It may seem like your defiant preschooler has the innate ability to push you to the outer edge of sanity. Fear not – you're not alone. Preschoolers want to own their newly discovered autonomy, but they also want the close attention and love of their parents.
Here are 12 common mistakes that moms and dads of preschoolers make – and some clever fixes to help resolve problems:
Be inconsistent: Few things can confuse your defiant preschooler more than an inconsistent parenting style. If you are sometimes very strict, but give in other times, or simply don't seem to care what your preschooler is doing, he will have a very hard time knowing what is expected of him and how to act.
Be reliable: If you punish bad behavior “X”, then always punish bad behavior “X”. If you reward good behavior “A”, then always reward good behavior “A”.
Encourage whining and complaining: Does your youngster's whining drive you nuts? For example, does it drive you crazy when, right before bedtime, your youngster starts crying, "I want a glass of milk," or "I want a watch the animal channel"? Moms and dads often give in to this whining just so the child will shut-up, but this only reinforces the attention-getting behavior. Your youngster will figure out which buttons to push – and then push them over and over again. The preschool years is the time when your youngster comes out of her shell. So be careful, because she will figure out what works when it comes to getting her way.
Ignore whining as much as possible: For behavior that isn't aggressive (e.g., whining and sulking), you're better off if you don't respond at all. If you're consistent with this, your youngster will think, "Heck, my whining tactic doesn't work".
Focus on the negative: It's easy to zero-in on your youngster's negative actions (e.g., yelling and screaming) and ignore the positive ones. Moms and dads tend to focus on what they DON’T want their preschoolers to do rather than on what they DO want (e.g., “don't hit” … “don't throw” … “don’t spit” … “don’t kick”).
Catch your child doing things right: Notice when your youngster is doing something positive, and reward that behavior. The reward for positive behavior can be your praise, or it can be giving your youngster a big hug or kiss. Those types of rewards really go a long way with preschoolers – even defiant ones (e.g., "I noticed you sat quietly during dinner. That’s you being respectful”).
Forget about one-on-one quality time: Your youngster may play well independently, but that doesn't mean he doesn't crave your attention. There's something a child misses out on if the parent doesn’t get on the floor and play with him. Not only do moms and dads not get down and play, they are too easily distracted by their cell phones, emails, and Lord only knows what. Preschoolers aren't living in a vacuum. They know whether parents are really paying attention or not.
Get on your child’s level: Set a timer, be enthusiastic, and stay involved for your designated play period with your youngster. Thirty minutes of concentrated play time where you give your undivided attention is better than all day when you're only paying partial attention.
Ignore warning signs: Moms and dads often try to reason with their kid when she is in the throes of a temper tantrum, repeating, "You need to calm down, you need to calm down." But that's like trying to reason with a bull while you’re riding on its back. You've got power right in front of you when you can still distract or anticipate, but once the tantrum is in full swing, you've lost it. Your youngster is not hearing you.
Know your child’s red flags: Figure out and anticipate what her natural warning signs are (e.g., hunger, fatigue, boredom). So, for example, don't take your youngster shopping unless she's napped and feed (or you've stashed a healthy snack in your purse).
Keep doing what doesn’t work: Not recognizing or changing your parenting techniques that aren't working is as big a problem as not trying to fix problems in the first place. Does what you do or say usually backfire when you attempt to address a particular issue? For example, you may think that sending your child to “time-out” is an effective form of discipline, but if you have to use it each day to correct the same problem, then it should be obvious that it isn't working.
Stop the insanity: If it isn’t working – quit doing it. Try something different that is appropriate for your child’s age. Constantly refine your parenting tactics.
Overreact when you catch your child lying: Lying really angers most moms and dads. But they need to view this preschool-behavior as “experimenting” rather than as a “moral issue.” When preschoolers start to lie, it's a big cognitive advance …it’s both exciting and somewhat frightening …it has an emotional charge. But then the parent typically freaks-out and has visions of her youngster winding up in prison, so she gets very worried – and angry – about it.
