I've read a lot about giving children the freedom to choose between acceptable choices, to make them feel like they have some control over things and hence reduce tantrums. And I was pretty convinced by its effectiveness.

Until my 3.5 years old nephew was offered a choice between A, B and C, and he immediately chose D. Cue tantrum, because his mother couldn't/wouldn't allow for it. Here are all the variables in the scene:

  • He'd been coughing for a long time, so his mum decided it was time to use the inhaler mask. He resisted like he always does, so she offered him the choice : "who gets to hold the mask to your face - you can choose between me, dad, and aunt". He immediately says nobody. Mom offers, "So do you mean to do it yourself?" And he explains, "NO!! I said nobody!". (I may be imagining it, but he said it with a smirk so he knows this is a way out and is using it well) That wasn't an option, of course and it blew into a tantrum.
  • Not using the inhaler mask "to show him the consequences" wasn't an option. He'll cough his throat dry, but still won't realize he needs it or ask for it himself.
  • They've only recently started the choice system, somewhere after his 3rd birthday. Before that, they just used to tell him he's got to do {stuff}, he'd say no, they'd reiterate the same thing, he'd still say no and so on. His parents have always had to plead, distract, trick, and scold him into doing anything and almost always takes a LOT of time.
  • He's generally a stubborn kid who has the toughest time transitioning from one activity to another.

There has been at least one other time where giving him a choice didn't work. It was about having to go out and getting to choose a shirt. Is he too old for the choice system? Did they start too late? Why isn't it working?

And what should the parent do when the child insists on an option that wasn't offered? We can say that's not allowed and all that, but how do we avoid a tantrum while we're denying the child his choice?

2 Answers 2


Maybe he just knows what he wants?

"Stubborn" is another word for that, right?

If he doesn't want to inhale with the mask, and he's given three options about who gets to hold the mask, then of course the only answer that actually makes sense is "nobody".

I'm all for letting kids choose when it's appropriate. But the example about the inhaler mask seems to me like the choice isn't a real choice, it's designed to deflect from the actual problem. You're not giving him a choice about inhaling with the mask or not, which is what this is really about; you're letting him make a choice about a side issue he (rightly) doesn't care about.

Why isn't it working?

I'd suggest that giving him choices isn't working because he's not given choices he cares about. I don't know what other choices he's offered, but I'd say that it will work better if he's also asked for his opinion when he can actually decide something that matters to him.

So when he has to inhale with the mask, maybe it's better not to give him a choice about a side issue, but simply tell him he needs to inhale now. Maybe you can finish with something he likes to do when he doesn't throw a tantrum, like read him a story, play his favorite game with him and so on.

Then give him a real choice about things that don't matter so much to you, but matter a lot to him - e.g. where the feeling of control is actually true.

When he gets older, you'll have to rethink that - you'll also have to give him a say in matters that actually matter to you.

How do we avoid a tantrum while denying the child his choice?

I don't think you always can. You're basically using the "give the kid options" method to avoid a conflict by manipulating the child (I'm not saying that's bad, just that we should be honest about what we're doing). But sometimes it might be better to just deal with the conflict up front, without adding the "give the kid options" bit - especially if your nephew has been shown to not fall for it. If there is no real choice, IMO it makes little sense to pretend there is.

I don't have a good answer for avoiding tantrums, just some personal experience to offer: The less I try to negotiate an appeasement in cases where a tantrum can be expected, the quicker the tantrum seems to be over when it does come. And it seems to me that the less I care about avoiding tantrums, the less I actually have to deal with them. I don't know why.

Disclaimer: My kids are all older now - I don't remember whether the last sentence also applied when they were 3.5.

