Mom's not enjoying this "NO!" stage

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  May 19, 2011 06:00 AM

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Hello.
My 3 1/3-yo son has always been very cooperative. Now all of a sudden, he isn't. We will be getting ready in the morning, practically out the door for preschool/work, and he'll just stop and say no. Or he'll be eating and say no and then just close his mouth and shake his head and not eat. Once he gets into this mode, it is impossible to move him or change his mind. So I've been worrying this is going to be his personality: impossibly stubborn. But over the weekend, we were holding hands crossing the street and in the middle of the street, he just stopped!!! I was so upset, that I just picked him up. He kicked and screamed and cried. (It was a busy downtown street and I was afraid the walk light would change!).

I walked to a street bench and put him down and sat down myself. I was shaking. By then he had stopped crying and acted as if nothing had happened. When I told my husband, he said I should just do the same thing every time he behaves like this. I said, easy for you to say, he's still cooperating for you! But it got me thinking. He only does this with me. So maybe it isn't his personality. Am I doing something wrong?

From: Wondering Mom, Plainfield, NJ

Dear Wondering,

This definitely sounds like this is more about your response than it is about his personality, especially since it's happening with you and not with dad. You don't mention how you react when he does his stop-the-action behavior, but I'm guessing it must be very stressful for you, especially if it threatens to make you late for work in the morning, or if you're worried that he's not getting ample nourishment. I'm also guessing that that stress makes you upset, which in turn results in a number of responses, ranging from trying to sweet-talk him ("C'mon, honey, please please, you need to get ready like a big boy!") to getting impatient and angry. ("You need to stop this! Right now!") So one thing you definitely need to do is be consistent in your response.

One of the reasons a 3 1/2-year-old might behave this way is because he's trying to understand how the world -- in this case, his mom -- works. Think of it as if he's wondering to himself, "If I do this, what will mommy do? What about if I do this?" One of the things he's discovering is that he has so much power he can get his mother to beg him, among other things.

When you (appropriately) picked him up in the middle of the street, he lost his power. At first, he was angry. Then he wasn't. Here's how I would analyze that: kids want to know their parents are in control. They also want to know what the boundaries are to their world. The combination of those two factors are what help them feel safe. He's been acting out as a way to determine where those boundaries are. He's not literally thinking, "How far can I push mom?" (he doesn't have that cognitive ability yet) but it's kinda like that. When you picked him up, you firmly set the limit -- stopping in the middle of the street isn't OK, buster! That actually was calming to him: "Mom is taking care of me! She's not going to let me get away with this stupid behavior. ''

I'm not suggesting that you literally pick him up every time he does this because that will lose its effectiveness over time; do that only when there is a real threat to his safety. Other times, anticipate the behavior and set a limit beforehand ("We need to get to leave the house today right after breakfast. Let's decide before we go to the kitchen what you want to eat (give him two choices) and then we need to go." If he pulls an I'm-not-eating, tell him, "It's your decision to eat. If you're not hungry, you don't have to eat." And continue with the other tasks. When it's time to go, do what you used to do to get the two of you out the door. If he refuses, you can try a few things: Here's a time when you could pick him up, saying, "I can't be late today." Or start to go out the door and call to him, "Time to go. Are you coming?"

The goal always is to reduce the power struggles you get into and give your son a feeling of control at the same time. It's not as complicated as you might think. Here are some strategies.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

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3 comments so far...
  1. My daughter does the same thing and it's usually directed primarily at me. At least, that's how it started but now that she's getting to know the limits, she's starting to push Daddy too.

    We've had to pick her up and carry her out of crosswalks (screaming and thrashing no less - so I feel your pain). The bottom line has been consistency. If she throws something (usually her lovie) at me in the car, she doesn't get it back until we get home. If she pulls any one of her numerous stunts around the bed time routine which involves being allowed to watch Caillou (ARGH!), she loses Caillou. Or, if it's later, it's stories that she loses. And we follow it through calmly but firmly.

    The other night for instance, she lost all of her stories for not listening and doing the NO thing. We warned her, gave her chances, she pushed it to the bitter end. This of course resulted in a huge meltdown, but we left her room anyway. After a few minutes when she was still sobbing (legitimately now, the fit was past and she was tired and upset), I went back in and laid on her bed with her after asking if a hug would make her feel better. It worked. She knows we still love her - but she didn't even ask for the stories because she knew that was futile too.

