When Children Test Limits and Don’t Accept Choices

When Children Test Limits and Don’t Accept Choices

Understanding why children test limits and sometimes refuse to cooperate with parents even when given choices.

So you give your child choice A or B…and they choose C (not a or b but a made up choice by them) Now what?

This is where many parents stumble, for really choice A and B were ones that you really wanted them to take to make it easy for you. And darn it all, they choose C.

You know–it is time to leave so you ask, “Are you going to put on your shoes all by yourself (choice A) or would you like my help (choice B)? Reasonable choices and typically it is a slam dunk and out the door you go. But today, your child ignores you…runs away…picks up their shoes and throws them across the room (lots of choice C’s!).

You might find yourself heat up and tip over the edge and march your child firmly by the arm to make them do just what you want them to do. You might find yourself pleading over and over, hoping to avoid a meltdown and still get out the door in one piece. You may be frustrated because you understand choices are good and here you’ve given them what is good for their little independent selves…and it didn’t seem to work.

Your child chose C because it is his job.

Consider this. Your child chose C because it is his job. His job to practice being in charge of himself as often as possible. Her job to test you, to let you know HER preference, to state loud and clear “I am the boss of ME!” And your child is right. He IS the boss of himself, and as the boss, he gets to ultimately decide what choice he will make. This is truly evidence of just the kind of self-directed, independent soul you (most of the time) want to grow. Someone who is in charge of themselves.

Okay, but you still need to get out the door. To continue to support your child in their quest to be independent it is important to respect their choice. How does this look and still get out the door–maybe on time?

Here are some ideas for when children test limits and don’t accept choices:

 “It looks like you aren’t ready to put your shoes on (acknowledge feelings, always). It is time to go, and because it is too hard for you to choose I will choose for you.” And maybe you then wrangle your child into your lap and wrestle their shoes on–calmly, matter-of-factly, communicating your respect that they chose otherwise, communicating clearly the result of their choice. And now your child has the opportunity to discover whether they LIKE the result of choice C…and because you are calm and matter-of-fact, it isn’t about YOU, it is about them and their choice.

Or maybe it is fruitless to wrestle shoes on, for it takes just a swift kick and the shoes go flying off once again. So maybe the result of their choosing C is you pick them up in one arm, their shoes in another, and out the door you go. Accepting but not engaging the tantrum in the back seat about “I don’t WANT bare-feet!” again gives them the opportunity to decide if choice C really was something they liked. “You chose to not put on your shoes. You don’t like bare-feet (there’s that acknowledging feelings piece that is key). When we get to school, you can decide if you are going to put on your shoes by yourself or with my help.” Now your child learns a bit more about what they are responsible for…all because you’ve respected their choice and responded calmly and matter-of-factly with what needs to happen–letting go of what you’d hope they choose, letting go of needing them to choose it your way.

Or maybe you can tell your child needs option D and you are okay with that, “Hmmm…looks like you really want to keep playing with your marbles. We need to get shoes on and head out. You can bring your marbles with you, if you’d like–I’d really like to see the biggest one of all! Can you come show me while we put on your shoes?” And now you’ve respected their desires, flowed with their energy, and still pointed them in the direction necessary to go. They can feel in charge and you can feel grateful it worked.

Staying calm and matter-of-fact helps your child to discover whether or not he likes the result of the choice he made–now influencing him in such a way that the next time around he may be more likely to choose differently.

What does this require of us? Patience. Understanding. Humor! Consistency. Stamina. Creativity. The Power of Pause–essential for helping you find that calm place to respond, that calm place from which to be okay if meltdowns occur, if the house is left a disaster zone, if your car’s back seat looks like a junk pile as you throw everything in and get a move on. It requires us to let go of needing our child to respond in a certain way so we can feel the good parent, feel relieved, feel less embarrassed (think ‘choice c’ in a public place!), feel we are in control.

In essence, we need to be in control of ourselves no matter what our child chooses to do. Tough, at times. And essential, if we intend to grow a self-directed, responsible (and compassionate, cooperative, creative…) future adult.

Choice C. It really is okay. Breathe through it, honor it, and be clear on what you really want, for now you communicate respect for another’s choice and encourage the growth of an independent soul. And still get out the door.

©2014 Alice Hanscam Denali Parent Coaching, LLC

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Alice is a PCI Certified Parent Coach® with a B.A. in Child Study and a graduate level certification for coaching through the Parent Coaching Institute and Seattle Pacific University. She is a proud mother of two (nearly) grown daughters who are spreading their wings and leaving smiles behind as they go. Click here to purchase Alice's new book: Parenting Inspired: Finding Grace in the Chaos, Confidence in Yourself, and Gentle Joy along the Way

8 Responses to When Children Test Limits and Don’t Accept Choices

  1. Thank you for this. I find choice really helpful with everything but cleaning up toys. My son is 28 months. I say let’s clean up before we take out another puzzle or activity so our house stays nice and clean, or I offer choices about what he’s going to pick up, I try make it fun and be enthusiastic and he mostly just says no 🙁 I recognise when he’s tired etc and then I’ll say I see you’re tired so let me put these away for you or you’re hungry, let’s get a snack first. I really want to teach him to put one thing away before he starts another for my sanity and cause its an awesome habit to have. Any other suggestions? Thank you for the most helpful website! Xxx

  2. I’d like to see this applied to dinner time and eating. When the child won’t eat what you make, or refuses to try something new? You can’t force feed them!

