“Five more minutes!, “I don’t want to!”, “I’d rather stay home (than go to the park, on a playdate, to the store),” “One more hug (drink of water, potty visit, story) before bedtime,” “If you give me this, then I’ll do what you’re asking…”
If any of these sound familiar, you may be dealing with an experienced negotiator/worrier. Young children who constantly negotiate may be worried about losing “control” over the conversation, the argument, or the transition to a new place or activity. When you as their parent or caregiver make a decision that affects their daily life (which, of course, we do constantly), they may learn that through negotiation they can regain some semblance of control over the situation or request.
For example, a child coping with separation anxiety may use multiple delay tactics at bedtime or upon arriving or leaving preschool. These tactics give the child a feeling of control over the actual bedtime or separation. Or you may have a child who is very routine-oriented. When there is a change in the routine, even a “fun” activity can set off another round of negotiation or, at worst, a severe tantrum. Or, you may have a child who is very rule-bound and when they see another child behaving in an “inappropriate” way, they may elicit help from a trusted adult to “fix” the out-of-bounds behavior of their peer.
Children crave predictability. When faced with unpredictable situations, such as another child grabbing their toy or a parent setting an unwelcome limit, some children experience a loss of control and react by becoming “bigger.” They may demonstrate a strong emotional reaction or tantrum, or resort to an oppositional response, even to an activity they typically enjoy.
One of the least helpful things we do as parents and caregivers with this type of personality is to give ultimatums. “I said, ‘Get in the bath!”, “We’re leaving preschool right now,” “We’re not going to the park today,” “Go to sleep!” These statements invite oppositional battles because they take all control away from the child.
Children who are experienced negotiators have a strong internal need to participate in the decisions that affect their daily routines. Even if they cannot control the outcome (for example, “It’s bath time!”), they will feel calmer if given some power in the decision-making process. “Do you want bubbles or not?,” “Do you want to hop like a bunny or fly like a bird to the bathroom?,” or “Do you want to bring your doll or your bath book with you to the tub?” The outcome of taking a bath is not in question. How you get there is negotiable.
If we want children to “listen” to us, we need to make sure we are speaking their language. Negotiator or worrier children must feel in control of their own destiny. We, as their parents and caregivers, must figure out how to give them that control, while still encouraging compliance with our requests. Again, the outcome is not in question. We will be taking a bath this evening. However, the child can participate in the transition by making meaningful decisions in partnership with the parent or caregiver. In this way, there is a shared power dynamic, which addresses the control need of both parent and child.