Children in the defiance phase: With these expert tips, the little ones benefit from the time

Outbursts of rage, contradiction, rejection: children need this phase from the age of two, often called the “defiance phase”, on their way to independence. But parents often bring them to the brink of despair. But if you act right during this time, the children will benefit from it – also later in life.

Your child runs away instead of putting on the jacket? Does it cry when it does not get what it wants? Between two and six years, simple situations can trigger violent defiance. For parents, the autonomy phase, as the period of early independence is called, is often stressful. How do you react to tantrums? And how can children learn to deal with emotional outbursts? A few expert tips.

Children know early on what they want. And they make it clear. “Despite that, it starts in infancy,” explains educator and author Susanne Mierau. For example, if it turns away and will not be wrapped, the expert says. You still manage to distract the child. From the age of two, it becomes more difficult. Language is added, the children become stronger and gain more motor skills. A loud “No” or “I do not want” can no longer be heard.

“The high phase of self-governing efforts is three to four years,” says Sebastian Arnold of the Union of Child and Adolescent Psychotherapists (BKJ). “Children learn during this time that they have their own will and can decide, but they reach their limits in their expression.” Parents should follow the phase well. For “how children go through it has an impact on life as a whole,” Mierau says.

Accept anger – the child can do nothing else

Frustration and disappointment are part of young children’s everyday lives, where many new things are discovered. “The brain is still maturing,” Arnold says. Children must first learn to deal with their emotions. “A defiant act is like a short circuit,” he says. “The fuse has blown and there is still no way around it.” At the same time, the child learns a lot about its effect on others. “When children bother their parents, it’s to see what they can do,” says the family therapist. Deliberate provocation is not behind it, they can only do so much later.

Do not fall into old patterns

To defy is therefore not a misdemeanor, but an inner need that must go out. “When emotions are suppressed, they come back later like a boomerang,” Arnold says. Such children are often more conspicuous when they are in primary school or in puberty. Susanne Mierau warns against old parenting styles: “Children used to obey, they were not allowed to show their own will, and if they did, penalties were used to suppress it,” she says. The words still resonate with us today.

Stay calm, take a deep breath and be there

According to the expert, it is better to remain calm in a defiant reaction, to take a deep breath and wait. “Sometimes it helps to sit out of the tantrum and just stay close to the child – physical contact, if you allow it,” he says. It does not help much to talk to the child. “The many words do not get through at all.” If the anger is physical, parents should say, “It hurts when you hit me.” Getting loud and angry yourself is not a good idea. “It makes the situation worse,” Mierau said.

Talk about anger

If the protest subsides, children should learn from their behavior. Arnold recommends talking briefly about the situation to give them words for their anger. Solutions to derive the frustration are also useful. “Instead of hitting another child, they can stomp their feet or hit a pillow,” Mierau says. When talking to their children, parents should “always show that they love them,” she says. “Although children strive for more autonomy, they need a strong bond with their parents.”

Show understanding and offer alternatives

“Parents should also show understanding for their children’s feelings and, for example, say: I can well understand that you like to eat chocolate,” advises Arnold. Still, they do not have to back up (“we do not buy them today”), but can offer an alternative: something else to eat or a stop at the playground. Although emotions prevail in the beginning: “Children are very willing to accept alternatives,” he says. If they are also allowed to have a say in small things in everyday life, they will generally be happier.

Allow independence and collaboration

Some conflicts can be avoided by knowing how children think, feel and act. Educator Mierau recommends giving children more independence. For that is what they demand. For example, if the child does not want to get dressed, “they can learn what clothes to wear and even take it out of the closet,” she says. On the other hand, parents should not be too quick to say no if they want to get involved, help or try something new. “Some children hear so many no’s in everyday life that they get frustrated,” she says. “Another stop or no by the parents is then really ignored.” In dangerous situations this can become a problem.

Fixed rules and processes provide support

“In everyday life, clear rules and ritualized processes help to reduce frustration,” says Sebastian Arnold. Especially in the morning and evening when children (still) are tired. Likewise, cleanup can be a regular ritual. “Ten minutes every day or as long as the music plays,” Mierau recommends.

Children need boundaries, even if they are tested from time to time. “Parents are allowed to give in. But there must be things that are not negotiable, like reaching out to the electrical outlet or running out into the street,” she says. Consistency is also important when it comes to health issues. If the child does not like to brush their teeth, you can “try what they like: colorful toothpaste, an electric toothbrush, a toothbrush song or just another toothbrushing spot,” she says. Sometimes positive words also help: “If we brush our teeth now, I’ll have a lot more time to read to you,” Arnold says.

To be an example

How the child copes with frustration also depends on its role models. “If parents are good at dealing with conflicts and quarrels, the child can learn it,” says Sebastian Arnold. “But if you yourself are sitting in the corner and are offended or are very loud and short-hearted, the child will take over.”

It is also important that parents and caregivers do not take the tantrums personally. “Even though over time they understand that the other person is upset, they cannot associate this with their own behavior,” he explains. The development of empathy does not happen until the beginning of primary school.

“After the defiance phase, children need to be able to deal with anger situations in a socially acceptable way,” Mierau says. A no from the parents then no longer leads to a strong emotional expression, but to a discussion. Which is more convenient for parents.

(This article was first published on Monday, June 27, 2022.)

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