Living with stubborn children

How to deal with a stubborn streak in your child

Dr. Michael Kaplan, MD, Assistant Clinical Professor in Child Psychiatry, Yale Child Study Center, sheds some light on stubbornness in kids and how to deal with it.

How can parents deal with kids who tend to be stubborn?
Dealing with stubborn children is not easy. First, I would recommend trying to determine why the child is stubborn and in what situations. Often prevention is the best medicine. If we can identify situations that bring out stubborn behaviour, we can avoid those situations or prepare the child and reduce the likelihood of it becoming a problem. Second, avoid negative feedback loops. Children who are stubborn are often looking to take control over a situation and they get stuck. When we engage with children over negative behavior, it can turn into a negative feedback loop. The best way to avoid this is to focus on positive behaviors in the child and praise him when he does a good job or is more flexible. Setting up a positive reward system is usually the best way to decrease stubborn behavior. Third, as with all limit setting, being consistent and predictable in your response is the best way to change children’s behavior. Getting angry and upset will only serve to increase stubborn behavior.
Finally, I would avoid labelling the child as “stubborn”. Instead, label the behaviour as “being stuck”, which is a much less pejorative term. Labelling behaviour is preferred over labelling a child’s personality. Labelling a child’s personality can have a negative effect on self-esteem and can encourage the child to continue acting in negative ways. If a child is labeled repeatedly as stubborn, then they are likely to continue acting in that way.

At what age can parents identify a stubborn child?
This is a good question because we often attribute personality characteristics to children before they are old enough to have firmly developed personalities. Stubbornness is one of these qualities. Most young children act stubborn. It is a way to gain independence and show that they have their own identity, without being or becoming stubborn. It is very normal for young children to act in stubborn ways. In young children, I prefer to call it “being stuck”. That helps in two ways. First, it does not affect the child’s self-esteem if the focus is on “being stuck”. Second, it provides a way to help them. We can help them get “unstuck”. If we react to these normal behaviours in the young child, then they are less likely to become stubborn.

What is the impact of not reacting in the correct manner?
The way children are treated has a direct, enduring impact on how they function as older children and adults. The research literature on long-term outcomes is conclusive; children who grow up exposed to violence, physical and emotional neglect, inconsistent parenting, etc., are much more likely to have poor outcomes than children who grow up in supportive, consistently responsive homes. The negative impact on children includes emotional, behavioural and psychiatric problems as well as academic failure, employment problems and trouble with the law. Brain research has shown that we can see the changes of negative early life experiences in the brains of those affected.

What is the message you wish to send to families in Dubai?
Parenting is a challenge with huge, positive reward for families. All parents want to be good parents and all children want to please their parents. It is often easier to focus on what is going wrong than what is going right. Most parents do an excellent job of raising children. We all make mistakes and no parent is perfect. We have many opportunities to improve and make things right. My focus is on developing an understanding of where behavior comes from. If you can step back and think about why your child is behaving in a particular way, it will help you respond appropriately. If you feel concerned about how your child is doing or if you feel that your parenting is not working, please seek professional help from someone with expertise in child development.

Dr. Michael Kaplan is a child and adult psychiatrist practicing in New Haven, CT. He is an Assistant Clinical Professor at the Yale Child Study Center and recently visited Dubai, in partnership with The Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation. The Foundation is the family foundation of Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan and was founded by Her Highness in 2010.

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