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Baffling Kid Behavior -- Explained

Eliot Peitso of Charlestown, Massachusetts, was desperate to get outside. Or so he said. "Out! Out!" he yelled. His mom, Jennifer Johnson, rushed to get ready. Diaper bag packed, house keys located, toys and snacks stuffed into the stroller, she opened the door and had just stepped out when, suddenly, 20-month-old Eliot burst into tears and demanded to stay inside. Did he change his mind? Not exactly. Crossing the threshold again, Eliot wailed louder: "Out! Out!"

"So there I was," Johnson says, "bringing him back in, taking him out again -- which drove us both crazy!" Surely Eliot didn't want to spend the morning stuck in a doorway. In fact, after his mom finally got him out of the house, with tears streaming down his face, he began bouncing up and down in excitement only a block later.

Kids are a bundle of contradictory impulses. Adults are, too, sometimes: "I am so not hungry for dessert," we may say, even as our fork is poised to spear a generous bite of cherry pie. But why do children so often say the exact opposite not only of what they mean but of what they want or need? A little boy, his legs twisted more tightly than a braided loaf of challah bread, insists "I don't need to go!'"

A little girl who could talk of nothing else but her best friend's birthday party awakens that morning and announces: "Parties are dumb. I'm staying home!"

"Our kids aren't out to get us," says Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, author of Kids, Parents, and Power Struggles: Winning for a Lifetime. "Paradoxical behavior like this often happens because a child's feelings are in conflict with his needs, but he hasn't learned how to express either yet. Our job is to figure out what those feelings and needs really are and to help our kids voice them." The most common ways children sabotage themselves, and how we can help:

They're tired but wired

When children's bodies crave rest, they may experience a surge of adrenaline to compensate. A disruption in their regular routine can compound the problem. The antidote to this energy burst isn't to move bedtime later to accommodate it -- in fact, it's a sign that your child needs to be put to sleep earlier. So stick to a set schedule, no matter how alert your child appears to be. "Kids thrive on structure, even if they seem to resist it," says Kurcinka. "A good bedtime routine lets a body know it's time to sleep."

"After an exciting early evening of T-ball, my son Owen, who's five, told me he didn't want to go to bed and that he wasn't tired at all!" says Lesley Hargrave of Zionsville, Indiana. "Of course, he was exhausted, so I just pretended not to hear his protests and carried on with our normal bedtime. I kissed him good night and left the room -- he was out like a light in about five minutes."

Smart woman. When my son was 4, my husband and I routinely found ourselves on long walks through the neighborhood at 9 p.m. because Henry seemed literally to be bouncing off the walls (or at least from couch to chair) after the sun set. Finally, his preschool teacher gently urged us to put Henry to bed earlier because he was so tired in school. Like many first-time parents, we were amazed to discover that despite Henry's protests to the contrary, he easily fell asleep at his new, reasonable bedtime.

But while bedtime routines help regulate a child's sleeping clock, they do little to convince him, no matter how worn out he is, that going to sleep is something he wants to do. Most kids don't like to be alone in their rooms or separated from you, and they don't want to miss out on whatever's going on in the household after they've been tucked in. Similar impulses provoke an otherwise played-out kid to refuse to leave the playground, toy store, or playdate. "Just five minutes more!" they wail, even when umpteen five-minute extensions have already been granted.

The fatigue factor can also trigger a meltdown when a depleted child simply can't recognize when to call it quits. Such was the case recently for 6-year-old Genevieve Shortz of Belfast, Maine, a high-octane kid, according to her mom, Lindsey. As a playdate wound to a close, it was almost impossible for Shortz to extricate Genevieve from a friend's house. "We finally got out of the house and started to walk home when she broke down and began to cry -- and yell and stomp her feet," Shortz says. "It turned into the worst public tantrum I've seen. She screamed and yelled, and nothing helped."

To defuse a meltdown like Genevieve's, says Kurcinka, empathy and calm work wonders. "Say to your child, 'Stop. I will help you to stop.' Pick her up, if you can, and hold her. Name the emotions you think she might be experiencing, even if you're just guessing. 'You're mad that you had to leave your friend's house. You wish you could play as long as you wanted.'" Your Zen-like serenity, in most cases, will be contagious. (Once she's settled down, you can talk about the words she can use to describe her feelings in the future.)

They're hungry but won't eat

Why do famished kids sometimes refuse food? Usually it's because sitting down to eat requires stopping some other activity that's much more compelling. But instead of saying, "Gee, Mom, I was really hoping to catch the ending of this TV show tonight," they're more likely to say, "Chicken?! Yuck. I hate chicken!" It's lame, and you know it's completely untrue, but as tempting as it is to remind your child about the last six times she ate and loved chicken, take the high road. Simply point to the clock and politely tell her that it's dinnertime. Children appreciate predictability, and a regular dinner hour circumvents the frustrating debate over whether or not they are, indeed, hungry. And if yours takes a few bites and declares "I'm full!" so be it. She'll make up for the lost calories at the next meal or snack.

