Six Tools for Getting Through to Your Preschooler

by Annye Rothenberg Ph.D.
Preschoolers amaze us. They are learning so much so quickly, trying to make sense of the world around them. Preschoolers’ conversations are fascinating as they try to piece information together: Looking for the sugar bugs on their teeth after they eat candy. Insisting that Mommy go to time-out when Mommy makes them mad. Explaining that they can’t start kindergarten yet because they didn’t meet the “dead lion.” (deadline).
Preschoolers are also challenging, because they think so differently. They are often oppositional, impulsive, self-centered, inflexible and illogical – especially when upset. They have narrow and literal understanding of the meaning of words and figures of speech. Sometimes it seems adults and preschoolers are speaking different languages. Preschoolers’ actions and behavior usually make ages two through four the hardest for parents to predict and understand.
In a typical situation, we tell our preschooler to clean up his room and he refuses. He argues when he’s told he needs to do it because he was the one who made the mess. He insists that it was his 4-month-old baby brother who left everything out. Or he says he can’t clean up because his hand is too tired – a complaint accompanied by a dramatic collapse on the floor and a plea that you help. You feel confused, annoyed and clueless about what to do. 
Preschoolers say no to many of our requests and directions. When we insist, they often become defiant and may get stuck in rigidity that they can’t get out of on their own. If we get rigid in response –  “you spilled the water on the floor, so you will clean it up or no TV today” – preschoolers’ reactions can easily escalate to extreme frustration and anger – expressed verbally (“you’re a mean, stupid mommy”) or physically (hitting parents with the water cup). When they’re stuck on “no,” we get annoyed with them and threaten them or force them to cooperate. Then the oppositionality that normally recedes by kindergarten gets entrenched in their behavior.
But giving in and cleaning up the water ourselves is not the solution, because children must learn not to constantly challenge, disrespect and disregard our authority. We worry about what will happen when they’re teenagers if they don’t listen now.
Here are six important strategies for success:

1.     Phrase your directions so they sound fun and/or interesting. “Pretty soon, it’s going to be time to make some holes in the paper cup so we can take it in your bath and play.”  If you can’t come up with anything, you can emphasize something he can look forward to doing when he’s done brushing his teeth. Or try having his toys “talk” to him: “I don’t want to lie on the rug. I want to be in the box with my friends, green and blue Duplos.”  Preschoolers love that. You only need to do this about half the time. They often can’t stop themselves from saying no, but we can help the “no” to dissolve and become a “yes” by making it easy for them to cooperate. 

2.     It’s also important to watch how you phrase your directions to preschoolers. Most parents say something like “How about picking up your toys?” or “Do you want to come inside now?” when it’s not really a choice.  Preschoolers are so literal that they hear it as a question, which they answer with “no.” Phrase it as a fun and/or interesting request, not as a question.

3.     When you want your preschoolers to do what you ask, giving advance notice is respectful and effective: “In a little while, it will be time to…”

4.     It’s best to have routines and regular times for dressing, eating, tooth-brushing, toy pickup, TV watching, bed, etc, to reduce continual limit-testing.

5.     Spend one-on-one time with your preschooler regularly – at least weekly – doing something that’s fun for both of you. She should know you’re doing it just because you enjoy her company. This is like putting money in the bank to draw on when you want her cooperation.

6.     Preschoolers need enough sleep at regular times – 12 hours for a three-year-old, 11 ½ hours for a four-year-old, 11 hours for a five-year-old. Falling short by more than an hour is a problem. Insufficient sleep triggers defiant and moody behavior. They also need about an hour a day of heart-pounding exercise (running after a soccer ball, biking, jumping, etc.).Sleep, exercise and regular meals and snacks are essential  to enable kids to control themselves better. You can help them develop these important habits.

 Preschoolers need special handling and understanding.  Adapting our approaches to fit their capabilities helps make family life happier and more satisfying. And don’t fear that you’ll need to “make it fun” forever. As children become kindergarten age, they become more rational and logical, responding to reasoning more often. Preschoolers are delightful and amazing. Enjoy them.

Parenting PreschoolersAbout the Author:
Annye Rothenberg, Ph.D., author, has been a child/parent psychologist and a specialist in child rearing and development of young children for more than 25 years. Her parenting psychology practice is in Emerald Hills, California. She is also on the adjunct faculty in pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Rothenberg was the founder/director of the Child Rearing parenting program in Palo Alto, California, and is the author of the award-winning book Mommy and Daddy Are Always Supposed to Say Yes … Aren’t They?  For more information about her work, visit