Thursday, August 31, 2006


I'm wondering if anyone else has experienced this with their kids. The complete inability to make a decision. Nicholas has recently developed the exasperating habit? quirk? malfunction? of not being able to make a decision. At. All. He completely breaks down. He crumbles. He cracks under the pressure. He melts into a big sobbing puddle of the floor. He's paralyzed with indecision.

And it's making me crazy.

Here are some recent examples: 1) Mr. Chick brings home some cookies left over from a meeting he attended that day. Nice gesture, eh? There are 2 to choose from: a snickerdoodle and 3 bite-sized cookies of varying types (chocolate chip, chocolate, etc.) He asked Nicholas to choose which cookie he wanted. Nicholas stood there, hemming and hawing, for quite some time (10+ min), saying things along the lines of, "this is just so hard!" and "I can't decide!", and working himself into a lather. Mr. Chick was getting very annoyed and frustrated (as was I) and kept encouraging him to just pick one already - geez! We were telling him stuff like, "there is no wrong choice here - they're BOTH good." but he was simply unable to choose one. Finally, Mr. Chick told him he needed to choose one in the next minute or he wouldn't get a cookie at all. This put Nicholas over the edge completely. The time pressure! His wee shoulders couldn't take the weight of having to make that choice AND do it Right Now. He dissolved into a gelatinous mass of baby-like whimpers, crying, screaming, and righteous fit-having. Disaster. Mr. Chick had had enough and sent him to his room, without a cookie. We had a long talk about making choices, etc. after he calmed down, and tried to explain that the worst choice is making no choice, but I don't think the message sunk in.

2) We went to some friends house for dinner last weekend and my friend made a delicious homemade blackberry cobbler for dessert. She offered the kids either the blackberry cobbler with some vanilla ice cream, or a small bowl of cookies-n-cream ice cream. The other kids immediately selected the cookies-n-cream ice cream, but Nicholas, again, was gripped with indecision. He kept claiming he "just couldn't choose! I can't decide!", in escalating degrees of anxiety and pathetic-ness, until the tears started and we (I) was encouraging him to just make a decision already. Good choices - no wrong answer - etc. But he couldn't. He collapsed on the floor in a heap of tears. He's 5 years old, for goodness sake! And we're at someone else's home! My friend said it was just about the saddest thing she'd ever seen, being a big fan of dessert, and couldn't bear him to not get any because he couldn't choose. She asked me, whispering, if she could let him have some of both. I told her she'd be the hero and since we were her guests we would certainly let her do this (normally, at home, we wouldn't cave in like that). So she offered him some of both and you've never seen a kid suck back the tears and perk up so quickly. "Both?" he squeaked, delighted. And that solved his problem. He didn't need to decide on one because he got both. Oh, the manipulation - !

He wasn't always like this. This is a new development. One we're not thrilled with, clearly. It makes everything so.much.harder. Do you KNOW how many choices/decisions you make every day? Tons! He seems to have the toughest time making a choice when the options are both considered "good" - like desserts. Some things he has no trouble choosing between. But when the options are equal in his eyes, paralysis happens. Like having to select just ONE of the free samples of cereal at Costco when 3 different flavors were on the tray. He can't handle it. It can even be something innoculous like, "what do you want to have for breakfast?" and he'll think for a minute, ask his choices, and then tell me he can't decide and stomp out of the kitchen in a huff. As if *I* did something offensive. This happens throughout the whole day, everyday.

We've practiced some choice-making tools, like "eeny-meeny-miney-mo", and that helps. A little. But sometimes he's unwilling to go that route. He'll get that panicked, deer-in-the-headlights look when faced with making a choice, and I'll suggest we do Eeny-Meeny-Miney-Mo to help decide, and he'll freak out even more. "No Mama! I don't WANT to do eeny-meeny-miney-mo!" and yet, he can't decide on his own.

I'm at my wits end.

