Q: My first grader cannot make a decision to save his life. He freezes and then tantrums any time he must make a choice (shoes, lunch, etc.). What can I do to help during these times and improve his decision-making?
A: Excellent question and it hits home for me. My parents recall horror stories from my childhood when I cried my eyes out because I could not decide whether to leave my grandmother’s house or spend the night. These scenarios can wear down a parent and tempers are easy to lose. You might even start labeling your kiddo as a “difficult child.”
Honestly, the world is full of decisions and they can become quite overwhelming for a young child. Think about everything you must decide as an adult just about yourself in the first hour of the morning: oatmeal or cereal, straightener or curling iron, wake up early for alone time or hit the ground running with the kids. As parents, we want to make sure we both ease these situations and model appropriate decision-making. Check out the following tips:
- Limit options: Consider a child who has several items he could select as part of his lunch (fruit, vegetable, Sun Chips, and cookies). One reason indecisiveness occurs is because there are so many options. Furthermore, he may be choosing between several of his favorite snacks and would really like them all! If there are four options, remove one or two of them. Also, make sure the options have equitable value. For example, coloring or reading books are equitable while reading books and playing Pokémon Go do not carry equal value.
- Begin small: You can enhance your child’s decision-making by first addressing low-hanging fruit (think outfits) to build success and confidence. Your child should be able to begin picking-out clothes when you limit his options to a few. After several successes with outfits, you can introduce a new decision to target. It often helps to create a hierarchy of targeted decisions so you can design a plan to help your son work toward more challenging decisions like spending time with cousins or attending a friend’s party.
- Preparation: I am not a stranger to the chaos of a weekday morning: breakfast, clothes, food, and figuring out car rides for the entire family. It can be a stressful on everyone, maybe even more so for a kiddo who awakes cranky and has to make several decisions. You can alleviate some of the stress by having your child make decisions in the evening so he would have his shoes, breakfast food, and special school snack selected before waking the following morning.
- Role model: Take time to role-model decision-making for your child as it occurs naturally in your life. Consider you are at an ice cream shop and need to select from three favorite flavors. You could say aloud, “Wow, I love them all so much. It makes it really hard to pick” and then you could model using “eenie meenie miney moe” as an effective strategy. Flipping coins is also a great way to help your children select between two options. Finally, provide your child with the reasons behind your decisions: “Today, I’m having fruit for dessert instead of a cookie. I had a cookie yesterday and we stay healthy by not eating too many sweets.”
- Build-up self-esteem through reinforcement: Begin acknowledging your child when they do make decisions. Saying “Great job figuring that out” or “nice work flipping a coin to decide on a toy” can go a long way with your kiddo. These comments provide feedback to your child that he is doing well and is on the right track.
- Do not criticize the decision: The inevitable question is, “What do I do when he makes (what I believe is) a terrible decision?” Sometimes we win as parents, sometimes we lose, and sometimes our child parades through the mall in a Batman costume he picked out for the day. In the beginning, you might just need to allow him to wear that Batman costume. He made the decision and he feels awesome in it! As your child improves his decision-making ability, you can talk to him about alternative decisions: “What might be a different or better decision right now?” Natural consequences will also occur sometimes. The consequence of deciding not to eat his lunch at school is the hunger he will experience during the afternoon.
- Don’t do it for him: As tempting as it is to set clothes out for school, select all activities for evenings at home, and limit breakfast options to one brand of cereal to reduce tantrums and anxiety, decision-making is a valuable life skill. There will be up’s and down’s and he may occasionally need assistance, but with practice I expect you will see him make great strides.