As a parent to a preschooler, it can be incredibly frustrating when their behaviour mirrors that of a teen. Big opinions in a little body.
Our four-year-old daughter fully believes that her life skills and knowledge are superior to mine. Now don’t get me wrong, most of the time she is a caring, considerate and funny little human. But she is also demanding, bossy, superior and a know-it-all at times. Maybe it frustrates me so much because of how much she reminds me of me as a child! She always wants to be in charge and isn't happy without having the final word in any disagreement.
A lot of this behaviour is totally normal for kids of her age. Preschoolers are at an age where they are learning to be independent and capable of making decisions on their own. Defiance is usually their way of expressing that they don’t like the demands being made on them. However, sometimes there can be additional reasons for kids acting out.
Knowing what these reasons are can be really helpful in understanding them and in turn, putting a strategy in place to cope with them. These are some of the things to look out for:
Does your preschooler have an underlying medical problem that can explain their behaviour? Some conditions on the neurodiversity spectrum such as ADHD, autism, and other learning difficulties may make the child unable to handle and express their feelings effectively. You may also be dealing with a child who is sensitive and/or anxious. Anxiety can sometimes present as an attitude. So when you think your child is just acting out or being disruptive, they may in fact be simply trying to cope with big feelings and anxious thoughts.
It’s worth asking yourself whether your child has been through any big life changes recently. Parents splitting up, a new sibling, or moving home can all be huge stressors in a child’s life and can contribute to challenging behaviour. I think with what our children have been through in the last year, it’s no wonder that many of them are having difficulties. We always say, "kids are so resilient!" And while this is true, they absolutely are, it doesn't mean that this last year hasn’t really affected them.
Lack of routine
A lack of routine can also be a huge factor in contributing to challenging behaviour. For example, erratic bedtimes, irregular meal times and no behavioural boundaries will all feed into behavioural issues, especially at this formative time in their childhood.
Once you have ruled out any health or environmental factors being a contributor to the behaviour, there are some things you can do to minimise the disruption, diffuse the conflict and encourage an atmosphere of co-operation rather than competition.
These are a couple of strategies we use with our preschooler to try and diffuse potential conflicts:
We try to explain ahead of time what our plans are and how she will need to get on board with them. Explaining why we need to do the things will include her in the activity, rather than just making demands of her like "put your coat on". Simply letting her know what’s happening is of huge importance.
If she is making demands of us, we often will reply with a question. For example, if she says "I want to watch YouTube on my tablet NOW!" I might reply with "When do we have screen time in our house?" This encourages her to stop, think and answer her own demand. A lot of times this is enough to diffuse the situation and distract her.
Giving alternatives to a demand they are making allows them to understand that they do have a choice, and shows that you are willing to engage with them rather than just totally shut them down. If she is demanding ice cream, I might in turn offer some other alternatives and say we will be having ice cream later that day.
Humour is used A LOT in our house to diffuse situations and distract our kids when they are getting grumpy. It’s amazing how well this works! Even just putting on a silly voice or pulling a funny face.
Conflict is inevitable when you have kids, but that doesn’t mean you have to engage in the power struggle. Sometimes walking away from the situation to allow everyone to cool off is the best move. Tell them that you are going to give them a few minutes to think about how they want to behave. I always tell our preschooler that she has choices in how she behaves and the choice is up to her.