I bet you’re no stranger to power struggles in your home. If so, you’ve come to the right place. Here are some tried and true responses for when your child doesn’t want to do what you say.
Recently things started to get out of hand with my 3-year-old. It seemed like every day was Opposite Day.
I wanted him to eat breakfast, he wanted to play.
I wanted him to go to bed, he wanted to stay up.
I wanted him to walk, he wanted to run.
I wanted him to run, he wanted to crawl.
I wanted him to pee in the potty, he wanted to pee on a bush.
I’m okay with him peeing on a bush… no thanks, he’ll pee in his undies.
I think you get the picture.
I knew what was going on with his defiant behavior. I knew somehow someway he’d stared feeling tender about every single thing, and I kept digging around to see which of his needs weren’t being met. Was he not feeling connected? Was he feeling powerless? Was he being treated like he was younger than he is?
I wanted to explore all this, but in the meantime… we were having battles.
Secrets To Avoiding Power Struggles
Note: With 1, 2, and even 3-year-olds OBVIOUSLY we can simply pick them up and make them do what we were requesting. This post is based on the idea that at a certain point, we can’t physically force our kids to do what we’ve asked, and we need some tools in our toolbox that lead to cooperation without sacrificing great nurturing family relationships.
A month or two ago I heard one of the best pieces of parenting advice ever. This is one of the obvious things that – after you hear it – you immediately recognize as true though you’ve never verbalized it.
Here it is: intervene early.
If you know your child will not respond favorably to a rule or routine change in your home, don’t wait until you’ve got a full blown war on your hands to intervene. We usually know when something’s about to escalate, and waiting until someone (or multiple someones) are on the warpath will have less than successful results.
- Discuss beforehand | If you know your child will not like what’s coming up the pipeline and they are old enough, have a direct talk. State the rule and ask if they have any ideas for making it happen. Kids will surprise us with their creativity and if they “own” their part there’s a lot smaller chance of power struggles.
- Give ample warning | Some kids do not respond well to Out Of The Blue or All Of A Suddens. They just don’t. Ease transitions with reminders and choices like, “We’re going to leave soon. Would you like to leave in 5 minutes or 10 or do you have a better idea?” Your child might, for example, say “after another 5 slides!“
- Jump in before escalation | If two siblings are getting riled up, don’t wait until someone lands a punch. If it’s a toy they’re fighting over, jump in and ask for suggestions on how they can handle it. If the kids come to an agreement on their own (if they are preschoolers or up, of course, and able to do this) they will both honor it. Helping kids learn to navigate win/win scenarios is one of the most rewarding things.
“Push Them Back”…
Recently Lauren and I did a Fresh Start Bootcamp with a bunch of moms and she gave this great advice to moms whose children are refusing to do something.
Push back to the real issue.
There’s no point in telling our kids not to feel what they feel because that won’t work. Telling them to just stop crying or be quiet or get over it also won’t work. Plus it erodes trust.
So what can you do instead? Push back to the real issue. Lay it bare.
Let’s do an example.
Child who doesn’t want to start homework because it’s “too hard”
“You don’t want to even start because you don’t think you can do it. You are SURE you won’t be able to do it and you hate failing at things. You’d rather not do it than get it wrong!
What you’ve done there is get to the actual issue. Not wanting to start homework, in this example, was a great way for that child to avoid feeling like a “failure” if they didn’t really know how to do it. But still… the homework doesn’t do itself. So then you state the rule…
“The homework must be done, and you don’t want to do it if you can’t get it perfect. Must be something you can do that would help you feel ready to start?”
At this point your child feels totally understood. You pushed back the presenting behavior (refusal to start homework) to get to the real one: not wanting to mess up and feel bad. If your child feels heard and understood they’ll likely come up with some ideas on their own. Even silly ones like… “I’ll feel better if I can eat veggie sticks while I do homework.” (➡️ask me how I got this example)
[This approach – validation of what is happening, plus stating the rule, then turning the problem solving over to the child with “there must be something you can do” – is part of the Language of Listening® approach.]
Use Choices Or Options That Make Sense
We are never out of choices.
This is a true statement.
However, when it comes to kids, we need to be mindful we aren’t giving them ridiculous choices. A ridiculous choice is one that has a complete winner and loser. Like these.
- “Do you want to come inside for dinner right now or spend the night outside?”
- “Do you want to share that toy or have me take it away forever?”
- “Would you rather eat this piece of broccoli or have no dinner?”
Look, we’ve all been there.
These types of choices make kids frustrated and leave them feeling angry and exposed. Of course you’d want your child to come in for dinner, share a toy, and eat a vegetable… but don’t make it a choice if it really isn’t a choice.
Instead, you’d want to create a choice that actually helped your child feel they have a bit of power. Remember: when children feel powerless they behave in ways You Will Not Like. We each have God given free will, when we perceive that to be taken from us… things get ugly.
- “It’s time to come inside. What do you need to do before you come in?” My children surprise me with very creative weird answers. Yours will too.
- “You want that toy and your brother wants that toy. Both of you want turns. Must be some way you both get to play with it?” Sometimes kids are even more strict than you are and may respond with something like, “Me for 5 minutes, then him for 5 minutes“
- “In this house we eat some vegetables. Do you want to eat this broccoli or have a carrot? Or do you have a better way to eat veggies?” If they suggest something you are okay with, do it.
Keep The Boundary/Rule And Let Them Do What They Need To Do
There is actually great freedom when you know your boundaries. An example from a previous post is this.
I don’t want anyone to stain my couches. I am 0% okay with them getting jacked up.
Instead of creating a hard and fast catch all rule that would take a lot of enforcing (no eating on couches) I explained my boundary. Now, the kids know which foods they can or cannot eat on the couch. If we’re having pizza and movie night, they’ll eat the pizza on top of a sheet on the floor (cause I also don’t want my rug jacked up).
Within the boundary (not messing up the furniture) they are free to roam. Veggie sticks? Sure. Water? Fine. Blueberries? NO. If in doubt, they’ll ask.
Don’t Be Afraid To Start Again
If you find yourself in a big power struggle and wonder where it all went wrong… you are not alone.
One joy of children is that they’re forgiving, resilient, and ready to mend any relationship breaches.
Truly, families were wired to love one another.
So if you find yourself locked in a power struggle, back up. Sometimes it’s worth “losing” a power battle just to figure out what was behind it. Have a do over. Be willing to lose a battle or two to win the war.
Back to my runner…
Little by little, we got there.
I made my boundaries clear, but gave him freedom within them.
I intervened early, and avoided a lot of push back.
I realized I wasn’t reallllly on his side… so I got on it.
Other posts in this series…
- What Happens When You Let Your Kids Bend The House Rules
- Why It’s Hard To Enforce The Rules… Even Though You Want To
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