Dear Joanna and Julie,

My preschooler can be very stubborn. When he doesn’t get his way he will often react with a tantrum. Just this morning after finishing his cereal, it was time to drive to school. But he wanted more cereal. Unfortunately there was no time. I offered him a choice: cereal in a bag or in a cup. But he only wanted cereal in a bowl with milk.  In these cases I am not sure what else I should do. 

Yours truly,

No Choice Chosen

 *****

Dear No Choice Chosen,

What can you do when you offer a child a perfectly reasonable choice and he rejects both?

First, start by accepting feelings. When a child is experiencing strong feelings he may not be ready for a choice.  Since your son is feeling very emotional, you’ll want to put some drama into your voice!

“Ah, you don’t want dry cereal! You want it with milk! That’s the best. Nice wet soupy goopy milky cereal. Not stupid old dry cereal in a cup.”

You can give in fantasy what you can’t give in reality:  

“I wish I had a button to press to stop time for 10 minutes. Then you could have your cereal and milk, and we still wouldn’t be late.”

Or

“I wish I had a giant plastic bubble inside the car for you to sit in, so that it wouldn’t matter if milk spilled. That would be nice!”

Try putting the child in charge. Put him to work coming up with his own choices:

“Well, the problem is I can’t allow milk in the car. What can you eat in the car that has no liquid in it? We need an idea.”

There’s no guarantee that this will work. You are in a rush; your child is in a “mood.” It’s possible that you’ll still have to drag a crying child to the car. But all of these approaches avoid confrontation and invite your child to work with you rather than against you. You’ve got good odds his resistance will melt away once you enlist his help. And if it doesn’t work in the moment, you can always plan for next time with a problem-solving session on “What To Do When There’s Not Enough Time For Seconds.”

One thought on “*When Choices Don’t Work

  1. Dear Julie and Joanna,

    I use this technique all the time and I can’t believe how well it works!! By making sure my child understands that I understand his desire to have exactly what he wants and his pain at not having it, his tantrum de-escalates into a conversation. And then I can enlist his help in solving the problem.

    Now, he will even come to me before the issue escalates into a tantrum, and say “Mom, I have a problem” and then proceed to tell me what he is grappling with so that (usually) he comes up with a solution. It is magical to witness and to be part of.

    I also notice that this is a great way to talk to other adults who sometimes have tantrums when they don’t get their way.
    Thank you so much for your wisdom. It is doing no less than changing my life and the way that I relate to my child.

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