Is your child questioning all your decisions? Here’s what you should do.
It’s normal for a child to question the rules from time to time. However, some children do this more often and more intensely than others. So how should you deal with a child who won’t stop arguing?
Why does a child argue?
There are several reasons why a child might argue:
- From the age of 3, a child’s mastery of language increases. They become more adept at expressing what they want and what they don’t want. They’re also able to repeat any arguments they hear. Accordingly, they might get inspired to negotiate and say something like, “I don’t want to pick up my toys because it tires me out.”
- They may feel frustrated because they have to follow so many rules and have very little control over their daily life. To assert themself and feel like they have some power, they may start to challenge the rules.
- They’re more aware of what’s going on around them and more perceptive of injustices,which can lead them to argue. For example, they might ask: “Why do I have to go to bed, but you and Mom get to stay up?” Or maybe they’ve noticed that you use screens at night, and so they start arguing that they should be allowed to use them too.
- It’s in their nature. If a child talks a lot and is impulsive or extroverted, they might have a tendency to argue more than a child who’s shy or more measured. From this perspective, it might be a question of temperamentor interests. A toddler who is further along in their language developmentmight also argue more.
- The rules are no longer appropriate for your child’s age. Sometimes, your child might be entitled to argue. At the age of 6, for example, it’s normal for children to want to choose their own clothes. And by age 7, it’s normal for a child to argue because they don’t want to hold your hand while crossing the street.
- Your child argues to avoid doing certain tasks. This is especially true for children over the age of 5. If you give in as soon as your child starts arguing because you don’t want to get in a fight just to defend your point of view, they’ll understand that they can argue to avoid doing something you’ve asked them to do.
What should you do when your child starts arguing?
- Try to understand why they’re arguing. Encourage them to talk about what they want and to put their emotions into words. This will help you understand their reaction. By taking an interest in what your child is experiencing and asking them to talk about it, you’ll also give them a chance to express themself without arguing.
- Acknowledge what they want. For example, if they want to continue playing when it’s bath time, say: “I know you’d like to keep playing, but it’s getting late and it’s time for your bath.” It’s not a magic formula, but if they feel understood, they’ll probably be more cooperative.
As a parent, you’re allowed you to make certain decisions without having to justify yourself at length.
- Explain the reasons behind your request to ensure they understand them. For example, you could explain that a child their age needs more sleep to ensure they have plenty of energy for daycare or school.
- Give them options. For example, you can ask: “Which pyjamas would you like to wear? The blue ones, or the green ones?” By letting them choose, they’ll feel like they have more control. It may not work every time, but a sense of empowerment can lead some children to cooperate more and argue less.
- Be firm when it comes to the rules you make.This is often the case with safety rules, such as looking both ways before crossing the street, not running while brushing your teeth, and not going in the pool without adult supervision. If you’re not consistent when it comes to enforcing the rules, your child will keep trying to negotiate to get around them. That being said, you should adapt your rules to your child’s age and development. For example, you can let them stop holding your hand while crossing the street when you feel the time is right.
- Uphold your boundaries without feeling the need to justify yourself. Make sure your child understands what you want, but don’t repeat yourself more than two or three times. Also, remember that it’s better to say what you want calmly and clearly rather than waiting and then yelling to express you’ve reached your limit.For instance, you can say: “I’m not going to say it again. You know what I’m asking you. You can keep this up all you want, but it won’t change anything.” Then, refuse to respond to their arguments to put an end to the negotiation.
Attitudes to avoid
- Try not to argue. The more you repeat your explanations and respond to your child’s arguments, the worse the situation may get. If you respond to every single one of their arguments, they’ll get the impression that they should keep negotiating. You can say: “You know very well why I’m asking you this. This discussion is over. I’m the parent here, and I’m the one who makes the decisions.”
