Self-Assertion

At a group meeting of parents, a father asked about an issue with his three year old daughter that was of concern both to him and his wife.  When she is picked up at nursery school by her mother she refuses to go home and has a meltdown on the sidewalk after they leave the building.  This never happens when she is picked up by her grandmother or grandfather.  Mom feels humiliated by her behavior and is at a loss as to how to handle the situation.  As a result she resists doing the pick-up.

In describing the situation, Dad mentioned that they always get to school late.  It seemed that the reason for this is that there is a conflict between mother and daughter about the clothes the child will wear to school.  The girl wants to wear a dress but mom, with outdoor playtime in mind, wants her to wear jeans.  How does it end?  Mom gives up and daughter wears what she wants to wear.

Many parents of children in this age range will recognize this scenario.  Asserting oneself in the choice of clothes is often a major focal point in a child’s push for autonomy.  Another can be choice of food.  The mother of a four year old told me about her son saying, “If you make me eat that I will disable your phone!”  Protests can become more sophisticated as children develop.  The point is that children are letting us know they have minds of their own about their likes and dislikes, and also are letting us know that “I don’t have to do what you say!”

This is a time ripe for confrontation as children who had been easy to manage begin to push back against parental authority.  Old strategies no longer work and former routines are disrupted by children’s protests and rebellions.  Parents find themselves in the position of the mom described, fighting to control the situation and ending by capitulating to the child’s wishes, which feels like “letting the child win.”

In part, this is a struggle in which parents feel the need to fight for their authority while children are fighting for a voice of their own.  They have a developing awareness of being individuals separate from their parents and need to assert that separateness.  So in part, this is also an expression of developing identity – of saying I have my own taste in clothes and in food. 

Children often make such statements when insisting on wearing what to a parent seems like an outlandish outfit – or demanding to wear their Halloween costume to school at inappropriate times.  A familiar struggle occurs when girls want to wear an elaborate party dress to school, or boys insist on summer pants on a freezing cold day.  This is not simply to go against a parent’s wishes but also to give voice to who they are or want to be. 

 In these situations parents feel their authority challenged and are unsure about what other tools they have to stay in charge.  Besides, these conflicts are time consuming and unpleasant – far from the days when mom dressed her child and used her own judgment about the clothes.  It takes a while to recognize and accept that one is dealing with another person who cannot be easily managed in old ways.

Understanding this behavior is a first step in finding solutions.  The issue becomes not to show you are boss but to recognize your child’s need to have a voice in his daily life.  The challenge is to show respect for her wishes without this becoming doing everything her way.  This may require some creative thought in advance of the conflict area that is occurring.

Perhaps summer clothes can be put away so that a child can make his own choice from those that are appropriate.  At a time other than getting dressed, a parent can raise the subject of choosing clothes, and with the child’s help divide the clothes between those for school and those for parties or other special times.  Deciding on clothes the night before and putting them out may be a solution.

In fact, what helps most is demonstrating to a child that her wishes are respected and are being considered.  Such recognition goes a long way in bringing about the compromises needed from the child – and parent.