Lessons From the Childrearing Trenches: Dealing with Demanding Behavior

"Get me orange juice!" "Put my shoes on!" "Bring me my blanket!" Demands like these are not uncommon, especially from children who are more sensitive and reactive by nature. They tend to feel more out of control on the inside which leads to their wanting to control everything on the outside.

How to respond? Most parents' knee-jerk reaction goes something like this: "You can't talk to me that way! I won't get you anything when you use that tone. When you ask me nicely, I will be happy to help." This seems totally logical, but often backfires, because when we respond with a negative (and often revved-up) tone it tends to amplify children's oppositionality and escalate their distress.

That's why the strategy that I have found most effective is to start with a positive response by acknowledging the child's desire before setting the limit: "I know that you love orange juice and would like me to get it for you. I can't wait to help you with that when you ask me in a nice way." It can be very calming for kids to have their feelings validated before a limit is set. It makes it more likely they will be able to adapt their behavior. This works... some of the time. Every child is different and there are no one-size-fits-all approaches and no prescriptions for perfect toddler behavior.

As a matter of fact, and as luck would have it, just after I started to compose this newsletter today I learned about another tactic that I am eager to try during these maddening moments. It was shared by a dad who is dealing with this very challenge. When I asked how he was handling these situations, he explained that one strategy that had some currency was walking out of the room for a second and then returning to give his son a chance to try again. I think this approach is absolutely brilliant--so positive and powerful. With one simple gesture he is communicating to his child that: 1) the way he communicated is unacceptable (without shaming him or getting reactive); and, 2) that he has confidence in his child to make a better choice and will give him the chance to do that. The added element of walking out of the room for a second provides a tangible break to signal it's time to switch gears.

To solidify the strategy, I would suggest you talk with your child about how you are going to help him make better choices in these situations by developing a cuing system. Your key points would include:

  • Letting your child know that you understand that his feelings are really big and that when he wants something, he wants it right away. Sometimes that means that he demands that you get something or do something for him in a way that is not respectful which means that you can't help him.

  • Explain that you want to be a helper and here's how that can happen: since he knows how to ask for help nicely--because he's done that so many times (you always want to point out and build on positive past experiences)--you will always give him a chance for a do-over, to make a correction.

  • Let him know that the next time he says something like, "Daddy, get me my truck!", you'll simply say, "do-over" and then you'll walk out of the room for a count of two seconds and come right back in. That's his cue to start over--like a "take 2". If he chooses to make his request nicely, then you will be more than happy to help.

  • You might role-play this in advance. I am finding that to be a very powerful tool for helping kids anticipate the kinds of limits that will be set and how they will deal with them. They get to practice it so when the next incident occurs they have some muscle-memory for how it feels to make a better choice.