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Wellington Daily News - Wellington, KS
  • Dr. Elaine Heffner: A child’s strengths may seem like defiance

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  • Seeming conflicts with little children can often provide a rewarding learning experience about their strengths. This is especially true during that 2- to 3-year-old period when children become more assertive and issues of autonomy loom large. It is a time when children are caught between wanting to do more by themselves but not yet having the skills – or size – to do everything they think they can.
    This can pose a challenge for parents and teachers. A 2-and-a-half-year-old in a nursery group I observed already had a reputation for being provocative and difficult to manage. Having seen him before, I was aware that while ignoring teacher requests, he would do things that in his mind would be helpful.
    On this day, he began collecting the mats on the floor that the children would stand on while lining up to wait their turn at the sink. Having collected them all, he walked over to a high cabinet where a teacher tried to take them from him. He resisted, but the teacher again tried to take them from him to put them away.
    This time he resisted more forcefully and the teacher seemed uncertain about what to do, wanting to assert her authority but not wanting to get into a power struggle. At that moment, the head teacher came by and, understanding the scene, lifted the boy up so that he could put the mats into the cabinet himself. The job done, the child happily went off to join the group.
    This episode was an example not only of the potential for misreading a child’s behavior, but also of how easily a child’s strength can be interpreted as defiance. This child’s eagerness to do “teacher-like” things was actually a key to helping him become a member of the group in positive rather than negative ways. He could be rewarded for positive behavior rather than getting the attention he needed through negative behavior.
    The difficulty comes when the parent or teacher doesn’t think the child capable of a given task or may not have the time to let a child do something by himself. On the other hand, the adult involved may take the child’s behavior as a challenge to adult authority and become invested in making a point to the child about who is in charge.
    A familiar situation to many parents is wanting to avoid a scene that may occur if they try to enforce their will, but also feeling the child should not be allowed to “get away with not listening.” Undoubtedly, there are times when a child is being provocative or defiant for reasons that are unrelated to the immediate situation. But this speaks to the value of trying to understand the child’s behavior before responding. A child who seems to be pushing back against something we want him to do may actually be invested in something he is trying to accomplish – not in defying us.
    Page 2 of 2 - If we take a moment to try to understand what a child is really after, we may be able to help him accomplish his goal while also taking a step forward in his development. Showing that we get what he is trying to do rather than seeing him as being difficult is itself meaningful in connecting to a child even without any concrete help that is offered.
    Children’s self-assertive behavior is about them – not about us. Often they are trying to build themselves up, not put us down. Plugging into their strengths can be the key to avoiding or resolving potential conflicts.
    Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: the Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: the Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at www.goodenoughmothering.com.

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