Avoid catastrophizing: Whenever you catch your child in a lie, simply point out that you know it is a lie. Call it what it is (a lie), and then state the truth (e.g., “Robert, you said you took a shower, but that’s a lie, because I can see that the shower is still dry. The truth is you have NOT taken a shower yet”).
Take your youngster’s “bad” behavior personally: It’s easy to take misbehavior personally when your youngster says something hurtful to you. But while it’s important to accept that you will get upset from time to time and your feelings will be hurt – you must never show it. If you do, you have just revealed a button that can be pushed time and time again.
Calm down before issuing consequences: You may get upset when your youngster misbehaves or says insulting things. That’s natural. You’re only human. But recognize when you are TOO upset. Remind yourself that when you feel this way, you’ve got to give yourself some time before you interact with your youngster about it. Calm down before you come up with your discipline technique.
Overlook the importance of routines: Consistency is key for defiant preschoolers. When you're being inconsistent with your routine, preschoolers get confused and may act-out even more. If sometimes you let them do something – and sometimes you don't, they don't understand. For example, your youngster probably wants to know why last time you let him play on the playground for 15 minutes when school got out, but this time you want him to get in the car right away.
Know that defiant preschoolers are starved for structure: Be as consistent as possible across the board – whether it's with or mealtime routines, play time, sleep habits, or discipline. If your routine is consistent most of the time (minor exceptions are acceptable) and your youngster is doing well, then so are you.
Be all bark and no bite: A surefire way to make sure your preschooler never listens to you is to threaten a consequence, but fail to follow through with it.
Be a “follow-through” parent: No parent enjoys being the “bad guy,” but if your youngster behaves inappropriately, there has to be a consequence, or she will never learn that a particular behavior is inappropriate. Repeatedly saying, “If you don't stop that right now, you’re going to your room” won’t stop the misbehavior. All your youngster hears is, “I can keep doing this a few more times.” Instead, give one warning (e.g., “If you continue to ___, the consequence will be___”). Then if your youngster continues with the misbehavior, issue the consequence immediately.
Break your own rules: When Mr. Wilson’s 3-year-old daughter got into things that she wasn’t supposed to (e.g., picking up a lit candle from the dining room table and walking across the room with it), this father would slap her hand and say "no, little lady" in a stern voice. "It worked great," Mr. Wilson said, "until her preschool teacher caught her slapping the hands of any classmate who took her toy!" Mr. Wilson quickly realized that he couldn't say it was wrong for his daughter to smack her classmate’s hands when he was doing the same thing to her.
Remember that you are always being watched: Preschoolers are little copy-cats, mimicking your “bad” behavior and modeling your poor choices. If you don’t want you child yelling when she’s mad at you, for example, then don’t yell when you’re mad at her.
Wait too long to issue a consequence: One parent recalls being stuck in traffic with her 3-year-old son, Cory, when he started getting fidgety and tried to wiggle out of his car seat. Frustrated with the slow trip home and having to repeat over and over, “Stay in your seat,” this parent told her son that if he didn't put his buckle back on correctly, he wouldn't get to have a bedtime story that night (a strategy that worked great with her son’s procrastinating about getting into his pajamas and brushing his teeth before bed). However, this time, bedtime was 9 hours away, so the threat was basically meaningless. Cory didn't stop playing with his seat buckle, and it seemed pointless to remind him about it hours later when he was getting ready for bed.
Help your child with his short-term memory: Preschoolers don't remember what they did wrong an hour after the fact. Thus, parents need to show them the consequences of their actions as close to the misbehavior as possible. For example, if your youngster hits a friend with a toy car, never mind about cancelling tomorrow's playdate. Simply take the car away.
Your preschooler is going to test you at every age and stage. It’s his job to push boundaries and see where the line is drawn. As your child gets older, it can often feel like you are running through a parenting obstacle course. Just when you’ve figured-out “preschool behavior” and its many challenges, your youngster moves on to the next phase. In any event, while parenting mistakes happen, it’s always a good idea to “refine” what you’re doing over the years so you can adjust your reaction to your youngster’s behavior. Refinement helps you become a more effective parent over the long haul.