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New Power Struggles

From Parents Magazine, June 2017

By Tamekia Reece

Your child may refuse routine activities even if she never used to put up a fuss.

Throughout his toddler years, dressing my son was a breeze. Then, shortly after his third birthday, he began to object to every outfit I chose for him. Our usually easy mornings quickly became all-out battles. While other issues can cause a child to abruptly stop doing things he once did willingly, experts say most times it’s about control.

“An adult gives a 3- or 4-year-old child many commands throughout the day: ‘Eat your food. Sit down,'” says Alyson Schafer, a family counselor and author of “Ain’t Misbehavin’: Tactics for Tantrums, Meltdowns, Bedtime Blues, and Other Perfectly Normal Kid Behaviors.” Being told what to do makes children feel powerless. Now that your preschooler has better language skills, he can refuse to do what you want or put up a big fuss, Schafer says. These tips will help you decide when to stand your ground and when to let it slide.

• Outfit Drama
Your child’s strong opinions about what he wears mean he’s becoming more autonomous and confident, says Terese Amble, Psy.D., a pediatric psychologist at Children’s Minnesota, in Minneapolis/ St. Paul. As long as his attire is appropriate for the weather and your activities, let him go for it. Or have him choose between two options. Giving him control of things that don’t really matter, like clothing, means he’s more apt to cooperate when they do, like sitting in his car seat.

•  Food Fights
Refusing to eat is all about power. “By this age many children have learned if they don’t eat what’s served for dinner, Mom will make what they like,” Schafer says. Stand firm. When your child doesn’t want to eat what’s on his plate, say, “It sounds like you have a big opinion about what you eat. When I’m meal planning, you can help me, but this is what I’ve served today. You have a choice. You can eat it or be excused from the table.” Whatever his decision, don’t make it a big deal. As long as nothing serious is going on, your child won’t starve himself

•  Walking Woes
It’s not uncommon for kids this age to plop down and refuse to walk while you’re out. If it happens only once in a while, she may just be tired, but if it becomes a habit, she’s probably signaling that she’s not interested in going where you’re going. Use boredom to end it. “Sit down, or stand if you’re outdoors, and say, ‘I guess we’ll wait.’ Then open a book or type on your phone to make it seem like you’re not paying attention to her,” Schafer suggests. Since you’re not upset or trying to force your child, she doesn’t have the opportunity to engage you in a power struggle. She’ll eventually get bored and want to move along.

•  Bath Battles
If your child has gone from splashing happily to shunning water and you can rule out a recent bad experience, like getting shampoo in his eyes, he may be tired of the same routine. “Use different types of toys, add bubbles, or provide bath crayons;’ says Marni Nagel, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, in Orange, California. You can also let him have some input. Tell him, “We need to make sure your body is clean. Which three nights would you like to take a bath?” You could also let him choose whether he wants to shower or have a bath. Once he’s chosen, mark the bath days on a calendar he can see.

•  Sleep Snafus
If your kid only objects to naps, she may not be on strike. “Some children are ready to give up naps between ages 3 and 5, so they really may not be tired during the day”, Dr. Nagel says. Work in daily quiet time for her to look through books or do a puzzle. If she falls asleep (or doesn’t), that’s fine. A sudden snub toward nighttime sleeping could be from new fears. “It’s normal for kids this age to be afraid of the dark or of monsters,” Dr. Nagel says. Discuss ways to make her feel safer. Put a night-light in her room or check under the bed to prove monsters don’t exist.

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