- Don’t make threats. For example, by saying, “If you don’t put your toys away, they’re going in the garbage,” you’ll instill your child with a sense of fear and anger, which won’t encourage them to listen to you. Similarly, if you don’t follow through and do what you say you’ll do, they’ll come to the conclusion that your words have no consequences and that they don’t really need to do what you say.
- Avoid bargaining. Phrases like, “If you get dressed now, you can play with your tablet for 10 more minutes,” teach your child that they can negotiate to get special privileges.
How to reduce the frequency of negotiations
To reduce the frequency of negotiations, try to reduce your child’s frustrations. Here’s how.
- Engage in role-playing games where your child is the parent and you’re the child. They might try to order you around by saying things like, “It’s time for your bath! Put your toys away! Stop running!” Feel free to respond as they would: “Later. I don’t want to. Why do I have to take a bath and you don’t?” Showing a little authority during play will help your child better tolerate real-life situations where they have to follow rules or do what you’re asking them to do.
- Try to spend quality time with your child every day. It could be playing a game, cooking together, doing a puzzle, or reading a story. It’s a way to show them that they matter to you. If their emotional needs are met, they’ll be more likely to cooperate.
- Be clear in your requests. The shorter and more specific your requests are, the less your child will have space to argue. Doing so also makes it easier for your child to understand what you want from them. For example, “Put your boots on the mat” is a much clearer instruction than, “Pick up your things that are lying around in the hallway.”
- Make a habit of helping your child put their emotions into words so that you can understand their reactions. For example, you can ask them to draw a picture of how they’re feeling when they’re angry. This is a great way to teach them to express their feelings. Comment on their work, emphasizing the emotions you can see in it. For example, “That monster is really big and looks very angry. It’s scary!” Over time, your child might tell you how they feel when they’re frustrated instead of arguing.
- Praise your child when they respond to a request without arguing. For example, you could say, “Wow! You put on your pyjamas without arguing, even though you didn’t want to. I really appreciate this. It makes things easier.” Your comments will make your child want to repeat this positive behaviour. If they realize that life at home is more positive and relaxed when they cooperate, they might argue less.
Knowing how to argue—an important life skill In school and on the job market, knowing how to argue allows you to defend your ideas and convince others. This is a good thing! If after hearing your child’s arguments, you realize they’re right, don’t hesitate to reconsider your decision. Don’t worry, you won’t lose your authority as a parent. On the contrary, your child will be happy to know that you’re listening to them. As a bonus, you’ll help them build their
When is it time to worry?
Some children still oppose their parents, refuse to comply with their every request, and seek conflict. If the situation doesn’t improve despite your interventions, and if your child is also arguing at daycare or school and you’re not sure what to do, consult a professional (e.g., a doctor or a psychologist). Your child could have what’s known as oppositional defiant disorder.
Things to keep in mind
Among other things, a child may argue to express frustration, feel empowered, or avoid doing what they’ve been asked to do.
It’s a good idea to try to understand why your child is arguing, because feeling heard and understood can lead them to cooperate more and argue less.
Explain your rules to your child and keep your requests short and direct. This will ensure they’re easier to understand and leave less room for argument.
Scientific review: Annie Goulet, psychologist
Research and writing: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: May 2019
Photos: iStock.com/Stephanie Frey and GettyImages/kali9
Sources and references (in French)
- Bourcier, Sylvie. L’agressivité chez l’enfant de 0 à 5 ans. Montréal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2008, 224 pp.
- Hammarrenger, Benoît. L’opposition, ces enfants qui vous en font voir de toutes les couleurs. Éditions Midi trente, 2016, 232 pp.
- Neufeld, Gordon and Gabor Maté. Hold on to your kids: Why parents need to matter more than peers. Toronto: A. A. Knopf Canada. 2004.
- George, Gisèle (Dr.). Mon enfant s’oppose. Que dire? Que faire? Paris, Les Éditions Odile Jacob, 2002, 269 pp.
- Cathala, Agnès and Tristan Mory. Dina dit non: un livre qui parle de l’opposition. Éditions Milan, 2016, 26 pp.