My almost-5-year-old granddaughter is starting to push the limits with me. For example, when she was here last with her 2-year-old brother, she had the two last cookies in her hand. I told her to be sure she offers her brother one. She said she would, but proceeded to eat them both right in front of me. This is all new behavior, and I want to nip it in the bud. I'm wondering if she is testing her own control/power on a new level. It seems like a game. I am one of her primary caretakers and want to do what is most loving and productive on her behalf (and mine). Any feedback is appreciated. Thank you.
What a sweet way to wrap up your question. It is evident that you want to understand your granddaughter rather than simply control her. With an outlook like yours, I'm confident that you can start nipping most of her oppositional behavior in the bud. Here are my thoughts:
There is a giddiness your granddaughter gets when she looks you in the eyes while she eats the last cookies. How you respond will make all the difference in whether she continues manifesting that behavior.
• Downplay your reaction. Rather than launching into a long lecture about the importance of sharing, simply say, "I notice you ate both cookies, even though I asked you to save one for your brother. Huh! That is disappointing. I know how excited he was to have his yummy." The less interesting you make your reaction, the less she'll feel rewarded for her defiant behavior, and the more space you'll create for her to feel remorse and even look for ways to make it up to her little brother.
• Don't force apologies. Undoubtedly, it will push your buttons when your grandson is deprived of a cookie. You may try to force his sister to tell him she's sorry for eating her brother's treat. But even if you succeed in making your granddaughter say "I'm sorry" to her brother, it will not mean anything. In my opinion, an insincere apology is worse than nothing at all; it simply lets her off the hook. If she knows that she can get away with being naughty as long as she says I'm sorry" she will be less inclined to modify her behavior.
• Empower her. 5-year-olds need a sense of autonomy. If your granddaughter is told what she can and can't do from morning to night, she will naturally feel the urge to push back now and then. What can you put her in charge of when she is in your care? Perhaps she can creatively set the table. Or maybe she can be responsible for removing dead buds from the plants in the garden. When children feel a sense of competency and responsibility, they are less likely to seek power by testing limits.
• Don't take her behavior personally. While it is almost shocking to witness a child being being deliberately defiant, try to remember that it isn't personal. No doubt your granddaughter loves you dearly and feels close enough in her connection with you that she does feel it is safe to test her power with you. Avoid interpreting her contrariness as disrespectful behavior. Stick to seeing it instead as a child simply trying on her Alpha energy.
• Avoid projecting into the future. Sometimes caregivers fear that when a child exhibits oppositional behavior, it means they are headed down the road to ruin. While I agree that it is important to teach your granddaughter to respect your authority, steer clear of imagining a juvenile delinquent in the making.
For children to develop a sense of autonomy, they need to experiment with challenging authority. While some might suggest squashing down a spirited child's assertive behavior, I have found that when caregivers follow the suggestions I have outlined, children naturally learn to respect where lines and limits are drawn.
Best of luck!
Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach, and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.
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