Ask Teacher Lisa: How to support a 3 year old who can’t make up her mind

Dear Teacher Lisa,

Our 3 year old has been especially challenging us lately, and it seems to come up every day in the most routine activities. For example, when it’s time to eat we have an agreement that she must wash her hands before a meal. We always give her the choice to have either mom or dad help her, and after seemingly making her choice, she’ll start to play what we call the “yes/no” game by saying “yes, I’m ready,” then running away and saying “no, I’m not” as soon as we come into the bathroom to help her. This back and forth usually ends in tears after we decide to take a break from the drama and try to walk away (at which point she says “yes, yes I DO want to wash my hands!”).

We recognize that she is going through a lot developmentally and that she is probably already hungry (and maybe even tired) by the time we need to wash hands to eat, but we feel like we’re at a loss as to how to help her through these daily activities without all of us losing our minds. What can we do to give her choices without it turning into a poorly played game?

Tired of Playing the Yes/No Game

Dear Tired,

So, here’s the thing. A disregulated 3-year-old is not physically capable of making decisions. So rather than viewing this as a “yes/no game,” I would view it as a situation in which your child is incapable of making decisions, and she needs you to make the decision for her based on what you feel best meets her needs in the moment. And if it doesn’t matter for her needs, then decide based on your needs.

For example, if she DOES need her diaper changed, BUT is saying “yes/no” about Daddy doing it, then you decide who does it and stick to it. She may cry the first few times you try this, but often kids will feel better in the security of knowing you are going to help them decide and take care of them if they can’t handle things on their own. 

I view this similarly to when parents are departing from school, assuming the child feels secure in their school environment. Kids may have a lot of feelings about this separation, but will ultimately benefit if you make the call and they know it’s decided and they can move on to the next thing…even if they have some feelings to process along the way. The certainty of you deciding helps and instills confidence that the situation is under control. You don’t want to get into a yo-yo pattern, because it might just become habit. 

Choices are great for during the day when she is not tired and it is something that she can truly choose–apple or orange? But the big stuff should be decided by the parents, and the little stuff too if it’s a time when you know she will be tired (or you can lay it out in advance to give her a choice at a time when she is more regulated–i.e. Tonight do you want to use the new bubble gum toothpaste or the old mint? Let’s lay it out this morning, so it will be ready for us tonight!).

A visual cue can be immensely helpful to a child who needs support in processing the expectations of the day, and one simple way to create this is through a daily “calendar” where you can stick images on to outline the activities for the day. This is a great opportunity as well to offer choices – find a moment when she is well-rested and fed, and then let her pick one or two of the big activities for the coming day.

Another possibility is that she is clinging to the yes/no in these moments, because she has a need for some power and control. I would find other ways to give her this during the day. Maybe you do play a “yes/no game” during the day that is very silly like “Yes, I should put this stinky sock on my head??” That way she has opportunities for power in play, but when it comes to the routine there is a structure that is adhered to. And then you can all focus on playing the games that are a little more fun for everyone :).

Teacher Lisa

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