Preschooler Behavior: Who’s the Boss?
Preschooler Behavior: Who’s the Boss?
By Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
Does your preschooler tell you he hates you, or not to look at him? Does your
child hit you?
When preschoolers tell parents or other family members they hate them or if they
hit their parents, it is usually to get out of doing what is asked - to get
their own way.
Children this young can learn to manipulate parents through the parent’s
emotions. If I make you feel bad about what you are doing, then maybe you will
stop making me do...
To change this behavior, start by ignoring your child’s statements while
maintaining your expectation that the child do as told. Discussing your child’s
statements or answering back gives attention to the behavior and reinforces it.
This will only make it more likely your child will continue to tell you they
hate you. In other words, your good intentions backfire. Therefore, do not
answer back. Then, when your child does do as told, provide feedback - now
you're putting away your crayons... or whatever. The key is to not get caught up
in your child’s negativity - especially with your own. Keep your attention on
redirecting your child back to task.
When your child is talking and behaving appropriately, give all kinds of
positive attention. We call this "Catch a kid being good". This is also when you
say how much you love each other. The challenge is to remember to catch your
child when behaving well. This makes a big difference.
As for "don't look at me," preschoolers are beginning to develop a sense of
privacy. However, when a preschooler is seeking privacy, they are likely to do
so quietly. If a child is seeking privacy to get out of doing as told, then the
child is trying to control you. If you submit, your child will be the boss, not
you. Remember to ignore, redirect and provide feedback when behaving well.
The same rules hold true for when preschoolers hit their parents. Ignore and
redirect to the task at hand. Forgo any discussion on the matter as this only
provides attention and actually reinforces the behavior. Certainly never hit
back. This only models bad behavior and creates anger and resentment in the
child. They will only want to get back at you.
When your pre-schooler hits you, you can also use time out. In a firm but quiet
voice say, "No hitting.” Then take your child quietly by the forearm and lead to
a step or chair. Your child should sit there until settled and quiet - and then
for five or ten seconds more. Time out is time away from anything fun or
rewarding. If you are sending your child to their bedroom and they just go and
play, then this is not time out and will only reward misbehavior. Don’t ask your
child if he is ready to be quiet or release at their request. You must observe
their quiet behavior. Then you release your child to do as directed. Once
listening and doing as told, provide feedback telling your child so. Catch them
If your child is used to being in control of you and you start to turn things
around, be prepared for protesting. Your child will not like loosing control of
you. In the short run your child will try harder to get you to submit to their
will. They may tell you louder that they don’t love you, they may hit harder and
they may scream or tantrum.
You must outlast your child’s protesting. If you give in, then you just teach
them how demanding they must be in order to get their way again. Giving in while
your child is protesting can create worse behavior. If your child is screaming
and yelling while in time out, watch from a distance to make sure they are safe,
but otherwise ignore until settled. This can take great patience and you may
need support yourself in order to outlast your child.
Behavior can change rapidly; usually within three to ten days when using these
strategies. The first few days can be especially trying. The trick is keeping
your cool when under stress, redirecting behavior where you can, ignoring
behavior that is a nuisance but not serious, using time out for misbehavior that
is truly out of line and most importantly, reinforcing behavior that is
appropriate – catching a kid being good!
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