Minimizing Power Struggles:
Understanding, Respecting, and
Responding to Your Child’s Behavior
Discipline can be one of the thorniest parenting issues. Children rely on us to teach them values and provide them with boundaries and limits. They need us to be consistent and loving, yet ﬁrm in our responses. Yet, children are experts in sensing our areas of indecision and they know exactly what button to push as they struggle to keep our attention and strive for independence.
As children mature, their demands increase. In infancy, power
struggles rarely exist. Most parents quickly learn their baby’s rhythms
and respond appropriately to their child’s signals of, “I’m hungry, I
need a clean diaper, cuddle me, play with me, or put me to sleep.”
Toddlerhood brings mobility and, with it, the ever increasing potential
for danger. In order to keep toddlers safe, parents need to limit and
control some of their child’s behaviors. This happens just as the child
is striving to develop autonomy. It’s not an accident that a toddler’s
favorite word is an emphatic “NO” as he practices the skills of self-
assertion. And so begins the vicious cycle of control struggles
expressed through the “dance” of discipline that occurs in many
Recently, I happened to be following a four year old boy and his
mother as they walked down the street. What began as a lovely
morning walk, turned into a full-blown parent-child standoff. This is
what I saw: Watching from a distance it was clear that the mother and
young son were deep in conversation; their body language said they
were truly in sync with each other. Each time the child said something
he looked lovingly towards his mom and she responded by smiling
and tilting her entire body down to his level. But, soon I noticed that
she extended her left hand, turned her head away from the child, and
she became engaged in a conversation with her Blackberry. Her
assertive son had no intention of sharing his morning walk with a
Blackberry. No longer having her full attention, the child did
everything he could to get it back. He tugged her sleeve, stopped
walking (only to be pulled along), and started shouting loudlyall to
no avail. Engrossed with her Blackberry she only became aware of the
child again when he suddenly let go of her hand and darted to the
corner. And, not to my surprise, her reaction was to angrily reprimand
the child for running away from her, rather than recognize why his
Was this a discipline problem or a child struggling to get his needs
met, reacting to his mother’s sudden emotional absence? No one
enjoys being reprimanded and you can imagine this scenario
escalating between the little boy and his mother. These patterns can
become difficult to change. Here are some tips to help you avoid
power struggles and turn conﬂicts into teachable moments:
Keep Calm and Carry On!
- » Never respond to a tantrum with one of your ownanger is
contagious. Your child needs to borrow your ego strength when
he is out of control.
- » Avoid using threatschange your language from, “If you don’t
get your pajamas on, then there won’t be time for a story”, to
“When you get your pajamas on, then we will have time to read a
- » Validate how your child is feeling and respect her emotional
responseeven if she can not have her way this time.
Make Rules You Can Keep
- » Be predictableif you give in one day, and stand ﬁrm the next,
it will be harder for children to accept your decisions.
- » Recognize the difference between being predictable and being
rigidsometimes we belatedly see that our expectations were
not appropriate. Offering a legitimate explanation can reduce
the child’s belief that you gave in to nagging. “You usually put
your pajamas on by yourself, but today we stayed out too late
and you’re really tired so I’ll help you. Tomorrow I know you’ll
be able to do it by yourself because you won’t be so tired.”
- » Remind children who whine that you want to hear what they
have to say and will gladly listen when they use their own voicethen walk away from the “dance” of negative attention
Help Your Children Control Themselves
- » Praise your child for the small steps that he accomplishes as he
moves towards self-control – reinforcing behavior that goes
against his temperament can be especially productive.
- » Look for ways to help your child feel that she shares in making
decisions“I know that you want a cookie now, but dinner is
just about ready. You can choose your cookie now and put it on
the counter for later.”
- » Give children ample warning of a transitionthe more concrete
the better. “We need to leave in ﬁve minutes; that means that
you have time to put 8 more pieces on your Legos.”
Focus on the Positive
- » Find active or physical outlets for children when they are angry
- » Keep your sense of humornot all resistant behavior needs to
be considered a discipline problem. Look for ways to join your
child in a game. Say, “How fast can you get to the bathroom to
brush your teeth?” to a child who runs away at bedtime.
Challenge her to beat her time tomorrow.
- » Rather than “time-outs” try “time away” in the presence of a
caring adult. Save discussion for after the anger passesno
one can hear what you say in the midst of a tantrum!
- » Find time before the end of a difficult day to talk to older
children about their challenging behaviors. Engage children in
ﬁnding solutions and strategies that will work better for
tomorrow. All children should be able to go to bed feeling
“whole” and start the new day with a “clean slate.”
And Remember, They’re Children
- » Don’t give your child the power to make decisions that are
developmentally inappropriate or overwhelmingremember that
you are the parent and need to protect your child.
- » Look for consequences that are relevant to the “misbehavior”this will turn the situation into more of a “teachable moment”
and less of a punishment.
- » Don’t be misled into assuming that a verbally sophisticated
young child is as emotionally mature as her words may lead you
All day long children provide us with opportunities to teach them
appropriate ways to get their needs met. Understanding why a child is
demanding and attention-seeking will allow you to respond in a way
that supports his development of self-control. It is a long journey, but
well worth the effort.
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Learning to Say Goodbye
Getting Ready for the Next Step
What Did You Do In School Today?
The Meaning of Friendship in the Early Childhood Years
Why are Early Childhood Educators so Passionate about the Block Corner?
Helping Children Understand Anger
Childhood Fears and Worries