This week, I’ll explore early childhood development by way of discussing a big issue in my household: what to do when a young child says “no”. For me, the most challenging time is hands down weekdays from 5 pm -8 pm. We’re all tired from school and work and there’s homework to be done. My daughter is young enough that she needs help with homework and I’m old enough that I need to curl into a ball on the floor and take a nap after work.
It’s late in the evening after snack and chill time. Begin scene.
Me: “Okay, it’s time to work on spelling words.”
Daughter (deflecting): “Mom, did you decide where I can make my secret hideout?”
Me: (already exasperated and running through a mental checklist for the evening: cook dinner, make lunches, pack bags, omg I’ll never get it all done): “No, not yet. That’s a great question that I’d love to talk about this weekend. Right now, it’s time to review spelling words.”
Daughter: “But mom, I want to know now. I’ll only do spelling if you tell me.”
Me (not down with ultimatums): “Let’s do spelling and talk about it more this weekend.”
My Parenting Go-Tos
In these situations, I try these fundamental tactics:
- Remind myself where my daughter is in her development
- Validate, validate, validate
- Help her regulate her emotions
- Use positive reinforcement
I’d recommend reviewing Erik Erikson’s stages of development; I’m always surprised by how on point they are! My daughter is squarely in industry versus inferiority. This means that right now outside factors like school performance and peer relationships strongly influence the development of her self-esteem and, contrary to all current evidence, doing well in school is important to her. With this in mind, I remind myself to forge ahead, she probably is invested in doing well on her spelling test. And she is a child after all, practicing spelling is not imaginative or fun. And she must be tired after a long day at school. I get it.
Let’s Try This Again
Me (mustering all my patience to channel full validation mode): “I know you really want a secret hideout. It must be frustrating to hear me asking you to do homework instead of making plans for it.”
Daughter (sobbing): nods her head ‘yes’
Me: “I understand. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to plan your secret hideout right now. But we will talk about it this weekend. It’s time to do homework.”
Daughter (not having it): “NOOOOOOOO!”
Me: “Okay then, it would be a good idea take a break and calm down. Maybe your calm-down discovery bottle would help? Just let me know when you feel better and we’ll start spelling. I’ll be sitting here if you need help.”
She never did really “take a break”. She also did not use the emotion regulation skills we’ve practiced (more on those in future posts). She opted to stare me down with a look of abject hostility. I just sat there, ostensibly because my psychiatrist self knows that engaging her would be counterproductive but truthfully because I was just so tired. I sighed as I let go of the idea that she’d finish her homework with time left for me to do all the things. I remind myself to adapt and relax. And to let go of my expectations. The awesome pasta e fagioli I planned to make, the dinner that would have fed us for at least two nights, is no longer.
Out of desperation I crack a joke about my ugly new glasses. Wouldn’t you know it, she laughed. And the tension released. It turned out that in that moment my evidence-based tactics, though helpful to mitigate some of the intense emotion, were no match for making a connection with my daughter by telling a joke. When I relaxed and let go a little, so did she. I positively reinforced her ability to collect herself and focus on her homework and closed the deal with a hug. Yes, she eventually practiced her spelling words, and yes, we did resort to grilled cheese for dinner. And we’re currently working out plans for her cool secret hideout.
Bottom line, be flexible. Depending on the moment, some situations may be conducive to “textbook” approaches and others may require some creativity; in this case, making a connection with a joke relaxed us both enough to be able to pivot and move forward.
So, my fellow intrepid caregivers, let’s approach with love and compassion and strive to connect with our kids in those intense moments. And have a warm bath and Netflix ready at the end of the day.
Until next time,