From the September 2019 issue

Broadening Kids’ ‘Narrow Minds’ in Early Elementary School

If your child is in first or second grade, chances are you've heard 'absolute' statements. Here's how to get kids' narrow minds to open up.

Illustration by Brent Mossner

“I never go to the movies!”

“We always eat chicken for dinner.”

“You’re mean all the time.”

Do any of these phrases sound familiar?

While our kids’ absolute statements are hyperbolic to us, in their minds there’s some truth to them. So before you start arguing with your 6- or 7-year-old about how you just went to the theater last weekend or had mac ‘n’ cheese for dinner two nights ago, consider your child’s perspective.

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“Parents need to think about themselves at this age and try to understand why their kids are saying these things and have empathy,” says Dennielle McIver, a counselor with Pediatric and Adult Behavioral Counseling, a private therapy practice in Bloomfield Hills.

Here, she offers some insight into why kids go through this phase and how to help them be more open-minded.

Why so serious?

Many factors can contribute to your child’s one-track outlook, McIver says, including feeling a lack of control or flexibility and anxiety over that feeling.

“Parents have to learn to give options and some control to boost self-esteem,” McIver says. Limiting kids’ options can fortify their outlook. A child might say, “We always eat chicken,” if you tell him every night that he has to eat what’s on his plate. Even if it isn’t actually chicken, the reasoning is, “You don’t let me choose what we eat; therefore we always eat the same thing.”

That’s not to say you’re to blame. Kids are learning about emotional responses at this age and are trying to get a reaction, she says. They want you to have a back-and-forth, going-nowhere debate because it is engaging.

Thinking outside the box

So when will your child start accepting that some things are absolute and irrefutable but most things have many sides?

For some people, McIver notes, this isn’t a phase. We’ve all met folks who seem to think their opinion is the only one and that they are right no matter what – and none of us want our children to grow up to be that way. But parents can steer this natural stage in the right direction.

“Play the ‘why’ game,” McIver suggests. “In other words, if a child is resolute about something, they have a reason, keep asking ‘why’ until you get to the actual reason they are being defiant.”

For instance, if your child says she’s never going to school again, ask why. If she says because her teacher is mean, ask why again. Keep asking why until you get to a point where you can talk about the heart of the issue.

After the why game, lay out a few options. Kids need to understand that while they can’t quit school if they don’t like it, for example, they do have choices. Listen to what they want to do and help them work through solutions.

“This is the age where they are learning social skills. What it’s like to lose a game, have friends who change the rules and more. Talk to them about compromise,” McIver suggests.

She also stresses exemplifying the behavior you wish to see. If you want an open-minded child, be open-minded. Let them see you engage in a debate, change your own opinions based on new experiences or conversations and involve them in your learning process.

When to get help

Keep in mind that this behavior can sometimes be indicative of anxiety, McIver notes. If you’ve sat down and listened to your children, played the “why” game, given them options and still feel like you’re getting nowhere, seek professional help.

Also look out for the physical signs of anxiety when kids are speaking in extremes. If they appear to be physically uncomfortable – pulling at clothes or balling up sleeves, chewing hair or nails, standing or moving awkwardly – when talking about certain topics or voicing their unchanging opinion, it could be a sign that they think this way because they feel anxious.

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