While family experts stress the importance of parents and children eating together, kids aren't always thrilled about it. Staying seated, chewing with your mouth closed -- family dining can be tough! "My son Théo, who's four, often shows no interest in mealtime," says Danielle Sauvé of Cambridge, Massachusetts. "When he's at the table, anything is more interesting than food. He'll tell us he's not hungry or that he doesn't like what's being served. Finally, after a lot of cajoling and sometimes high drama, he'll turn to his food and eat it all up."

Still, if your child is being really punky about coming to the table, try Sauvé's tactic with Théo. "If he whines or ignores us and doesn't come, we often ask him if he's too tired to eat with us and would prefer to rest in his room. Of course, he always prefers to come to the table." This is smart: They're giving him the opportunity to decide for himself what's in his best interest.

Bear in mind, too, that physical cues of hunger and thirst are often disregarded or unrecognized by small children. They rely on their parents and caregivers to offer snacks and drinks before the discomfort becomes overwhelming. As with family meals, a routine is essential for snacks. Planned snacks don't just make sure your child is refueled, they also thwart the casual intake of food and sweetened drinks that can sabotage a child's appetite for more nutritious fare.

 

They won't join the fun, though they really want to

Some kids are cautious or slow to warm up, a temperament that can emerge as early as infancy. A baby who fusses when held by anyone other than Mom or Dad, a toddler who stubbornly refuses to get out of his stroller, or a preschooler who lags back when her classmates are playing may be saying, even without being able to talk, "I'm not ready for this."

"These children are easily overwhelmed by stimulation -- sights, sounds, noise, and commotion. They may even feel apprehension in the most child-friendly places," says Kathy Reschke, Ph.D., professor of early-childhood development at the University of Cincinnati. What really unhinges parents, though, is a child's paradoxical response to what promises to be a great time. Like little Eliot Peitso, who was stuck in the doorway until his mother realized that "even though he was complaining to get out, it was somehow more comfortable for him to remain inside than actually leave the house. Now I talk to him about how 'we're going to go now, we're opening the door now, ready, here we go!' And that makes the transition a whole lot easier for him."

Some kids confound their parents when their brave words and imagination paint a picture of a child ready and willing for new excitement, but all that talk is really a valiant effort to stifle growing anxieties. "Meet Santa Claus? Can't wait! I'll go and make a list right now," such a child will exclaim, only to brake hard at the candy-cane entryway and refuse to cross the threshold. A child's contradictory reaction to an anticipated event may also be due to not understanding exactly what is involved -- for instance, in sitting through his first movie or attending a special class. "For small children, language issues may be the root cause," notes Reschke. "They may not mean what they say. They may agree when they don't really understand what you're saying, especially if they're listening to long, involved explanations."

 

They're bratty to a beloved friend

Children want friends; they want playdates. But they don't always understand how friendships work. Refusing to play or share isn't an indicator that your child is unsociable. She may not be mature enough to realize that how she acts affects how another child feels. "Sometimes you may need to coach your child verbally. For instance, when he shuts down and won't play with a friend, you might say, 'I need a break,'" says Kurcinka. "Take your child away from the action. Say, 'We can wait a minute before we go back.'" True, it can be a bit awkward to leave a little guest waiting in the playroom while your child disappears into her bedroom. But kids are awfully forgiving -- and, better still, they have short memories. Chances are, by the time the playdate ends, they'll have forgotten they were separated.

Mimi Wolfire, 2, of Washington, DC, loves the idea of a playdate but has a tough adjustment to the reality of having a guest in her home. "She won't refuse to participate, but she doesn't share," says her mom, Deanna. "She doesn't know how to say 'I feel shy' or 'I don't want you to touch that toy.' She doesn't know how to make sense of these feelings, let alone verbalize them."

Wolfire finds that initiating an activity -- like making cookies or doing art proj- ects -- often helps circumvent her daughter's prickly reaction to another child's presence. Not surprisingly, Mimi then finds the challenges of sharing and cooperating easier to manage. It's also a good idea to figure out times when your child tends to be on her best behavior -- say, after a nap or a meal -- and schedule playdates accordingly.

It takes effort, practice, and insight to identify and articulate even one's most basic needs. For young kids, this is an understandably tough task. And like adults, children can be masters of self-deception and denial. Sometimes they're distracted, sometimes they're overwhelmed. Most of the time, though, they just need a little help.

Alix Finkelstein is a freelance writer in Brooklyn.

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