How can I help him with this? Any suggestions of helpful tools? Has anyone else experienced this with their kid(s)? Please tell me this is something he'll outgrow, because it's really trying our patience. Even when I ask him if he wants ME to make the decision for him (if we're pressed for time), he says no. He can't make the choice, but he doesn't want me to make it for him (which I don't like doing anyway, mostly). Or if I do, he'll disagree with my choice and it becomes A Problem. I'm not sure where to go with this.


I have been a long time lurker of your site. I love reading your adventures, thanks!
As for your dilemma my 4 year old boy at times has trouble making decisions and when that happens he knows that if he doesn't make a decision (in a time appropriate way) then Mommy or Daddy will chose and he is stuck with that choice *period*.
It sounds like Nicholas might be suffering from normal 4 year old indecision coupled with some anxiety about making the wrong decision or loosing out. It might take the pressure off if he doesn’t loose the option of getting a dessert (for example) but he will loose the "privilege" (big word in our house) of making the decision.
Another thought might be to help him see that the options are not the same and that one is the better option. Just pick one and say I like this one because it has chocolate and the other one doesn’t or this one is crunchy and this one is chewy. You might try leaning heavily towards one choice and let him have success in making a decision. Over time he will learn how to tease out the differences and decide what he wants. It just takes kids a while to learn to do that.
Hope that helps,
Alaskan Girl
For now I'd restrict choices if possible until this phase is over. Your examples all seem to involve food - so, I'd say give him a small amount of all the dessert choices thereby eleminating the choice altogether. Just put both desserts (smaller portion of each) on his plate. It doesn't sound like he is trying to get over on you but more like he is really conflicted over the choice. If my kids have a hard time deciding I say pick one now and next time you will get the other. But you know kids, sometimes it works and othertimes not so much.

I can't say I really have this problem with my kids (yet) but just from your description of it, maybe you are giving him too many choices when you should just decide for him. I understand they need to learn to make a decision but it sounds like, especially w/food, that he needs someone to take control and choose for him at this point in his life. Just make breakfast you know he'll eat and that is his breakfast. Or like the cookie think, set a timer and say if you don't chose by the time this beeps I will pick one for you. If he breaks down maybe just ignore him until he's over it. It sounds like he gets some anxiety, but I am no expert! My son has a little bit of a hard time if he has money to spend at the store, which isn't too often. But he eventually makes a decision it just takes a while. It is hard for them when they have too many good options presented I think. Good luck!

I agree with the anonymous poster who said that Nicholas is probably worried about losing out on something if he makes the wrong choice. Now that he's older he is recognizing that one choice, while still good, might not be quite as good as another. Prior to now, he likely thought that any cookie was a good cookie but now he knows that some cookies are in fact slightly better than others and he wants to make sure he gets the best one. If you feel he probably would indeed enjoy one choice over another (i.e., you know he loves cookies and cream ice cream but might not like cobbler), you could help lead him in this direction. Even if he is the rebellious sort and picks the other choice specifically because you led him away from it (by the way, he doesn't sound rebellious but my daughter might do that), he's still made a choice.

Also, even though it doesn't necessarily help him with decision making in general, I also agree with the idea of allowing both choices when possible. Sometimes it really is a viable option and so why not let him have the best of both worlds when he can.

I also think putting time limits on his choice are probably making him even more anxious so it might be better to give yourself a time limit instead. Maybe you could say "I'm only going to stay here for one more minute while you think about it and then I'm going to walk away and let you decide on your own". That way you can at least get something done yourself while he agonizes. If he spends 15 minutes deciding on the cookie or the blue pants versus the brown ones, it won't stress you out so much if you're getting the dishwasher unloaded or reading a book. Even though it might seem like this will drag things out even more, things are already dragged out if he's having a major meltdown and getting punished.

Eventually his decision making skills will improve as gains confidence in himself so you won't have to make these changes forever.

Good luck.
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