When it comes to having her way, your child probably knows exactly how to work the system. She may have little trouble convincing you to go along with her request for ten more minutes at bedtime or one more game of ball before coming inside for dinner. "If I do this, can I have that?" is probably one of her favorite tactics. And when you tell her "no," she tries to wear you down by asking again and again.
The constant negotiating and badgering may drive you crazy, but your child's limit-testing means that she's on track developmentally. "Kids this age are trying to determine what they can get away with and where the firm boundaries are," says Tina R. Paone, Ph.D., a therapist and clinical director at the Counseling Center at Heritage, in Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania. "When children negotiate, they are testing a hypothesis, such as, 'If I ask for two cookies instead of the one I've been given, will I get it sometimes, all the time, or never?'" Try out these expert-approved strategies to get a handle on your child's near round-the-clock haggling.
Yes, it can get frustrating when your child debates nearly everything you do or say. However, getting angry, raising your voice, or being defensive won't ease the conflict and may lead to a power struggle, says Annie Fox, author of Teaching Kids to Be Good People: Progressive Parenting for the 21st Century. Or worse, your child may shut down and feel he should never disagree with you or express his feelings. If you notice your emotions starting to rise, give yourself a few minutes to calm down, take a deep breath, and collect your thoughts. Then construct a level-headed way to address the situation at hand.
Instead of asking open-ended questions, such as, "What do you want for a snack?" or "When do you want to take your bath?" offer two specific options like, "You can choose either yogurt or fruit" or "You can take your bath now or in 30 minutes. Which would you prefer?" Using this approach will make your child feel as if she has a choice in the matter -- plus, she'll go along with a Mom-approved pick with little or no fuss.
It's important to be firm and consistent when letting your child know that certain things -- like wearing a seat belt, brushing his teeth, and taking prescribed medication -- are nonnegotiable. If your child tries to argue about something that you have already explained is a firm rule, Fox suggests that you simply repeat the original instructions and not get into a debate about it. When an issue isn't as serious but you still don't want the back-and-forth bickering, Dr. Paone recommends using the ACT limit-setting technique: Acknowledge the feeling ("I know you want to go to the park"), Communicate the limit ("but it's too cold to play outside today"), and Target the alternatives ("so you can read a book or we can play a board game together instead").
Although you may feel your child gets enough practice trying to get you to do things her way, helping her practice negotiation skills at home can increase the chance that she will use them with peers, teachers, and other adults in her life, explains Erik A. Fisher, Ph.D., a psychologist and the author of The Art of Empowered Parenting: The Manual You Wish Your Kids Came With. For instance, if she wants to take her favorite toy along on vacation but you're afraid she'll lose or break it, ask her to state her case before you'll agree. Gently guide her by asking her to explain why she wants to take the toy, how she'll keep it safe, and what other solution she can think of to satisfy both of you. As she gets more experience, she'll be able to work through the negotiation process without your lead. So when a classmate proposes hide-and-seek (again!) at recess, your kiddo may be the one to suggest a different game and calmly discuss it until everyone reaches an agreement.
Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Parents magazine.