    And the showing love thing is something we always try to do. Let her get over her rage and let the tantrum subside into real tears and then cuddle...but don't give back what was taken away and don't capitulate on whatever the decision was. Just make sure she knows she's loved.

    It's taking a lot of time and a lot of energy, but it's slowly gaining momentum with her. The nice thing here, too, is that her memory lasts now. If she starts, I can say, "Do you remember the other night when you lost your stories?" and that puts it into perspective. The key there is catching it before she goes totally 'round the bend.

    Good luck and remember - this too shall pass.

    Posted by phe May 19, 11 08:16 AM
  1. Another thing I've found to work with my 2-year-olds is to reflect their words/actions back to them. If I ask them to do something and they say "no," I respond with "You don't want to do ____." Amazingly, that's usually enough for them to do it. (This is from Happiest Toddler on the Block.) If it's something more emotionally-charged or I can see that we're heading toward a tantrum, I'm more-dramatic about it (again, from HTotB) and say "NO NO NO [child's name] doesn't want to ____! You say 'NO NO NO _______.'" Initially it takes them off-guard, but they also are able to see that I understand them, and, of course, they are amused by MY tantrum, so that almost always de-escalates the situation and then I can get down to their level and say more calmly "I know you don't want to do ____, but Mommy needs your help right now. Could you please do ____?" It takes more time--often time that I don't have, but the results are amazing. The kids know I "get" what they're communicating, but are in a more-cooperative frame of mind. It doesn't always work, but I'd say it work MOST of the time. Another thing I do when they get up in the morning is talk about what we're going to do today. I list--in great detail--everything we're going to do that day, right down to when I'm going to change their diapers, and what food we're going to eat. And as we complete each thing on the list, I remind them about the next 2 or 3 items so that it's not a surprise when it happens. As we get close to completing an activity, I warn them "we're almost done with this and in a few minutes, we're going to do this other thing." They are SO MUCH more cooperative and the tantrums during transitions have almost completely gone away. Before we start the next activity, I let them know if I need special behavior from them--being quiet, sitting in their stroller, etc. It takes a lot of time and patience and that is REALLY HARD some days, but in the end it's usually worth it. There are some completely unacceptable, not tolerated behaviors that result in immediate time-outs: hitting/hurting one another intentionally, throwing things in anger/frustration...behaviors that are universally unacceptable no matter what your age. After the time out, I reflect that the child was angry/frustrated and why, explain that the behavior is "not nice" or "not ok" and that it either hurt someone or made someone sad, if appropriate make a suggestion of what they can do "next time" tell them I love them and give a hug and kiss and move on. I fully realize that they're 2 and probably don't grasp everything I say or everything I mean, but some of these things are also for my benefit. I am getting in the habit of seeing the world through their eyes and, as a result, learning to predict where the trouble spots might be in a given day, and then I can also be mentally prepared when we get to them and am better-able to handle them at those points. I would also highly recommend reading "Raising Your Spirited Child" (Kurcinka?). You may not have a "spirited child," but some of the parenting techniques suggested for various difficult situations/circumstances and how to adapt them to your child's personality are excellent. Since making an effort to incorporate HTotB and RYSC techniques, we've gone from a couple tantrums of varying intensity/kid/day to one or two a week/both kids.

    And, as with everything, soon this will be a non-issue and it will be something else. :)

    Posted by Danielle May 19, 11 10:44 AM
  1. Danielle: I found that reflecting it back to my daughter only made it worse. I can sometimes defuse now by saying, "Hm. Are you feeling grumpy right now?" IF I get her soon enough before meltdown. That has helped a lot.

    But the post tantrum/time out reflection tends to be useful. What I won't do is harp on it if her mood suddenly shifts again. If she has a tantrum and then pops out of it (as can happen - and does), I won't dwell on what happened even if I am still secretly seething. :) That helps a lot too to just...move on.

    Posted by phe May 19, 11 01:06 PM
 
3 comments so far...
  1. My daughter does the same thing and it's usually directed primarily at me. At least, that's how it started but now that she's getting to know the limits, she's starting to push Daddy too.

    We've had to pick her up and carry her out of crosswalks (screaming and thrashing no less - so I feel your pain). The bottom line has been consistency. If she throws something (usually her lovie) at me in the car, she doesn't get it back until we get home. If she pulls any one of her numerous stunts around the bed time routine which involves being allowed to watch Caillou (ARGH!), she loses Caillou. Or, if it's later, it's stories that she loses. And we follow it through calmly but firmly.

