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 families.

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 loudly—all 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 “misbehavior” occurred.

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 own—anger is contagious. Your child needs to borrow your ego strength when he is out of control.

  • Avoid using threats—change 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 story.”

  • Validate how your child is feeling and respect her emotional response—even if she can not have her way this time.

Make Rules You Can Keep

  • Be predictable—if 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 rigid—sometimes 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 voice—then walk away from the “dance” of negative attention seeking.

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 transition—the 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 or aggressive.

  • Keep your sense of humor—not 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 passes—no 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 overwhelming—remember 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 to believe.

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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