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
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.
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