Why Your Words May Be Causing Your Preschooler to Misbehave


why is my child testing me all the time?

“Do NOT hit your brother!”

“Sweetie, you’re supposed to hit the ball and then run.”

Are those two statements connected? They are if you’re in preschool!

Preschoolers are concrete learners who use developmentally appropriate resources and observations to learn about life. The conclusions gleaned from observing through an immature point of view then become the baseline a child uses to understand the world outside his front door.

A child’s immature assessment of reality can confuse parents. When kids act on their interpretation of events, parents tend to see that behavior as being purposeful or manipulative. But is it really?

Dictionary.com defines manipulation as, “to negotiate, control, or influence (something or someone) cleverly, skillfully, or deviously.” The problem with that is your child’s mind is not that advanced, not yet.

When parents say, “Oh, she just wants my attention,” I ask them to look again, but this time, look at the situation through the eyes of a child so you can see what she sees.

The two hitting statements I began this article with are examples of how age-appropriate immature thinking can affect how a child understands the details of a situation.

Those statements make perfect sense to adults but can really confuse a child. Children, especially preschoolers, rely heavily on what observations and experiences teach them, versus relying on the subtle, yet complicated words used in communication.

Today’s example is hitting

As previously stated, hitting is a complex issue; it means different things in different situations. Here are two examples of how confusing hitting can be for a preschooler.

Hitting a brother with a pillow is a fun thing to do, and it’s okay with my parents.

But hitting with a plastic dinosaur isn’t allowed, even though it’s fun, too.

Hitting is okay when we play with a soft ball and plastic bat.

But hitting is not okay when you use a hard ball and a wooden bat.

Preschoolers don’t fully understand when it’s okay to hit, and when it’s not, and why.

If you say, “we never hit,” and then encourage her to hit the ball during t-ball, confusion can surface with levels of intensity that can cause a meltdown.

And if you try to explain the difference between hitting a brother and hitting a ball when a child is upset, no real teaching can occur because she’s stuck in her emotional mind, fixated on the fact that “You yelled at me!”

She’s unable to logically process why she’s being corrected and what you want her to do instead, which can cause her to spiral into a tantrum.

Solution: Begin by reframing

The first thing to do to help your preschooler contextualize the situations they’re trying to understand and manage is to reframe for yourself what testing a rule or boundary really looks like for them.

Parents think that when young children test a rule or boundary it means your child is misbehaving, which causes parents to try and stop the behavior right.this.minute. They become angry that they have to correct the behavior again, so they send the child to timeout or punish him.

The problem is the child hasn’t learned what to do instead or how to self-regulate, so (s)he remains confused about the details of the situation. That confusion causes the child to unconsciously repeat the behavior again and again, hoping to learn the subtle differences between the two types of hitting.

Testing is not about getting attention or being belligerent, it’s about collecting data to understand concepts that are more complex than a young child can fully grasp.

Three Other Things to Do

See Through Their Eyes

Remember that at this stage, your child processes everything through the emotional mind first, not the logical mind. Reframing how you see testing reduces your reactions and inspires your intuitive ability to teach instead of punish.

Tell Them What to Do Instead

Make sure to include information that tells your child what you want them to do instead of what they’ve done. What to do instead is the information your child was seeking to clarify by misbehaving.

Ask Questions

I call it “Pulling it Through the Brain©.” Asking specific, detailed questions allows you to guide your child back through the experience so it becomes an aha learning moment. The child gets to share how she saw the situation, what motivated her to do what she did and to work with you to learn how she should fix it.

“Pulling it Through the Brain” takes a situation from being managed by a parent to creating an aha moment that internalizes the learning for the child.

And as we all know, aha moments are the best way to learn anything!   


For a sample of the detailed questions, and how to scale the concepts in this article down to a 2–5 year old level, plus ways to mindfully correcting behavior, check out Package #1, Mindful Ways to Correct Behavior at Proactive Parenting.



Sharon Silver

Sharon Silver is a mom, educator, speaker, coach, blogger, and founder of Proactive Parenting dot net, inspiring parents to see the growth opportunities that are hidden in a child’s behavior. 

Sharon is the author of Stop Reacting and Start Responding: 108 Ways to Transform Behavior into Learning Moments, a contributor to “Parents Ask, Experts Answer” and has authored over 70 articles on parenting for PopSugar.

Sharon uses a gentle, refreshingly direct perspective that blends research-based parenting, early childhood development, and introspective empowering philosophies into practical, mindful steps that parents can remember, and children can learn from.



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