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    I hear you, but the many posts on this site and others say if you want to go somewhere, offer your child the choice of where he wants to sit in the car, or what shirt he wants to wear, and that should give him some sense of control. Wouldn't your argument apply there too? The real choice he wants is whether or not we go outside, not what I wear when we go. How come that works and this doesn't? Unless you think that doesn't work either..
    – learner101
    Jun 16, 2017 at 13:53
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    @learner101 - to your first comment - I don't know - does it work? You're right, I'd assume it doesn't work there, either, but obviously I don't know your nephew. I'm a teacher and I use the (cleverly disguised) "choice about a side issue" method on my (teen-aged) students sometimes, but I always feel I'm tricking them when I do it. It often works, but really I'm just manipulating them into doing what I want them to do, and I never feel too comfortable with it. Jun 16, 2017 at 13:59
  • @Pascal "Maybe you can finish with something he likes to do when he doesn't throw a tantrum" Thats good advice, it makes sense and could work with other children. But i don't know if it'll work with him. If he's been playing, he always gets back to playing after the tantrum and the inhaling. So what "unpleasant" thing should we do when he does throw a tantrum? Not letting him get back to playing will unleash a whole another super-tantrum!
    – learner101
    Jun 16, 2017 at 14:09
  • @learner101: I added a bit to my answer to answer that, but unfortunately I don't have a good answer for avoiding tantrums. Concerning super-tantrums, I usually send my kids to their room for ten or fifteen minutes. I don't see it as primarily a punishment (though my kids might disagree), more as a way to help them (and sometimes me) calm down so we can discuss things reasonably again. Jun 16, 2017 at 14:38
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    Thank you, much better. I believe this is the first time I (only speaking for myself) see the issue of "choices" so clearly discussed. +1 Jun 16, 2017 at 14:59

I like the other answer. What I will add is what I do with my kids when small. I don't give options they can use as a no, like the nephew saying "nobody". I say instead. We are going to do the treatment now (since that isn't optional), would you like me to read to you while we do it or do you want to watch a movie? I don't allow any choices surrounding something that has no choice. If we go to do it & he meltsdown I empathize. I understand you. I see you hate this right now. I wish we didn't need to either, but it keeps you healthy. Let's just get it down & I can read to you or we can watch a movie if that helps make it easier to do. I don't punish them for having a hard time, so I don't reward them for managing well. Sometimes doing well if merely a function of having a better day. Withdrawing something they would like because they can't seem to manage can be construed as punishment in a small child. The reason I don't punish is because a child is far more likely to think you are a jerk than to focus on their own behavior. They are too wrapped up in their own world at this age to accept that you are reasonable & they should have tried harder. In their thinking they are just as apt to think they tried really hard and you were just mean in the end because it still wasn't "good enough".

There is no magic anything out there to make a 3yr old accept things they do not want. Nothing. You can spank, threaten, time out, give them a pony, won't matter. They have feelings. To act is as if the root of such things isn't emotions is going to cause more undo woe & stress than needed on the child & caregivers. I have older kiddos now (and a 3yr old) and they still get upset. I am well past grown & sometimes I do too. Heck I hate the dentist & have been known to put it off quite a while before I get around to facing that fear. When I can stop & just look at the feelings my child is expressing, I can stop being irritated & annoyed & focus on helping them feel like they are heard & that I care that this is upsetting. I still have to do it, but I am not ignoring that it upsets you & I can validate that you have a right to feel your feelings. I also tell them, thank you for helping me understand that you are upset. I want to know how you feel.

Any parenting method out there that claims to end all resistance & upset in 3 year olds is selling you snake oil. Choices are meant to reduce tantrums. You cannot eliminate them, particularly when they are developmentally appropriate for that age. Not all kids do it, but not all kids are nose pickers either. I have one child that has never picked it that I know of. No worries; his siblings made up for his lack of interest in boogers.

I found this link a long time ago & found it so helpful as a way to view it. If you look at what is likely happening during a time of a lot of resistance & troubling behaviors, I found it to be pretty accurate to what I do see happening (it's listed there as equlibrium & dis equilibrium). I find that at times when my children have been mastering new skills, they are more anxious & unsettled overall & their behavior is less desirable. I also do notice that at times when it was smoother, that corresponds to times where they do appear more confident & calm overall. It helped me to see we weren't loosing ground when they went back into a tough stage, and helped me realize we would cycle back out of it without a need to assume what I was doing wasn't working. The approach you use should help to minimize what you need to address, but it won't eliminate it. Nothing does but time & love & patience & maybe a drink on tough nights if that helps you. http://centerforparentingeducation.org/library-of-articles/child-development/developmental-stages-the-roller-coaster-of-equilibrium-and-disequilibrium/

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    I don't understand the downvote. Seems like a solid answer to me. Jun 18, 2017 at 9:21

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