EXPERT Q&A

How do we create harmony with a headstrong 5-year-old?

Some young children are headstrong and make it very clear what they like and don’t like. Learn from child development expert Martha Tyler how to instill flexibility and empathy in your child and create harmony in your home.

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Question

Our 5-year-old son knows what he likes and what he doesn’t, and makes everyone around him keenly aware. It becomes problematic when it’s time to do something he doesn’t truly enjoy, especially when it’s out in public. He will go on and on about how he doesn’t enjoy the activity, sometimes leading to a tantrum.  

We empathize with him, letting him know that it is a frustrating situation not enjoying the activity, but that we should try to make the best of the situation. And we’ve talked in exhaustion about how we take turns suggesting activities, and that he too gets plenty of turns to suggest the activities he enjoys. Most times, after we talk with him, he gets on board with the activity, but when it is time to leave or do something else, this happens all over again. Other times, however, he complains through the entirety of the activity, making it a negative experience for all.

This is really trying my patience, and at times we scold him or try to discipline him, but this only amplifies the drama. Do you have any suggestions for what we can do to help him and us through these trying situations?

Answer

This sounds so difficult for your whole family! This is also very hard because I know you want what is best for your son, and you are working toward instilling empathy and compassion in your child—which can help him become more flexible with others and may help keep his attitude in check. Here are some ideas to help that you and your family can work on together.

Talk with your child about flexibility. Talk to your child about being flexible and why that’s an important skill. Ask your son what being flexible means to him? You can use this language here: “What do you think being flexible means? Why do you think it’s important to be flexible? Together, let’s make a list of flexible behaviors and inflexible behaviors.” To help you with this, some flexible behaviors might include:

  • Shifting as plans change
  • Meeting people halfway
  • Letting go of old hurts or blame
  • Thinking of how someone else is feeling and adapting
  • Knowing that you are not always right
  • Listening to other people’s ideas and thoughts
  • Asking for other people’s opinions about something

Talk to your child about inflexible behaviors, some of which are described below:

  • Getting stubborn when things are not what you want
  • Correcting others
  • Not shifting when plans change
  • Arguing with everyone
  • Spreading your bad mood when things don’t go your way

Once you’ve made a list of behaviors that are flexible and inflexible, ask your child how they would feel if their family or friends were inflexible. Ask your child why he thinks being flexible is important.

Praise your child’s flexibility. The next time you find your child being flexible, be sure to point it out and praise his behavior, and of course, thank him for his flexibility. You can even create a special “Flexibility” jar that you can fill with cotton balls, beans, or rocks every time your child is showing flexibility. Once the jar is full, he gets to do something he wants to do, like picking the movie for family movie night or choosing which ice cream to pick out at the store. Flexibility is a skill and a hard one at that! Since kids haven’t gotten to experience as much time for building friendships for the past year, it’s a skill that hasn’t had as many opportunities to be practiced.

Ask your child directly. When it can be safely done, tell your son, “We would love for you to do this activity with us, but we’re not willing to have you play with us until you can play in a kind way. You’re welcome to do something else individually (name another activity), or you can join us when you are ready to be kind to all family members.” Feeling left out won’t be fun for your child. This one is trickier to implement and you can’t do it every time, but trying this a few times might let your son realize that not being flexible and a good team player means he is left out of fun family activities.

Provide your child with choices. Lastly, I suggest increasing the number of choices he gets in his day. Ask him to make a choice every chance you get. Ask him what color plate he wants for each meal and how he would like to get to the car (hop, skip, twirl). Let him choose his clothing and which shoes to wear and which books to read before bed. Pack as many choices into his day as you can because he is at an age where he wants control and it’s hard to come by.

This is so hard and the pandemic only made it harder. And while what your experiencing is frustrating, everything your son is doing is developmentally typical for young children. You’re doing a great job. This too shall pass, but it’s very hard until it does. Keep encouraging any and all flexibility and talk about how important it is to be flexible. For even more resources, the book Why Will No One Play With Me by Caroline Maguire has a lot of great information and exercises to do with your child to build these social-emotional skills! We’re here for you!

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Meet The Expert


Martha Tyler

Martha has her Masters in Education and is a certified Positive Discipline Parent Educator. She has worked as a sitter, nanny, tutor, or teaching artist over the past 20+ years. In addition, Martha has hosted a child care podcast, Chronicles of Nannya, for several years. She is also the co-founder of Compassionate Childcare LLC and is thrilled to be able to share her experience, knowledge, and resources with CareNectar!