Power struggles between parents and their children can seem like a tug-of-war. Two opposing sides pitted against each other, each determined to win. The problem is, the more the child and parent argue, or the more the parent tries to force the child to do something, the more tempers flare and the situation becomes miserable for everyone.
When a child says no it’s easy to give in to the bait and turn the most minor challenge into a major power struggle. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are steps you can take to avoid or diffuse conflicts and help your child learn respect and cooperation.
- Asserting and exerting power is normal
Instead of viewing your child’s willful behavior as bad and reacting in a way to overpower him or her, you can view this behavior in a positive way. Gaining a sense of personal power or autonomy is a normal developmental stage. This is crucial in developing a personal identity.
From the age of two, children are starting to develop their identity separate from their parents and the world around them. This includes declaring ownership and authority, making decisions for themselves and exerting their will and power on situations and other people. Knowing that they can have a say on how their circumstance is going to be is a step towards self-direction and independence.
- Make reasonable requests.
Make sure that what you’re asking of your child is within his capacity. For example, asking a four- year-old to clean his room independently may be too much. But if you offer to help and provide encouragement along the way, it becomes doable.
- Give a heads-up.
A lot of times grumbling can be avoided by giving a 5- or 10-minute heads-up notice that they need to finish what they’re doing and then they have to pack away their toys, brush their teeth, get ready for bed or whatever task you’ve asked them to do.
- Acknowledge their feelings.
Sometimes children grumble because they want to be heard. Acknowledging your children’s feelings lets them know that you understand why they don’t want to do it. You can simply say, “Yeah, I know washing dishes isn’t fun. But if you hurry and start now, the sooner you can go out and play.”
- Offer them choices.
When you give a child choices, you give them a sense of power. Empowering your children reinforces their autonomy and asserts their independence. The more power they feel and the more control they have because of the choices that you give them, the less they’ll feel that they have to fight back to gain control.
There are four different types of choices you can offer your children:
- Concrete choices: What do you want for breakfast, cereal or pancakes?
- Playful choices: Do you want to run up the stairs going to bed or do you want me to give you a piggyback ride?
- Choices with rewards: If you eat all your vegetables you can have chocolate for dessert.
- Choices with consequences: You can brush your teeth or I’ll do it for you.
Offer your child an abundance of choices, but make sure that all the choices that you’re giving are acceptable. Don’t tell your child to sit down quietly or you’re leaving the restaurant if you don’t intend to do so.
Avoid giving too narrow choices that your child senses no freedom at all. Try to give broad and open-ended choices as much as possible.
Don’t give choices that represent punishment. Telling your child to pick up his toys or stand in a corner creates fear instead of empowering your child.
- Clarify consequences.
If your child refuses to make a choice, tell him that you’re going to make the choice for him. If he insists on something that isn’t one of your choices, be firm and tell him his two choices over and over again until he makes a choice. Make the choice for him if he still refuses and after giving him a warning.
If your child refuses to comply, calmly state what will happen if he still refuses to comply within a stated time, usually after 5 or 10 minutes. Don’t be carried away with anger and make sure the stated consequence is appropriate and reasonable. For example, when a child refuses to help with the dishes, he will lose his TV privileges that evening.
- Follow through.
If your child refuses to comply, do the promised consequence. Shouting at him or giving him a salvo of angry words won’t do any good. Your child needs to see you are serious about you said and that consequences are not a joke.
Once the consequence has been imposed, move on without a grudge. Let your clearly stated expectations and well-chosen consequences speak for themselves. Let your child know that he can start fresh the next time.
- Recognize positive behavior.
Let your children know that you appreciate it when they follow directions, especially when they do it without grumbling or drama.