By Kelly Bartlett, author of Encouraging Words for Kids, certified positive discipline educator and Attachment Parenting leader (API of Portland,Oregon USA), www.kellybartlett.net
If you’ve ever tried to get your young child to do something you want, chances are that you’ve been adamantly informed with gestures or words, “No!” As children outgrow babyhood, simple tasks begin to turn into battles. As frustrating as this can be, it helps to understand what’s going on so we can find ways to work with kids instead of against their natural development.
By the age of two, children are beginning to assert their autonomy. This is an important stage of development, as the need to explore the world away from mom and dad becomes pressing. Children learn what they are capable of doing themselves. Equally important, they are also learning what they are willing to do—and not do—themselves.
When they reach about four years old, kids also begin to develop a sense of initiative. They learn to plan and do things on their own and experience a sense of accomplishment and purpose. However, when they’re not able to achieve a goal as planned, frustration ensues.
For example, when you say to your 4-year-old, “It’s time to leave now, please go 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, Ed.D, author of Positive Discipline A-Z, says that too often parents use the word “cooperate” when they really mean, “Do what I say!” Dr. Nelsen says, “Balance comes in learning to nurture and support the individuation process while establishing respectful and safe boundaries so that 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.
1. 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.
2. Describe what you see and hear. Show empathy and respect by acknowledging a child’s feelings. “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.
3. 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 what both the parent and child need to break the tension.
4. Offer limited choices. Appeal to your child’s sense of autonomy by offering her clear, real choices. “It’s time for bed. Would you like to race me up the stairs or would you like me to carry you up?” Those are both viable choices, as either one helps a child get upstairs to bed. Make sure the choices are not confusing or a threat in disguise. Saying something like, “Would you like to go upstairs to bed or would you like a time-out?” is threatening (it doesn’t leave a child with a real choice). And saying, “It’s time to go to bed. Would you like to go get in bed or would you like to go to the bathroom?” is confusing about what needs to happen next.
5. Work out a solution together. Let the child be the problem solver, and be open to creative solutions that meet everyone’s needs. “Hm, you need to finish your drawing, and I need the table space for dinner. What should we do here?” This helps develop a child’s critical thinking skills, as well as the ability to take another person’s perspective into consideration.
6. 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?”
7. Decide what you will do. “Breakfast will be served until 8:00, and then I will do the dishes. You are welcome to eat during that time.” Or, “When the chores are done I will drive you to your friend’s house.” Then follow through.
8. Discipline through play. Use imaginative play to work through conflicts and turn power struggles into playful games. “What if you could have a dinosaur tuck you in 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 T-rexes go super fast so you’ll really have to hang on!”
9. Do it with them. It is not enabling your child to help her with work that needs to be done. Rather, it models cooperation and teamwork, and it makes a hard task seem less impossible. “Picking up all these toys is a big job, so let’s do it together. You put the animals in the bin, and I’ll stack up the art paper.”
10. Have regular one-on-one time. This is a proactive approach to diffusing power struggles. Dedicate 15 minutes every day to uninterrupted one-on-one time with your child, in which he is leading the play. This connection helps a child want to follow your directions more often. He is more willing to say yes, when he might want to say no, just because he feels more connected to you. Regular “special time” has a tremendous effect on maintaining a positive relationship.