In the “Advice from a Mindfulness Teacher” column from Spiral, the Rubin Museum’s annual magazine, readers submitted questions about applying mindfulness practices in their daily lives. Here, mindfulness instructor, social worker, and researcher Ayman Mukerji Househam shares her guide for mindfully dealing with an unruly preschooler.

My preschooler son is amazing until he decides to be defiant. He’ll put his foot down and simply refuse to listen to what we ask him to do. This happens at least a once a day. Recently at the playground we gave him a five-minute reminder that we would be leaving, and he seemed OK, but when the time came he threw an epic tantrum. Our morning routine is the worst of all. When we are finally out the door (after a LOT of coaxing!), he starts crying, stands still, and does anything he can to delay leaving. We have tried many things—bribing him, carrying him, trying to reason with him—but to no avail. Is there something wrong with my child? Please help!

Sounds like you have pulled out all the stops to deal with your son’s strong will. I understand that you may be feeling helpless, but you can take heart that your child’s behavior pattern is most likely a healthy developmental milestone. His motor skills are improving rapidly, enabling him to explore his surroundings independently. He is also developing a sense of self, trying to define who he is and what he can do. So you find him exerting himself, pushing and experimenting with boundaries, which stems from his evolutionary need to learn life skills and establish autonomy. But a lot of his inexperienced adventures might be dangerous—like playing with a kitchen knife—or simply unacceptable, such as a whim to decorate your family photo with ketchup. It isn’t surprising that his misadventures are therefore frequently met with the word no, leaving him confused and disappointed. Now you are the lucky one with the responsibility to encourage his independence while teaching him limits. Sounds like a tall order! Let me share a step-by-step guide on how to manage these situations.

  1. Check Safety
    Use your keen parenting instincts to assess if your child is putting himself or others in danger during his explorations or tantrums. If he is having a meltdown in the middle of a bustling street, quickly remove him from danger. Try to stay calm while doing so. Remember, you are his role model, so choose your reactions wisely.
  2. Check in with Yourself
    Once you ensure your child’s safety, it’s time to hit your own reset button. Take a full deep breath. Dissolve any anger or frustration. Tune in to your body and relax any tense muscles. Now let go of expectations, including that of your child’s compliance.
  3. Use Empathy
    Now put yourself in your child’s shoes. What is he feeling? Why is he feeling that way? Bring yourself to his eye level. If he is sitting down, sit with him. Tell him what you think he is feeling and why. If your child likes touch, give him a hug or hold his hand. When he feels understood, he will be open to work with you in reaching a resolution. A child’s misbehavior is often a mode of communicating something deeper.
  4. Identify and Address Triggers
    Think of the last five tantrums. Do you notice a pattern? Look beneath the surface as there could be a deeper cause, such as transitioning to a new school, moving, parental stress (yes, even when you think you are doing a great job hiding it), bullying at school, being tired and hungry, or developmental delays. If you think his increased frustrations are due to speech or motor delays, or they seem odd, then consult a clinical professional. Otherwise, address what you think might be the underlying cause. If the trigger is your own stress, use stress-relief strategies such as practicing mindfulness meditation daily. In fact, research shows improvements in a child’s behavior even when just one parent practices meditation.
  5. Communicate
    Since tantrums are a child’s way of communicating stress, they are also a great opportunity to teach them effective communication. The first step is to recognize that he is not throwing a tantrum to punish you. Listen carefully to what he is saying or doing. Understand where he is coming from and say it. For example, if he does not want to leave the playground after you give him a five-minute reminder, say, “I understand that the playground is a fun place and you want to play a bit more, but it is getting late for dinner. How about we come back again tomorrow?” When he hears these words, he realizes you understand why he is upset and you are offering him a solution. By modeling such communication, you will create a future expert communicator.
  6. Become Mindful Together
    You can prevent tantrums simply by giving your child the gift of your time. All you need is five minutes a day to play with him mindfully. Choose a time when you won’t be rushed, such as after school. Let him take the lead. Repeat what you see him doing and saying. Praise him for his actions during this mindful playtime. Enjoy becoming a child with him! This will boost his confidence and enrich the parent-child relationship.
  7. Teach Correct Response
    Once you build a solid foundation of trust, your child will be more receptive to being disciplined. Discipline is not about punishing. It is a way to gently teach boundaries, so your child can navigate the world smoothly. When you give instructions, you set him up for success. If you want him to listen to your instructions, give precise, short, three-step instructions. Remember that a child’s attention span is short. He may not listen to you because he simply forgets long and vague instructions. When your child listens, praise him for it. Be specific as to why you are praising. You could even set up a reward system. If your child is being stubborn, offer him a couple of options so he feels that he is making the final decision, not you

In the end, see if you can become mindful and take the “power” out of the power struggle between you and your little explorer. Be patient with yourself and your child. Use this bump in the road as a learning experience for both of you.

Related: Three Poems to Introduce Children to Mindfulness

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