    The other night for instance, she lost all of her stories for not listening and doing the NO thing. We warned her, gave her chances, she pushed it to the bitter end. This of course resulted in a huge meltdown, but we left her room anyway. After a few minutes when she was still sobbing (legitimately now, the fit was past and she was tired and upset), I went back in and laid on her bed with her after asking if a hug would make her feel better. It worked. She knows we still love her - but she didn't even ask for the stories because she knew that was futile too.

    And the showing love thing is something we always try to do. Let her get over her rage and let the tantrum subside into real tears and then cuddle...but don't give back what was taken away and don't capitulate on whatever the decision was. Just make sure she knows she's loved.

    It's taking a lot of time and a lot of energy, but it's slowly gaining momentum with her. The nice thing here, too, is that her memory lasts now. If she starts, I can say, "Do you remember the other night when you lost your stories?" and that puts it into perspective. The key there is catching it before she goes totally 'round the bend.

    Good luck and remember - this too shall pass.

    Posted by phe May 19, 11 08:16 AM
  1. Another thing I've found to work with my 2-year-olds is to reflect their words/actions back to them. If I ask them to do something and they say "no," I respond with "You don't want to do ____." Amazingly, that's usually enough for them to do it. (This is from Happiest Toddler on the Block.) If it's something more emotionally-charged or I can see that we're heading toward a tantrum, I'm more-dramatic about it (again, from HTotB) and say "NO NO NO [child's name] doesn't want to ____! You say 'NO NO NO _______.'" Initially it takes them off-guard, but they also are able to see that I understand them, and, of course, they are amused by MY tantrum, so that almost always de-escalates the situation and then I can get down to their level and say more calmly "I know you don't want to do ____, but Mommy needs your help right now. Could you please do ____?" It takes more time--often time that I don't have, but the results are amazing. The kids know I "get" what they're communicating, but are in a more-cooperative frame of mind. It doesn't always work, but I'd say it work MOST of the time. Another thing I do when they get up in the morning is talk about what we're going to do today. I list--in great detail--everything we're going to do that day, right down to when I'm going to change their diapers, and what food we're going to eat. And as we complete each thing on the list, I remind them about the next 2 or 3 items so that it's not a surprise when it happens. As we get close to completing an activity, I warn them "we're almost done with this and in a few minutes, we're going to do this other thing." They are SO MUCH more cooperative and the tantrums during transitions have almost completely gone away. Before we start the next activity, I let them know if I need special behavior from them--being quiet, sitting in their stroller, etc. It takes a lot of time and patience and that is REALLY HARD some days, but in the end it's usually worth it. There are some completely unacceptable, not tolerated behaviors that result in immediate time-outs: hitting/hurting one another intentionally, throwing things in anger/frustration...behaviors that are universally unacceptable no matter what your age. After the time out, I reflect that the child was angry/frustrated and why, explain that the behavior is "not nice" or "not ok" and that it either hurt someone or made someone sad, if appropriate make a suggestion of what they can do "next time" tell them I love them and give a hug and kiss and move on. I fully realize that they're 2 and probably don't grasp everything I say or everything I mean, but some of these things are also for my benefit. I am getting in the habit of seeing the world through their eyes and, as a result, learning to predict where the trouble spots might be in a given day, and then I can also be mentally prepared when we get to them and am better-able to handle them at those points. I would also highly recommend reading "Raising Your Spirited Child" (Kurcinka?). You may not have a "spirited child," but some of the parenting techniques suggested for various difficult situations/circumstances and how to adapt them to your child's personality are excellent. Since making an effort to incorporate HTotB and RYSC techniques, we've gone from a couple tantrums of varying intensity/kid/day to one or two a week/both kids.

    And, as with everything, soon this will be a non-issue and it will be something else. :)

    Posted by Danielle May 19, 11 10:44 AM
  1. Danielle: I found that reflecting it back to my daughter only made it worse. I can sometimes defuse now by saying, "Hm. Are you feeling grumpy right now?" IF I get her soon enough before meltdown. That has helped a lot.

    But the post tantrum/time out reflection tends to be useful. What I won't do is harp on it if her mood suddenly shifts again. If she has a tantrum and then pops out of it (as can happen - and does), I won't dwell on what happened even if I am still secretly seething. :) That helps a lot too to just...move on.

    Posted by phe May 19, 11 01:06 PM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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