Coping with an Argumentative Child

Your child has become a big talker, but now she argues about everything. Here's how to cope.

Sarah McGee, 5, chose what she thought was a perfect outfit for a snowy morning in Boulder, Colorado: a bikini top, a sequined tutu, and sparkly red shoes. When her mother, Bev, pointed out that this wasn't the best way to dress for the winter, Sarah insisted, "I won't be cold, Mommy." The lengthy exchange that followed ended with an exasperated mom and a shivering child. "She's always been strong-willed, but now she fights about everything," Bev says wearily.

Welcome to the age of argument. Your child used to hurl herself on the floor in frustration; now she engages in impassioned debates on everything from the proper bedtime to whether it's okay to eat dessert before dinner.

Though such verbal volleying can exhaust any parent, it's normal for preschoolers. With a vocabulary of 8,000 words at their command, 4- and 5-year-olds are ever more confident in their ability to communicate their side of things—and to gain power in the process.

"Arguing and disobeying peak around this age," says Russell Barkley, Ph.D., author of Your Defiant Child: 8 Steps to Better Behavior. "Four- and 5-year-olds are focused exclusively on getting what they want, and now they have a new way to go after it."

It's important for a parent to realize that just because your child is capable of making her case, she's not necessarily ready for an open exchange of ideas. "Even though her language skills are good, she can't understand your logic," says Edward Christophersen, Ph.D., coauthor of Parenting That Works. Given this limitation, is there any room for dissent? Yes, experts say—but with discretion. Here are six strategies for reducing everyday disagreements with your child.

1. Establish House Rules.
Your youngster needs to know that certain things aren't open to negotiation. Safety essentials, such as not talking to strangers and always holding your hand when crossing the street, fall under that heading. So do daily routines. If you stick to consistent times for meals, reading, and lights out, your child will eventually stop objecting to transitions. And if he tries to argue when you tell him to turn off the TV, don't be drawn into a discussion. Just restate what he needs to do ("Come take your bath now"), and follow through (switch off the set and herd him into the bathroom).

2. Provide a Payoff.
For some situations, a child may need an incentive to comply. If everyone except your daughter wants to rent Spy Kids 3-D on movie-and-pizza night, let her pick the pizza toppings as a trade-off for giving in gracefully. This will teach her that cooperation pays. For ongoing disagreements, create a reward system for your child. Having trouble getting her out of bed in time for school? Offer her five points every time she's up by seven o'clock. When she gets to 25, let her choose a treat at the bakery or stay up an extra half hour on a weekend.

3. Make It Personal.
A calm, direct approach will help avoid conflicts. Rather than yelling up the stairs that it's time to turn off the lights, march into your child's room and tell him the same thing gently but firmly. Use straightforward language ("Go to bed now"), not suggestions ("I think it's time for bed") or questions ("Wouldn't it be a good idea to turn out the lights?").

4. Pick Your Spats.
Sometimes it's easier to let your child go sockless than to feud about footwear. Backing down on the small stuff—on occasion—won't turn your child into a "my-way-or-the-highway" tyrant, Dr. Christophersen says.

5. Act Now, Talk Later.
A good rule of thumb for defusing arguments is to say, "We'll talk about it tomorrow." If your child refuses to put away her toys because her baby brother doesn't have to clean up his, tell her you'd be happy to discuss it in the morning—but reiterate that she must pick up her things tonight. Although your child has a right to be heard, it shouldn't be when she's angling to bypass a chore. Instead, hold a family meeting at another time when she can voice her feelings, calmly and respectfully.

6. Show Him How It's Done.
Since arguments usually spring from anger and frustration, parents should model alternative ways to deal with these emotions. The next time someone rudely cuts in front of you, don't confront him. Simply say, "The way that person cut in line makes me mad—I'm going to take a deep breath and count to five." Avoiding fights in front of your child can help make him less contentious with you.

Copyright© 2004. Reprinted with permission from the November 2004 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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