Our four-year-old has recently become quite rude. She is demanding and I often feel like I’m being ordered around. She flies off the handle at the slightest provocation, and escalates to yelling and screaming very quickly. Whenever I ask her to do something she retorts, “You’re not the boss of me,” or “You can’t make me.” She used to be quite agreeable, but now she digs in her heels about every decision. I feel as if I’m living with a tyrant. What can I do?
— frustrated in Fresno
Your daughter is entering an exciting, but challenging phase of her growth. For parents, this stage feels confusing. We sometimes wonder if we have given our children too much freedom. We worry if they will be like this for the rest of their lives. We feel concerned about being embarrassed in public, and feel like we’ve lost control of our children. In addition, we may be having to cope with criticism from friends or family about our children’s “rude” behavior.
It may be surprising to note that this phase is challenging and stressful to your daughter as well as to you. She is in the process of understanding more fully that she is a separate person from you, and in that process she is needing to challenge your control — once again.
It is interesting to note that she probably is saving this behavior for you and her other special people. We often get reports from teachers that these “tyrannical children” are very cooperative at school. This is a good thing. It shows that your daughter is capable of appropriate behavior in certain social settings, that she know how to “save up” her most challenging behavior until she gets home to the people she feels safest with.
Your daughter is both excited and scared at the possibility of having to make her own decisions. She is delighted at being an independent person, but also concerned about what this newfound independence means in her relationship with you. She feels compelled to declare, “You’re not the boss of me.” However, her statement is as much a question as a proclamation. “So, now that I’m older, do I get to make all of the decisions or at least more decisions than I made before? Which ones do I get to make now? Are you still in control? (Please let me know that you are!) Will you treat me in a way that acknowledges my new levels of thinking and skill?”
While her demanding language and demeanor may set off some strong responses in you: “Wait a minute, here, I don’t let anyone talk to me like that,” try to remember that these difficult behaviors come from important developmental changes happening to her. Now that she sees herself as older, more skilled and more independent, she is sometimes resentful that you still need to do so much for her. Her feelings are not about you personally, but about her own sense of helplessness. When she demands a glass of water, she is trying to control the situation. She is also expressing her exasperation that she is still dependent on someone else to quench her thirst. At four, she has also worked hard to master the language and she may believe that any time she clearly states what she wants, it should appear immediately.
Given her developmental achievements and needs, as well as your concern about her growing up to be a responsive, caring, and well-mannered person, here are some suggestions for dealing with this stage:
. Respond to her in a way that values her feelings, but also gives her feedback about her behavior and teaches her important social norms. Even when our children are communicating with us in less than perfect ways, it is important we let them know that we care about them and about their ideas. It is equally important that we let them know the effect of their behavior on the world around them: “It sounds like you are really impatient to get that glass of water. But when you talk to me like that, it hurts my feelings and I don’t feel like getting your water.” Or, “It sounds like you are feeling upset about not finding your shoes. But when you yell at me to get you your shoes, I feel upset.” As we share our responses honestly with children, they begin to understand how relationships work, thereby learning about socially acceptable behavior.
. Set clear limits when necessary. “You may not call Jerrick a “dummy.” That word hurts people’s feelings. You can tell him another way that you don’t want him to take the baby doll out of the bed.” Or, “I won’t let you say hurtful things to Grandmother Taylor. If you don’t want to kiss her yet, you can wave ‘hello’ instead.” We discover fairly quickly that we can’t actually “stop” children’s language, but we can move them away if they are unable to stop themselves. “Can you speak kindly to Jerrick or shall I help you move to another area?”
. Offer children appropriate alternatives for expressing their frustration, as well as their difficult and urgent feelings. If you are impatient to get your water, you can say, “Could you please get my water fast? I’m very thirsty and it’s hard to wait.” If you’re upset that you can’t find your shoes you can say, “I’m so frustrated that I can’t find my shoes. Could you please help me look?”
. Negotiate when possible. Gently, firmly follow-through when necessary. Discuss your child’s ideas with her to see if some of them will work. Let her know you value her creative thinking. When she says, “You’re not the boss of me,” you could reply, “If you were your own boss, what would you decide to do right now? And then what would happen?” If you go on asking questions about her thinking and her ideas, even if she doesn’t get to do exactly what she wants, she has had an opportunity to express herself and be heard.
After you have listened, negotiated, and given choices, you will often need to follow through with a firm, clear limit: “I know your idea is to bring your sleeping bag and your tent to spend the night under the swing set in the park, but we really need to go home now. You can walk to the car or I can help you go.”
. Provide lots of opportunities for children to do things for themselves. As children get older, they are eager to develop new skills, to be more “adult.” Think about ways your child can participate more in jobs and decisions around the house, as well as learn new skills in the world. Putting cups and bowls where children can reach them, and providing small pitchers and serving utensils they can use gives children opportunities to do more for themselves. Practicing decision making — having them pick the green vegetable for dinner from the grocery store or deciding whether we should have a picnic for dinner or not — helps children experience that their opinions matter in the family. Children also love doing things for others — especially if it is “fun.” They might like to help set the table, pick flowers for a centerpiece, take the biscuits off the cookie sheet with a spatula, or put ice in the pitcher. There are millions of opportunities to include children in the tasks of everyday life. At first, it may make things go slower, and may generate more of a mess, but the benefits of self-confidence and skill building are well worth it in the long run.
. Have a discussion with your child about the decisions she gets to make, the ones you get to make and the ones you make together. You can say: “I’m glad you are thinking about making some decisions for yourself. As you get older you will be making more and more decisions, but I still need to make some of the decisions. I decide how long we will stay at the park and you decide how you will play while we are there. Together we decide if it is a good day to have a friend over, and then you decide which friend to invite. Sometimes you even help me make my decisions. Remember yesterday when I couldn’t decide whether to bring my sweater or my raincoat and you said you saw raindrops on the window?”
. Model the behavior you want to teach. As hard as it is to be honest and respectful to someone who is treating you rudely, it is the most important aspect of your response because, in the midst of her outrage, your child is watching you carefully. Your most powerful teaching tool is how you interact with her. That doesn’t mean we don’t get mad, yell or act disrespectfully sometimes. But after we behave in “less than perfect” ways, we can model for our children how to apologize and work towards a better response the next time.