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My four year old categorically ignores me

The question:

My four-year-old categorically ignores me. I think my requests are age-appropriate: put your shoes on, wash your hands etc. I’ve tried explaining that if we don’t get these things done we can’t do the fun things such as going to the park. I had expected this behaviour might occur when he grew older, but at the age of four he already seems so distant from me. I hate that these beautiful sunny days are being spent battling over putting on shoes on rather than playing together. What can I do?


The answer:

Dealing with a defiant toddler can be challenging and frustrating, not to mention time-consuming. Intervening at this young age is great, as it can help to set some behavioural patterns and expectations that will continue as he gets older.


The requests you are describing are age-appropriate (assuming that he is within normal developmental milestones).


Keep in mind that a child’s behaviour is dependent upon a complex interplay of a few key factors:


– Temperament/personality: certain kids are simply more compliant, easygoing and easier to parent


– Developmental/emotional issues: children that are delayed developmentally for a range of issues or that are dealing with clinically significant emotional issues tend to display more behavioural difficulties (speak to a pediatrician or child psychologist if you have any concerns that there are any out of the ordinary health issues that may be contributing)


– Behavioural expectations: this involves both the manner in which requests are made, as well as the rewards and consequences provided for behaviour that is consistent or inconsistent with those requests


As a parent, the area of behavioural expectations is the one that you have most control over. Here are a few tips:


– Take note of times and situations where your son is more likely to pay attention; you may notice some patterns in the factors that are more likely to lead to him listening to and complying with a request. Then, try to emulate those factors whenever possible.


– When making requests, ensure that his attention is focused on you and that there are minimal distractions (i.e., no other children around, TV or radio is off, no toys in his hand). When making a request, be aware of your non-verbal behaviours (position yourself so you are facing your son eye-to-eye; make the request in a soft, gentle tone; remain calm and encouraging) and repeat the request if necessary.


– Ask him to repeat your request (to ensure comprehension)

– Reward him when behaviour is consistent with what you requested. Avoid rewards such as food or candy; the best reinforcers are interpersonal reinforcers (i.e., giving him a hug, smiling, thanking him, telling him you are proud of him).


– Ensure there is a consequence when he is not compliant. Verbalize why the consequence is being given in a calm voice, and then provide a consequence. Consequences can involve taking a toy away, not engaging in something he finds enjoyable (e.g., going to the park), or expressing some verbal or nonverbal disapproval. Avoiding communicating frustration or anger. Contrary to popular belief, punishment is not the most effective behavioural strategy and can lead to a number of other negative sequelae. Be mindful of not inadvertently providing positive reinforcement at the same time you are providing a consequence (e.g., do not smile while providing a consequence).


– Consistency is absolutely key. Ensure that you are as consistent as you possibly can be with rewards and consequences. This is essential, particularly in the early stages of trying to shape or modify certain behavioural patterns. It can be very difficult to do, particularly when parents are faced with multiple competing demands and when the consequences (e.g., not going to play outside in nice weather) also negatively impacts you. However, consistency is perhaps the single most important factor under your control, and has a significant impact on shaping children’s behavioural patterns.

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