Four-Year-Old’s Battles Have Mom Rattled

This article originally appeared in Macaroni Kid on September 13, 2018 by Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS; Health Affiliates Maine

Question:  Everything with my four-year-old is a battle. From brushing teeth to getting dressed, to choosing what she wants to eat–every discussion seems to turn into a battle. I have tried being patient, I have tried giving choices; I have tried time-outs. Nothing seems to work. I’m pulling my hair out here! How can I decrease the battles?

Answer: “There was never a child so lovely but his mother was glad to get him to sleep.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

This is a good question and one about which many parents can relate.  Kids like decisive, strong characters, like superheroes. They like the fantasy that a larger-than-life figure will step in and make everything right (not to mention the superpowers, lighting bolts, and power rings)! Parents need to think of themselves as the superheroes, the “Deciders.” If your choice is for your daughter to go outside to play, then don’t give her the chance to negotiate. Initially, there will be battles, but adopting an attitude of the one in charge will pay off. First, let’s start with your approach. Instead of asking, “Do you want to go outside?” change it to an upbeat, “Here are your shoes; put them on. We are going outside!”  

The fewer choices you offer her at this age the better. There are times we give kids choices and times we just need them to do what we ask. On a busy road, you don’t want to have a discussion or battle about whether they should venture out. There are times when they just need to listen. Choices are for when there are equally acceptable outcomes, you are not up against a time crunch, or the choice of healthy vs. unhealthy eating.

After having weathered a lot of battles it is easy to get off track. The threat of the battle can make a parent give in inappropriately, which ends up making the battle a tool in the four-year- old’s toolbox. If they find they get away with not doing what they are told, with no consequence, the behavior will continue. For example, when you tell the child that you are not buying anything extra on a shopping trip, and then they are whining and nagging for you to buy them something, the worst thing you can do is to give in and buy it. That will pretty much confirm that the child is in control. It will happen again and again.  

When children continually argue and battle with you, step back to look at the big picture. Children’s behaviors happen for a reason. What is your daughter trying to tell you? Is there a new baby in the house or another child that demands more time or has greater needs? This can cause a child to feel like they need to exert themselves and regain some of that attention. Take time out with her, and explore what might be going on. Evaluate for yourself if there is some emotional reason behind the battle. Provide some one-on-one attention, on her level, eye-to-eye. Let her know that it is hard to do things you don’t want to do and that sometimes parents feel that way, too.  

Giving advance notice of pending bedtimes or other events can help eliminate the resistance and help the child prepare psychologically. Kids need some transition time. That is especially important if your child has any developmental delays. A gentle reminder that in 10 minutes the TV will be turned-off can make it go more smoothly. Have her get ready for bed early, before the last activity of the evening to prevent needing to get her to comply when she is over-tired.

It is not always easy for busy parents to make an activity fun but, when possible, it can help. Teeth brushing can be done together. One mother told me she encourages her son to brush out the “sugar bugs” which he likes, and another challenges her child to try to sing while brushing and they laugh together at the silly results. Daniel Tiger, a favorite character, encourages positive behavior in a book about teeth brushing.  Playfulness on your part can make complying easier.

The big key is consistency. Be firm about your rules. Ultimately, this makes children feel secure by making their world predictable. Like a superhero, parents need to follow through and mean what they say. If you set consequences for not behaving, make sure the consequences happen. Consistency pays off because your kids learn that you are to be taken seriously. The result is that there ends up being no need to battle because the outcome is already decided.

Lastly, catch them doing well. Make a big deal of the one time there was no “battle” and tell them they made this day special because they cooperated. Provide incentives like stickers or treats to celebrate their good choice of NO BATTLE.

Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS is a professional counselor and the Outpatient Therapy Director at Health Affiliates Maine, a mental health and substance abuse treatment agency serving adults, adolescents, children and families. For more information or if you or someone you know needs help, call us at 877-888-4304 or visit our website and click on “Referrals.”

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