6 everyday situations that frustrate parents of preschoolers

Throwing food, telling lies, potty jokes…What can you do in these frustrating situations?

By Dr Meghna Singhal

6 everyday situations that frustrate parents of preschoolers

We stumble upon a plethora of challenging parenting situations every day. While we may breeze through some, a few situations can really make us pause and think- Why is my child behaving this way? How do I handle this? Is there a correct way of dealing with this situation? Do all children behave like this?
As a mom and a therapist of 10 years, I have found that some situations challenge parents more than others. I have put together a few such situations and listed out some strategies you could try (or suggest to your parent friends to try). Good luck!

1. Your 2-year-old throws her food on the floor. You have asked her multiple times to eat without throwing food, scolded her, explained that many children across the world don’t have anything to eat. But to no avail.
What you may say: “No! Stop it! What is wrong with you?”
Why you shouldn’t say this: You are judging your child and indicating that something may be wrong with her.
Understanding your child’s behaviour: It is developmentally appropriate for her to throw food at this age. She is learning cause-and-effect and about gravity through it. She is also learning about the effect it has on you, which is also why it’s so important for you to keep calm (even though you may be fuming inside).
What you could say or do instead:

  • Have family meals together. Teach her that food goes in her mouth, not on the floor by modelling appropriate behaviour. Narrate what she’s doing by saying “Oh, food doesn’t go on the floor. Food goes in our mouths.”
  • Engage her in conversations about food-“This is rice dal. Do you like your rice dal? Mommy likes rice dal.” If she continues to throw her food, take it away. Offer her a different food. If she throws that too, you can presume she is all done. Teach her to say or sign ‘done’. Hand her a napkin or take her to wash her hands
  • Let her help you clean up. Praise her for helping. This teaches responsibility and supports her in learning that when we make a mess, we clean up the mess

2. Your 3-year-old daughter is mean to her 12-month-old brother, snatching toys from him, or hitting him. You have asked her several times to share her toys and play cooperatively with her brother but she doesn’t seem to listen.
What you may say:
“You’re so mean. Don’t hit your brother!”
Why you shouldn’t say this: You are labelling your child as ‘mean’, which can mar her self-esteem. You child may feel that you are always on her brother’s side. Scolding her will also not make her feel more empathic towards her brother. It may even reinforce her need for attention from you, which her hitting seems to be fulfilling (rather than playing quietly or cooperatively).
Understanding your child’s behaviour: For the young child, as her baby sibling grows and become engaging, her feelings of jealousy often becomes worse. As parents, we also tend to attribute much more maturity to the older sibling, even though she may be little herself, especially when it comes to managing big feelings.
What you could say or do instead:

  • Show your child how to play appropriately with her younger brother, finding things they can both do side by side. At this age, reciprocal play (or playing with each other) has still not developed but parallel play (each child playing on his own) could be encouraged. Also, teach her to stroke the baby gently- you could call it ‘gentle hands’- and explain how good the baby feels when his older sister does that
  • Think of activities in which you could include both of them, so baby brother becomes associated with fun and good things (rather than only as a person who gets to spend alone-time with mum). Involve your older child in caring for her younger sibling. Acknowledge and comment positively when she fetches you a diaper or is careful around the baby
  • Everyday, set aside some time to connect with your older child. Call it your special time together. Encourage her to choose an activity you can do together (offer choices that are acceptable to you) and follow her lead
  • If your older child hurts the baby, stay calm and pick up your baby. Settle your baby first before turning your attention to your older child. Sit with her (time-in) in a quiet place and say, “I can see you are feeling sad/angry/frustrated (help her name the feeling), I would feel upset too if someone snatched my doll (or whatever else). But, we don’t hurt the baby.” Let her know that all feelings are acceptable, even though not all actions are permitted
  • Suggests Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings, when your child expresses that she hates having a baby, you could respond by saying “It’s hard sometimes, having a baby in the house. It must be so hard to have to share us, and to have to be quiet so he can sleep, and to have to wait all the time...It can be very hard, can’t it? You can always tell me when it’s hard, and I will always understand, and help you.”