  3. I’d like to see this applied to dinner time and eating. When the child won’t eat what you make, or refuses to try something new? You can’t force feed them!

  4. Hi Nada, great point, its true forcing children to eat is not respectful or helpful. As far as food and eating, setting children up to succeed by always having at least one safe and familiar food on the table is often a good strategy.it doesn’t have to be the same food, most children have a list, even if small of foods they like. When it comes to food, my overall approach is that parents are responsible for providing healthy foods and safety for children to determine how much they are willing and able to eat. If option a or b for food is always met with “no” its important to consider what happens after the no and if there is a different approach for that child that is better for their needs, like a picking platter, reducing snacking, meal plans, etc…

  5. Hi Simone, thank you for asking! 2 year olds are best known for the messes they make–fill, stack, dump, whack…You are doing a great job of staying calm and connected via your enthusiasm and guidance you give. Know that this cleaning up deal is a process that evolves over time. Your role modeling it cheerfully is key at this age. And making it fun, as well–it can work at times if, with a sing song voice, you say, “I’m picking up all the balls…here I go…plop plop plop…” “The blocks go back in the box, back in the box, back in the box…” And while doing so, you can playfully engage him in doing the same. Always affirm his efforts–even when followed with dumping the blocks back out–“You stacked the blocks in the box…and now they are all on the floor again! It’s time to put them away, so up they go onto the shelf” as you role model just what you want more of. Notice all the times he does ‘put something away’–“Thank you for handing me your cup when you were done!” “You know just where the shirts go in your room!” Also…it really is okay to have more than one thing out at a time–toddlers make messes. Being relaxed about this is important–as is keeping numbers of ‘toys’ to a minimum. This way there is less mess when it is all over the floor, and they actually can participate better both in play and clean up. I hope some of this helps…staying calm, connected, and consistent in all you do is the key!

  6. Hi Nada–to add to Ariadne’s response, eating is up to a child. Your responsibility is in what you offer and the pleasant environment at the table for enjoying it. If they choose not to eat, then they are all done. Staying calm and consistent about this is important so they learn more about how they feel on the inside, rather than focusing on what a parent is demanding. For many children trying something new is taboo in their mind! Role modeling your ability to try new things (with a sense of humor!) is important, and always offering it up to your child, too. Accepting their choice of not eating it is respectful–and can be responded to with, “I know when you are ready to be adventurous, you’ll give it a try!” When they don’t want what you place in front of them? Well–that is their choice, as well. Down they go and you get to say, “Your food will be on the counter for when you are ready.” We always made a point of having enough variety on our plates that I knew my girls would like something. We let go of them eating, say, only the pasta. We often encouraged them to try other things, but always respected their decision. I know very clearly I wanted girls growing into teens who knew for themselves when they were full, when they were hungry, and didn’t feel like the ‘needed’ someone else telling them otherwise. As long as I provided healthy food, I could let go of what they actually ate. Hope this helps!

  7. Hi, I love the idea of these strategies but I’m having a hard time understanding how you’re respecting the kid’s choice when you’re ultimately ignoring it to get him in the car or get his shoes on. In these scenarios, you’re essentially telling the child that his/her choice wasn’t ok but not really explaining why (because that wasn’t one of the choices.) Our child (nearly 4) simply says ‘no’ now and walks away or has a meltdown immediately. Once that happens, there’s no rationalizing or explaining, there’s just forcing .. forcing out the door or into the bath or onto the toilet or in front of the sink to wash hands. It feels terrible and like you’re completely disrespecting her choice and her independence and frankly her personhood. The only thing that has ever worked is letting her call the shots and resigning to the fact that we’ll be late, the bath won’t happen, etc. But I’m nervous that Option D and even an E which allows playing with the marbles for 5 more minutes, leads you into a situation of the kid thinking he/she will get whatever he/she wants if he moans/whines/cries/defies. Ugh. Any guidance is appreciated.

  8. Hi Donna!
    Thank you for asking. When they choose choice C, you are communicating respect as you calmly and with connection (being present and focused!) let them know C isn’t an option You spoke of ignoring–yes, in some ways that is exactly what you are doing–but I prefer to see it as putting our attention to what it is we want the most–a child who can take responsibility for their choices! As you calmly, matter-of-factly state “Looks like it is too hard for you to choose, so I will choose for you” and then move forward with doing whatever it is–letting them be upset if they need to be, know that you are providing a safe, calm place for your child to feel mad as well as learn a bit more about themselves. Yes, it can seem like forcing–but consider this–when done with calm, gentle firmness, it is not a negative thing–it is actually giving your child the opportunity to figure out for the NEXT time what he prefers to do. Force implies anger and roughness–this isn’t what following through with your child’s choice is all about. It is about respecting his choice, the feelings that follow, and communicating your confidence that he can learn to manage himself well and be responsible for his actions. Ultimately you are influencing how your child makes future decisions. Now when he chooses ‘c’ what happens isn’t about your anger or upset, it is about him being accountable for his choice. And this is essential–this is how they learn they are responsible for the choices they make, for how they behave and feel. They can learn as long as we are calm and consistent…

    Okay, I am beginning to ramble. Be clear on choices, be calm and consistent with your follow through (gentle firmness!), and your child has the opportunity to learn just what they are responsible for, how to manage their big feelings, how life in your family works, what they can and cannot do…etc. If this raises more questions, ask away! Giving a specific example of a situation is always good to work with. I hope to hear from you!


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