Minimizing power struggles


When you’ve tried to get your young child to do something, chances are you’ve been adamantly informed—with gestures or words—“No!”

Frustrating? Yes. But it helps to understand what’s going on so we can work with kids instead of against their natural development.

By age 2, children begin asserting their autonomy, an important developmental stage. They feel a pressing need to explore their world away from mom and dad, and in doing so, they learn what they are capable of doing themselves. Equally important, they learn what they are willing to do—and not do—themselves.

When they reach about 4, kids begin developing a sense of initiative. They learn to plan and do things on their own and experience accomplishment and purpose. However, when they’re not able to achieve a goal, frustration ensues.

For example, when you say to your 4-year-old, “It’s time to leave now, so please get your shoes on,” his senses of autonomy and initiative kick in. He may become overly assertive or even aggressive because he is suddenly frustrated at not being able to do what he chooses. The result is a familiar battle of parent-versus-child.

Jane Nelsen,  counselor and author of Positive Discipline A-Z, says that too often parents use the word “cooperate” when they really mean, “Do what I say!” Nelsen says, “Balance comes in learning to nurture and support the individuation process while establishing respectful and safe boundaries so it does not turn into a power struggle.” She offers some suggestions for how to break the tension and diffuse a power struggle when you suddenly find yourself in a standoff with your child.

Breathe, relax and disengage. When you’re involved in an escalating power struggle with your child, the best thing to do is disengage. Take a “mommy time-out” so you can calm down and focus on a positive solution. Say, “You know what? I need a break right now. Let’s talk about this later.” And the problem will still be there … later, when you feel better.

Describe what you see and hear. Show empathy and respect by acknowledging a child’s feelings. Consider saying, “I see that you want to keep playing, and I can hear how angry you are that it’s time to stop.” Empathizing is a great first step in diffusing a power struggle, and this alone may be enough to soften a child’s resistance.

Use nonverbal connection. Crouching down to his level, placing a hand on his shoulder, picking him up or scooping him into a big, unexpected hug can do wonders to reduce a power struggle. A loving hug may be just what he needs—and what you might need—to break the tension.

Offer limited choices. Appeal to your child’s sense of autonomy by offering her clear, real choices. For example, “It’s time for bed. Would you like to race me up the stairs or would you like me to carry you up?” offers her two viable choices. But make sure the choices are not confusing or a threat in disguise. Saying, “Would you like to go upstairs to bed or would you like a time-out?” is threatening because it doesn’t leave a child with a real choice. And saying, “It’s time to go to bed. Would you like to get in bed or would you like to go to the bathroom?” is confusing about what needs to happen next.

Develop a solution together. Let the child be the problem solver while you are open to creative solutions that meet everyone’s needs. Saying, “Hmmm, you need to finish your drawing, and I need the table space for dinner. What should we do here?” allows the child to develop critical thinking skills as well as the ability to take another person’s perspective.

Create routines. Regular routines provide predictability. A routine chart clarifies the steps that need to happen, and can reduce power struggles by dictating what comes next. “Oh, the chart says it’s time to brush your teeth next. Guess we better get that done!” You can also appeal to your child’s autonomy by encouraging him to use the chart to complete his own routine. “OK, you’ve brushed your teeth, what comes next?”

Decide what you will do. “Breakfast is on the table until 8:00, and then I will do the dishes. You are welcome to eat during that time,” sets a clear plan. So does, “When the chores are done I will drive you to your friend’s house.” Then follow through.

Discipline through play. Use imaginative play to work through conflicts and turn power struggles into playful games. Think of the fun—and success—if you said, “What if you could have a dinosaur tuck you into bed? Wouldn’t that be cool? Which dinosaur would you want to ride on to go upstairs? T. rex? Oh, I can be a T. rex! But a T. rex goes super fast so you’ll really have to hang on!”

Do tasks with them. It is not enabling your child to help her with work. Rather, sharing chores models cooperation and teamwork, and it makes a hard task seem less impossible. You could say, “Picking up all these toys is a big job, so let’s do it together. You put the stuffed animals in the bin, and I’ll stack up the art paper.”

Have regular one-on-one time. Dedicating just 15 minutes a day to uninterrupted time together—during which your child leads the activity—can proactively diffuse power struggles. The connection you form helps a child want to follow your directions more often; even if he wants to say no, he’s more willing to say yes, simply because he feels more connected to you.

Kelly Bartlett is a freelance writer and a certified positive discipline educator.

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