3. Your 4 year-old year is defiant and does the opposite of whatever you say. When you tell him to get dressed for school, he starts drawing instead. When you ask him to clear up his toys, he says “No! You do it.”
What you may say:
“I said wear your socks NOW!” or “Why are you so stubborn?”
Why you shouldn’t say this: Nobody likes to be ordered around. It provokes opposition and sometimes even rebellion. Also, labelling your child as stubborn may incite more stubborn behaviour.
Understanding your child’s behaviour: Remember, it is the child who gets told what to do, all day, every day. He should listen to us because we’re in charge and we’re trying to do what’s best for him. But, a child wants to be in charge too. He may express this need for control and independence a defiant behaviour. When we consider a child to be defiant, we will have a child who is defiant. We will continue to look for the defiant behaviour, instead of seeing what the child is actually trying to express through the behaviour.
What you could say or do instead:

  • Think about the strengths your child is displaying- he has a mind of his own, he tells me what he is thinking, he has leadership skills, he won’t easily succumb to peer pressure, and he’s going to be a strong determined man! Our job as parents is to nurture strengths that come naturally to our children
  • In your interactions with him, try to offer a few choices (that are all acceptable to you) to make him feel in control.
  • “Be playful”, suggest Faber and King in their bestselling book How to Talk so Little Kids will Listen. They suggest strategies such as making an inanimate object talk. For example, if your child doesn't want to put on his socks, the socks can whine, “I feel cold and empty. Won’t somebody put a nice warm foot in me?”
  • Turn a boring task into a challenge or a game. For example, you could say, “I bet you can’t wear your socks and shoes before I do. Ready? Set…go! Holy cow…you’re fast!”
  • Putting your child in charge is another way to can handle a “No!” from him. This means getting your child to state what needs to be done by him or by other family members. For example, designate your child as the official weather-person of your family and make him in charge of telling all the family members if they are required to wear their jackets. This can turn your jacket-refusing child into a compliant one

4. Your 5 year-old brings up fart and potty jokes all the time- while playing or eating dinner, and even in front of visitors. Then he laughs at his own jokes.
What you may say:
“That’s disgusting and not funny. Stop it!”
Why you shouldn’t say this: The more attention you give to this and the more you say stop, the less likely the behaviour will disappear. It can turn from self-amusement (where it usually begins) to a battle of wills.
Understanding your child’s behaviour: For a lot of 4-8 year olds, bodily functions (including potty) are drivers of amusement. This is the age when they are gaining mastery over their ‘toilet’ habits, so these words seem important to them. Often, they use potty talk just to get your attention.
What you could say or do instead:

  • Consider what would happen if you stop letting all her potty talk bother you. Or you at least stop showing you are disturbed by these jokes
  • If it is attention seeking behaviour, consider if your child is feeling a little insignificant. Think of ways in which you could give him positive attention that will reduce his need to create negative attention behaviours
  • Instead of being critical of the behaviour, you could validate your child’s experience- “Buddy, seems like you are having so much fun. I am wondering, do you know any other jokes?” Get curious about what other things your child finds funny and help him explore them

5. Your 6-year old says he’s hungry at bedtime every day, even after eating a full-meal at dinnertime.
What you may say:
“No, you’re not! You’re just doing this to stall bedtime”
Why you shouldn’t say this: Blaming the child is unhelpful, as it doesn’t address the problem. Your child may feel attacked and helpless.
Understanding your child’s behaviour: Your child’s behaviour could emerge from one of the following reasons:

  1. It could be the result of the growth spurt that 6-7 year olds go through.
  2. It could be a habit reinforced by you giving in to his behaviour and allowing him to disrupt bedtime routine.
  3. It could emerge from his need to spend more time with you
    What you could say or do instead:
  • Rule out any medical /health issues
  • Thirty minutes before bedtime, you could ask your child if he’d like a (healthy) snack- something that is convenient and quick- such as a banana or apple slices or cucumber or carrot sticks, maybe even a cup of milk.
  • You could validate what your child is saying- “Sounds like you are hungry and since we have eaten our dinner, is it possible that you are thirsty? How about we go with water first?” Also, ensure he drinks enough water after his dinner and keep some water near his bed
  • If this is a habit, there is an opportunity to break his behaviour by establishing a routine around food and meals. Plan your meals at the same time everyday, and have your family dinner at least two hours before bedtime. Eating late at night is not a good habit- our body isn’t designed to digest food overnight or during sleep
  • Establishing boundaries with your child is always a good idea. Have a discussion at a neutral time and set new standards of expectation- that when we feel hungry close to bedtime, we are going to drink water or milk, or have a fruit
  • If this is emerging from his need to spend more time with you, try spending more one on one time with him everyday and have a bedtime ritual that includes both of you cuddling up or reading a book together

6. Your 6 year-old lies about taking your phone to play games. You discover your missing phone when you’re going to bed.
What you may say:
“Shame on you for telling lies. My phone is now off-limits for you!”
Why you shouldn’t say this: Banning is hardly the answer to getting the child to develop responsible use of the device. Shaming the child doesn’t help either. It’s not that the child is making an intentional choice to be bad.
Understanding your child’s behaviour: It is more important to explore why your child feels the need to lie, rather than dole out punishments, such as banning the device. One reason a child lies is because she feels she is unlikely to get what she wants. Look at her lying behaviour as an unmet need or a desire to protect herself. For the vast majority of children who tell lies, it’s less about a criminal intent and more likely a diversion from the truth. They know they did wrong and don’t wish to get into trouble; or they create a fantasy for things to be different. Also, for children under 9 years of age, telling lies is often done based on the short-term gain without appreciation of possible consequences.
To know more on why a child lies, click here.
What you could say or do instead:

  • Find out what need the child is trying to fulfil by telling lies. Then you can meet that need in a healthy way. For example, is he is being listened to when he is expressing what he wants? Or, if gets a say in deciding how much time he could spend playing video-games on your phone during weekdays and weekends?
  • Even if you’re not able to give him what he wants, try to validate his desire - “You really wanted to play that game…it was really tempting”. Then, you could say, “It is not nice to take things that don't belong to you without asking. It is important to be truthful.”
  • Provide an opportunity for the child to own up without feeling judged, shamed, or criticised. Offer positive acknowledgment when your child does own up to telling lies. You could say, “I’m so glad you told me what happened. Let’s work together to sort things out.” A child will always do better when correction is coming from connection

Whenever you are dealing with a frustrating situation with your child, keep the focus on the behaviour you want, instead of criticising the behaviour you don’t want. Reinforcing positive behaviours makes it easier for the child to focus on improving himself, rather than on trying to avoid failures.
Remember, children are just acting their age, exploring and pushing boundaries. It is up to you to keep your cool and your humour, while you help your child learn how to handle himself in different situations.

In a Nutshell

  • It is developmentally appropriate for a toddler to throw food. Have family meals together and let her help you clean up
  • Show your pre-schooler how to play appropriately with her baby brother. Ensure that you spend special connection time with your older child, so she doesn’t feel bereft of attention
  • Be playful with your defiant pre-schooler, by making inanimate objects talk or turning boring tasks into challenges
  • If your child is making potty jokes, get curious about what other things he finds funny and help him explore them
  • Establishing boundaries with your child is a good idea while setting new standards of expectation for any instance that you label as misbehaviour
  • Keep the focus on what behaviour you do want rather than criticising what you don’t want

What you can do right away

  • Spend some one-on-one connection time with your child every day, reading a book, cuddling in bed, or doing anything your child wants to do
  • When you do find yourself in a challenging parenting situation, pause and refrain from reacting immediately. Instead, consider what would happen if you stop being bothered by the situation

About the expert:
Written by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 30 September 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist with a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia). She is Head of the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle.

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