Happy New Year!
Let’s start 2023 off with a question that parents ask me often,, which is: “Why is my child testing me, and what can I do about it?”
This is an inevitable, but extremely frustrating, developmental stage that almost all kids go through. Let’s say your kid is kicking against the back of your seat while you’re driving. You patiently ask them to stop.
Then, looking you dead in the eye, they lift their little feet… and keep kicking. Argh!
Rest assured -- this is a normal, and an even healthy, part of development for children, especially when they’re around the preschool and early school year age. But why do they do this, and how can you, as a parent, react? Let’s delve in.
Why do children test their parents?
First of all, know that you’re not alone. Many young kids in the preschool years -- maybe even all of them -- test their parents’ limits at least sometimes. This is normal behavior for a child this age, and there probably isn’t anything “wrong” with your child. Testing parents’ boundaries and challenging rules is actually a sign that your child is developmentally right where they need to be.
But why do kids do this? There are many reasons. Mostly, it comes down to this: children often test their parents to make sure that their relationship with you is unbreakable.
Think about it like an experiment your child is conducting. They know the rules, but they need to test them out to see what the consequences are for themselves. In other words, what will happen if they boldly disobey you immediately after you’ve asked them to do something? How will you react? Will you react predictably, in the same way that you did the last time they broke the rules? How much can they get away with?
And, perhaps most importantly, will you still love them when they misbehave?
Sometimes, this type of behavior can be stronger in kids with an insecure attachment style. Studies show that up to 30% of kids have an insecure attachment with their caregivers. A child with an insecure attachment could either be too clingy and needy, or too avoidant or aloof. They could feel less secure in the connection they have with you and be more inclined to test its breakability more often.
But that doesn’t mean that testing boundaries is always a sign of an insecure attachment. Like I said before, testing your limits is a normal part of the toddler to early school-aged years.
On top of testing your relationship, young children can also test boundaries just to assert personal freedom and their own identity. They’re see-sawing between being completely dependent on you and wanting to try things out on their own. They’re still learning who they are and are developing new skills every day.
Children this age can also experience big emotions that they need your support managing. They might test you or break the rules simply because they’re tired, hungry, angry, or cranky.
Lastly, preschool and early school-aged children need a lot of attention. If they learn that testing your limits is a sure-fire way to get your attention (even though it’s negative attention), then they will do it.
What should you do when your child is testing you?
How you react when your child is testing you is the most important piece of all of this. Trust me when I say, I know firsthand how hard it is to know how to react when your child is blatantly pushing your limits.
But, there is a way to deal with it in a way that’s compassionate both to your child and to yourself.
Reframe “challenging” as “testing the connection”
When we think of our child’s behavior as “challenging” or “disobeying” us, this naturally makes us feel more upset as parents. Try to reframe testing behavior as, literally, testing the connection with me. Your child is just experimenting -- they’re testing the waters and trying to figure out what happens when they do so. They aren’t intentionally trying to manipulate you or push your buttons.
In this “experiment” of theirs, how you react is what matters most -- it’s the answer they’re trying to get to.
Connect with your child in the way they need
No two children are alike. How does your child best feel loved and cared for? Is it through having some one-on-one time with you? Is it through physical touch, like a hug or a snuggle? Is it through play?
In those tense moments when your child is testing you, remember that the most important answer they’re seeking is: “Will you still love me no matter what?” Show them your unequivocal YES in the way that they need you to. Make sure they feel loved in this critical moment.
Read my 3-part series on How to Show Love to Your Child!
Be clear and consistent
As they say, consistency is key. We’ll save the discussion about logical consequences and behavior reinforcement for another day. But at the very least, try to react consistently when your child tests you. If you react with anger sometimes, patiently and kindly at other times, and simply ignore them at other times, then your child won’t get the answer to their “experiment” that they’re seeking.
Identify their needs
Try to help your child figure out what their needs are and get them met in a different way. For example, are they testing you because they’re hungry or tired? Do they simply want to see for themselves whether they are capable of doing something?
Be patient with yourself
Lastly, be kind and patient with yourself! Parenting is a hard job, especially when your child tests you in this way. Just like it’s normal for your child to test boundaries, it’s normal for you to be upset about it. Take it a day at a time, and allow the love that you have for your child to guide you.
If you’re a Single mom who tends to get stuck in a cycle of self-criticism or wonder whether you’re doing a “good enough” job as a parent, then my Single Mom support group for Women of Color may be a good fit for you. This group is for you if you’re longing for a judgment-free zone to connect with other Latina moms and learn ways to feel less guilty about parenting and feel more confident. You can get in touch with me to join. First meeting starts January 21st, 2023.
As always, I believe in you! You got this.
Christine M. Valentín
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