“Everything is a battle and we can’t stand it any more.” These are the first words spoken by Sylvia, mother of two, and her husband quickly agreed. “We can’t get the kids to school on time, get them to turn off their electronic devices, do their homework, or go to bed without resistance and stalling. Can you help us?”
If this sounds like your house, there is light at the end of the tunnel. And the answer does not have to involve spanking, shouting, nagging, criticizing or coercing. Although power struggles between parents and their children are exceedingly normal–especially in adolescence–they should not be the norm of everyday life. What’s a parent to do and why do we get into power struggles in the first place?
Starting around the age of two, children demonstrate their desire for increased independence by discovering the power of the word “NO!” and “mine”. Toddlers have a strong desire to figure things out for themselves, and when they succeed, they gain a sense of self-confidence and self-control. This stage has come to be known as “the terrible twos” because it can take parents by surprise when their sweet baby begins to have a mind of her own. In truth, it would be terrible if this stage didn’t happen.
Too many parents interpret their child’s resistance as defiance or lack of respect for authority. This sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? In fact, when a parent thinks about resistant behavior in this way, it makes it far more likely that the parent will react to the kid’s non-compliance with an overly intense emotional response such as increased annoyance and anger. When setting limits with kids, the less emotional the better. By asserting himself, your child is building a stronger, more separate self. Kids need to learn to be independent by practicing how to stand up for themselves. If you have a healthy bond with your child, she will feel safe enough to test these behaviors with you.
Even though children grow and learn by pushing back against the demands of their parents, it is essential that parents learn how to make reasonable demands, set appropriate limits, and teach their children the tools of social and emotional intelligence. Some parents–often those raised in overly controlling, authoritarian, or abusive families–are so upset by any conflict that they allow the children too much power. Like the family described above and thousands like them, this “solution” leads to disaster. Although children need to learn how to assert themselves, parents lacking sufficient authority create kids with too much entitlement. The world does not grant anyone unlimited freedom.
All children–and adults–want to be seen, loved and appreciated. If parents are too busy or distracted to notice positive behaviors in their kids, the kids will quickly learn that negative attention is better than no attention at all. It is far more effective to reinforce the positive before your child starts to act out. This can be done by thanking him for getting in the car on time or for clearing her plate from the table rather than complaining about misbehaviors. Children want to know what their parents value and, typically, want to please them more than upset them.
Tip #2: Set clear limits and make requests of the behaviors you desire rather than telling them what not to do.
Instead of constantly using “don’t” commands (“Don’t bring your cell phone to the table,” or “Don’t interrupt when I’m talking.”), try phrasing your demands in a positive way, clearly stating the desired behavior. (“Please leave your cell phone in your room before dinner,” or “I want you to listen to me and then I am happy to listen to you.”) Limits that are clear, positive, and consistently enforced become appropriate guidelines for children’s behavior. Too few or too many limits create fear, anxiety, or anger.
Tip #3: Give your child choices whenever possible as well as appropriate ways to assert their autonomy.
When parents are constantly telling the child what to do and what not to do, power struggles are the likely result. Given how many things we demand of our kids because of health and safety (bedtimes, homework, healthy meals, schedules, etc.), it is crucial to figure out what aspects of life they can assert control over. Do you let your child dress themselves (even if you don’t think the clothes match), choose books to read, participate in meal choices, determine what chores they would like to do, or spend their allowance as they choose? It is wiser to focus on the major issues and to let go of the minor ones.
Many battles can be avoided by saying nothing and walking away. Remember the old advice about counting to ten when you can tell that you are about to blow your top. It can be far more powerful to say no once and if your child gets upset or throws a tantrum, say nothing and walk out of the room. If trapped in the car, turn on the radio. If your child is old enough to be left alone, talk a walk or a hot bath. By timing yourself out, you also are modeling a great tool for your kids. Take a few deep breaths, and tell them you will talk to them later.
Tip #5: Take good care of yourself and get the social support that you need from your partner, friends, and other parents.
Parenting is the hardest job there is. It is 24/7, 7 days a week, 365 days of the year. With no sick pay or vacation time, it is easy for the best of parents to get burned out. Make sure you get small breaks daily, a night away weekly if possible, and some adults-only vacation times. To be loving and effective parents, we need to strive for balance in our lives. Although it may feel like there are never enough hours in the day, make the time. You are worth it–and your kids will feel the difference.
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Last reviewed: 18 Mar 2013