I hate you—you are the meanest mommy and you are not invited to my birthday party! (3-year-old who was told she could not get a toy on a trip to the store to get a present for a friend.)
You’re not the boss of me! (4-year-old’s response to being told he would have to go in the stroller if he continued to run into the street)
I will just starve! (5-year-old’s proclamation when parent said she could not have a snack bar for breakfast)
Any of these proclamations sound familiar? If so, you are not alone. Young children are unbelievably clever—they are highly skilled at tuning in to what yanks their parents’ chains and gets them in the jugular—otherwise known as bait. While this feels so wrong and exasperating , children are just trying to figure out how to gain the control they so desperately want, and yet have so little of. Any reaction from you puts them in the driver’s seat, and reinforces the behavior, even if your response is negative--which is naturally confounding to many parents who expect that their children want their praise and will be deterred by their anger and disappointment. The best way to respond to bait? Ignore it. Behaviors that don’t get a reaction tend to decrease. This doesn’t mean you ignore your child—you just don’t engage around the provocative behavior.
So how to respond in a way that doesn’t result in a power struggle and that enables you to remain calm and loving? Remain calm--remind yourself that your child is just trying to cope with a limit or disappointment; acknowledge the underlying feeling your child is expressing--the challenge he is trying to cope with; and, implement the limit. The goal is to be responsive (showing empathy for your child's struggle while maintaining the limit), not reactive (which just fuels the flames and reinforces the behavior):
Child: I hate you—you are the meanest mommy! You are not invited to my birthday party!
Reactive response: You are so spoiled and so ungrateful! And you cannot talk to me that way!
Responsive approach: I know you’re mad you can’t get a toy today. It’s really hard to be in a store and not get something for yourself. I totally understand that. Then just keep moving on. If he keeps nagging you, start singing a silly song or talk about what he wants to do when you get home--to show with your actions that you aren't going to get drawn in. The surest way to ensure your children won’t continue to make threats and be "sassy" is for them to experience that it doesn’t register a reaction.
Child: You’re not the boss of me!
Reactive response: We are your parents and you have to listen to us!
Responsive approach: (Let’s say your child’s reaction was in response to your telling him he can’t jump off the slide at the playground.) When you choose to do something dangerous, we will always keep you safe, even if you don’t like it. Then give him a big hug–doing the opposite of what he expects. Secure him in the stroller and move on. Stay connected and warm--be silly, sing a song, talk about what you see around you--to show that you are still present and loving--you just aren't going to get into a battle of words over who is the boss!
Child: I will just starve! (5-year-old’s proclamation when parent said she could not have a snack bar for breakfast)
Reactive response: Giving in and letting your child have the unhealthy option he is demanding, while being very annoyed at him for putting you in this position.
Responsive approach: It’s our job to offer you healthy foods that you like; it’s your job to decide how much of it to eat—your body knows best when it’s hungry and full. Whatever you don’t eat we can put in a baggie to bring in the car in case you get hungry later. (Then move on—don’t respond to threats—as reacting to them or giving in makes this a successful strategy and will only put that strategy in the "win" column.)
It’s also important to keep reminding yourself that young children are largely driven by emotions, not logic, so irrational behavior is normal and to be expected. The part of the brain responsible for exerting control over emotions and impulses is not well-developed. This is why toddlers are much more likely to act on their desires, such as yanking a toy out of a friend’s hand, rather than thinking, “I really want that toy, but it’s not right to grab, so I am going to go find myself another toy.” Getting clear on expectations is critical because the meaning we assign to our child’s behavior impacts how we manage our own emotions and reactions to the behavior at hand. If we see the behavior as manipulative, or purposefully designed to drive us crazy, then we are much more likely to react harshly and in ways that escalate versus calm our child, and that don’t result in teaching good coping skills. If, instead, we see these behaviors in the context of normal development, then we can approach our children with empathy and are much more likely to respond calmly and ultimately effectively. “I know you want to play with the train and it can be hard to wait. But it’s not okay to grab. You have two great choices: you can give Owen back the train or I will give it back to him and we’ll find you another toy to play with until it’s your turn.” (Remember, you can’t literally force a child to give back that toy so your limit has to be enforceable by you. To read more about setting effective limits with love, check out this blog.
When we take the bait and get reactive, we don’t gain control, we lose control. It often leads to very intense and unpleasant power struggles that are detrimental for both you and your child.