Tools for Getting Through to Your Preschooler

by Annye Rothenberg Ph.D

The Amazing Preschooler

preschooler on the playgroundPreschoolers amaze us. They are learning so much so quickly, trying to make sense of the world around them. Preschoolers' conversations are fascinating as they try to piece information together: Looking for the sugar bugs on their teeth after they eat candy. Insisting that Mommy go to time-out when Mommy makes them mad. Explaining that they can't start kindergarten yet because they didn't meet the "dead lion."

Preschoolers are also challenging, because they think so differently. They are often oppositional, impulsive, self-centered, inflexible and illogical -- especially when upset. They have narrow and literal understanding of the meaning of words and figures of speech. Sometimes it seems adults and preschoolers are speaking different languages. Preschoolers' actions and behavior usually make ages two through four the hardest for parents to predict and understand.

In a typical situation, we tell our preschooler to clean up his room and he refuses. He argues when he's told he needs to do it because he was the one who made the mess. He insists that it was his 4-month-old baby brother who left everything out. Or he says he can't clean up because his hand is too tired -- a complaint accompanied by a dramatic collapse on the floor and a plea that you help. You feel confused, annoyed and clueless about what to do.

Preschoolers say no to many of our requests and directions. When we insist, they often become defiant and may get stuck in rigidity that they can't get out of on their own. If we get rigid in response, "You spilled the water on the floor, so you will clean it up or no TV today!" -- preschoolers' reactions can easily escalate to extreme frustration and anger. It is often expressed verbally ("You're a mean, stupid mommy") or physically (hitting parents with the water cup).

When they're stuck on "no," we get annoyed with them and threaten them or force them to cooperate. Then the oppositionality that normally recedes by kindergarten gets entrenched in their behavior.

But giving in and cleaning up the water ourselves is not the solution, because children must learn not to constantly challenge, disrespect and disregard our authority. We worry about what will happen when they're teenagers if they don't listen now.

Six Important Strategies for Success:

  1. Phrase your directions so they sound fun and/or interesting. "Pretty soon, it's going to be time to make some holes in the paper cup so we can take it in your bath and play." If you can't come up with anything, you can emphasize something he can look forward to doing when he's done brushing his teeth. Or try having his toys "talk" to him: "I don't want to lie on the rug. I want to be in the box with my friends, green and blue Duplos." Preschoolers love that. You only need to do this about half the time. They often can't stop themselves from saying no, but we can help the "no" to dissolve and become a "yes" by making it easy for them to cooperate.

  2. Phrase your directions carefully to preschoolers. Most parents say something like "How about picking up your toys?" or "Do you want to come inside now?" when it's not really a choice. Preschoolers are so literal that they hear it as a question, which they answer with "no." Phrase it as a fun and/or interesting request, not as a question.

  3. Give advance notice. When you want your preschoolers to do what you ask, giving a heads-up is respectful and effective: "In a little while, it will be time to..."

  4. It's best to have routines and regular times for dressing, eating, tooth-brushing, toy pickup, TV watching, bed, etc, to reduce continual limit-testing.

  5. Spend one-on-one time with your preschooler regularly -- at least weekly -- doing something that's fun for both of you. She should know you're doing it just because you enjoy her company. This is like putting money in the bank to draw on when you want her cooperation.