he can listen for the bell on a timer set for 5 minutes, dim or blink the lights when the routine starts, or play one “last” game). If your son participates in the sequence, he will feel some control over the routine and lessen the likelihood of a power struggle. If and when your son runs away from you, stop and wait. Put on your serious face and serious voice. If he doesn’t return to the task-at-hand in a few minutes: calmly walk to him, take him by the hand, say very little, and return to what you were doing.

Lastly, ask yes/no questions only if you will genuinely accept a “no” answer. There are plenty of times when he may say “no” with great personal conviction. Otherwise, shift into “creative parent mode”. Sidestep conflicts with games, distractions, humor, and by thinking two steps ahead of him. I once heard an attorney say, “never ask a witness a question you don’t already know the answer to”. Parenthood is much the same – try to anticipate your child’s reaction before he’s even thought of it!

Good Luck,
Karen Deerwester, Ed.S.

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