By Brianna Matey, Vice President of Clinical Services

Think about a time when you were forced to do something that you did not want to do, like having to get your weekly groceries. Imagine that you had no choice but to go at 4pm on a Saturday when you had done chores all day and were exhausted, but you still had to go. Then, imaging this same situation with choices. You still have to grocery shop, but you can choose a time that is less crowded or on a day that you feel less stressed, or even choose curbside pickup. The outcome is still the same (you have groceries), but the experience with options is much more enjoyable. Choice allows us to feel empowered during the decision-making process. Children experience the same positive feelings. Offering choices helps your child build autonomy, decision making skills, and motivation during preferred (things they like) and more importantly, non-preferred (things they don’t like) activities.

Building choices into your child’s daily routine can offer many benefits such as reduction in tantrum behaviors, building confidence, fostering independence, and promoting autonomy. As parents we often operate on autopilot during daily routines with our children and dread getting to those non-preferred activities in the routines. Often providing choice can feel like a burden, but by taking an extra minute to offer a simple choice, these non-preferred activities or difficult transition times can be more pleasant for everyone involved.

What should you consider when offering choices?

  1. Keep it simple. Try to stick to only two choices and don’t offer more than three. We can all feel overwhelmed when there are too many options.
  2. Offer choices that are reasonable and that you can implement quickly.
  3. Give your child time to think and respond before moving on. Not all children can make choices quickly. If your child needs a prompt to make choices, let her know that you will count to 5 to give more time before she needs to make the choice.
  4. Start with a lesser preferred choice before more preferred activities. For example, if a child requests to watch TV and still needs to complete homework, allow her to choose the math or reading assignment first. Use a First … Then sentence.  “First math and reading homework need to be done, THEN you can watch TV. What would you like to do first?”
  5. Praise your child for making a choice! Make this a fun experience for your child and build up their confidence in decision making.

What are some examples of building choices into daily activities?

  1. Allow your child to choose between two food options such as an apple or banana. You can say, “For snack today, you can choose either an apple or a banana. What would you like?”
  2. Allow your child to choose the sequence of the nighttime routine, such as choosing to brush his teeth or wash his face first. I.e. “Tonight, would you like to wash your face or brush your teeth first?”
  3. During transitions give your child a choice of amount of such as 5 or 6 more minutes of the activity before transitioning to the next activity: “You can play for 5 or 6 more minutes before dinner. How much time would you like to play?”
  4. Ask your child if she wants to buckle herself in the seat or if she wants you to do it. “Would you like Mama to buckled you into your seat or do you want to do it yourself?”
  5. Ask your child to pick out his outfit before going to bed or in the morning if time permits. This can take a little longer, but can be a lot of fun. You can put out a few options and let him choose which he’d like to put together.

Offering children some freedom within limits is a healthy way to promote problem solving, decision-making, and responsibility. Giving the space and structured boundaries to practice independence, creative thinking, develop confidence, and practice some control over their daily experience is a powerful way to build empathetic, strong, responsible grown ups.

About the author: Brianna Matey is the Vice President for Clinical Services at Child Guidance Resource Centers. She has been with Child Guidance for over 10 years and oversees CGRC’s Delaware and Philadelphia county services. Brianna received her graduate degree in Counseling from Boston University and Doctorate degree from Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and she is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Licensed Professional Counselor. Brianna specializes in working with individuals to support their needs around emotional regulation, developmental delays, anxiety, depression, and coping skill development.