The changes that take place in children during the first years of life are unmatched later on, except perhaps in adolescence. The totally dependent infant rolls over, sits, stands and begins to walk. Increased mobility and mastery of the body is matched by cognitive development and emerging language. With each new skill comes growing independence and greater self-assertion.
At the same time, new skills bring with them changing parental expectations. Parents begin to think about giving up nursing or bottle feeding. Toilet training is on the horizon as is the move from crib to bed. As children develop self-help skills parents begin to expect that they can dress and feed themselves. Greater independence may bring with it less acceptance of dependent behavior.
The impact of the changes in children’s skills and parental expectations is reflected in behavior – the behavior of both children and parents. Children go from feeling like masters of the universe where seemingly every wish is their parents’ command to discovering the limits of their powers. It is a blow to find there are no longer magic powers that will get you what you want at will.
On the other hand, parents are taken aback at the discovery that children’s greater skills bring with them greater self-assertion and resistance to parental wishes. The big “no” makes itself heard along with defiant behavior. Children rebel against parental control but still need and want their parents care. They want to do things themselves and are frustrated when they can’t. This is expressed in bewildering behavior that leads parents to feel that whatever they do is not right.
This state of affairs has the potential to create conflict between parents and children. Parents expect compliance to their wishes; children want compliance to theirs. Power struggles can ensue over who will give in to whom. Children, who realistically have less power, use their only weapon – unpleasant behavior.
Parents search for ways to defuse these actual and potential conflicts. The feelings that lead to power struggles are a major obstacle to helpful solutions. Winning or losing is not what it is about. What can help is understanding how children are expressing their own developmental conflicts through their behavior.
A mother described a conflict emerging over her daughter’s discovery that she can put her finger in her nose. Mom finds this objectionable and tells her to stop, which has led to an increase in the behavior. Young children, who developmentally are interested in exploration, may also begin to explore their bodies. Parents are often disturbed when this leads to the exploration of their genitals – especially in public.
A negative reaction from a parent arouses a child’s curiosity. What is it about this behavior that leads to such a response from mom? The child is prompted to repeat the behavior in an attempt to figure that out. In addition, the message is that she is doing something bad, so if motivated to defy that message an additional reason comes into play to repeat the behavior. Alternatively, it may become something to be hidden.
The mother, on the other hand, if she sees the child’s behavior only in terms of defiance, has a greater need to assert her own wishes and may start on the road toward a punitive response. It is the initial misreading of the child’s behavior that can lead to a power struggle without a useful resolution.
Understanding a child’s behavior in a developmental context can often provide some clues to successful responses. For example, in this instance knowing that young children become interested in exploring their bodies, especially if they are not occupied in another way, suggests ignoring the specific behavior but instead involving the child in something else that she will find interesting. Children at this stage are still easy to distract.
What can be most helpful, is understanding what children are telling us through their behavior about their feelings, and about the issues they are working on wherever they are in their development.