Every parent has been there: what starts as a simple request to your child (e.g., put on your shoes, get ready for bed, get your things so we can leave, start your homework, etc.) is met with resistance or simply ignored.
Then you repeat yourself and start feeling frustrated, and from there the situation escalates into a full-blown power struggle.
What to do? Here are 7 simple strategies for avoiding power struggles:
Pivoting is the art of saying yes instead of no, and meaning the same thing.
So instead of saying: “No, we can’t go to the park until after you have a nap,” pivot and say: “Yes, we can go to the park as soon as you’re done with your nap.” Or: "Yes, you can borrow the car after you finish your homework."
The message is the same, but the tone is completely different and saying “yes” gives kids a lot less to argue with.
Reframing is engaging kids’ imagination and sense of play in order to create the behavior you would like to see. A fascinating study of four-year-olds shows the power of this strategy.
In the study, the researchers first asked the kids to stand still for as long as they could. The kids didn’t last very long: usually less than a minute. Then the researchers asked the kids to pretend that they were guards at a factory. Now, the kids were able to stand still almost four times as long. Why? Because they were imaginatively engaged in the activity.
You will also see reframing at work in many preschools, when they sing the “clean-up song” while the kids put away toys and organize the room.
Reframing is also good practice for adults because it engages our own creativity to reframe our request (“stand still”) as a more imaginative activity (“pretend you are guarding a factory”).
What are the activities in your kids’ life that often meet with resistance and how can you reframe them more imaginatively?
3. Share your power.
Skillfull parents share their power with kids in age- and development-appropriate ways, with more power and autonomy accruing to children as they demonstrate both ability and responsibility.
In contrast, controlling parents give kids little autonomy to make their own choices, often with the well-intentioned goal of protecting their kids from mistakes or discomfort.
But this approach has hidden perils of its own, since kids in those situations often turn to emotional manipulation to get what they want, such as tantrums and “I hate you’s.” Or they pretend to comply with the controlling parent’s wishes, and then covertly do it their own way.
So if you find yourself dictating to your child how she should do something that she is capable of deciding for herself, back off and let her try. She will learn by trying, making mistakes, and trying again. (See strategy #4).
For example, if it’s raining outside and your daughter insists on wearing her sandals instead of her rain boots, consider letting her.* Rather than get into a power struggle about the sandals (or whatever the issue is), give your daughter a matter-of-fact “preview” (your best guess about what’s going to happen: cold and wet feet) and also make it clear that she can make the choice. This is a magical combination.
Here's what that might sound like in practice: “Sweetie, I can see that you really want to wear your sandals today even though it’s raining outside (empathy). I think if you do that, your feet will get cold and wet so I don’t recommend it (preview), but it’s up to you (power sharing). Please decide and let’s get ready to go.”
If she doesn’t like the experience of cold and wet feet, she will likely not make the same choice again. (Note that her not liking having cold and wet feet is not the same thing as you not liking it for her.)
4. Let them make mistakes.
Making mistakes and experiencing “failure”, disappointment, and discomfort are essential life experiences that provide the opportunity for kids to learn how to do better and to practice new skills.
It’s natural for parents to want to buffer kids from these unpleasant experiences, but we make an enormous future trade-off when we do so.
We may be avoiding some short-term pain or discomfort (both for us and them), but in the long-term, we may also be inadvertently depriving our children of the opportunity to learn and practice important life skills while they are still in the supportive environment of the family.
Kids (and most adults) learn best from their experiences. We can share with them our own “lessons learned”, and they may listen and act accordingly, but many kids want to find out for themselves.
When they choose a course of action and the resulting experience is unpleasant for them, they learn to make different and, ultimately, better choices in the future. This is experiential learning.
5. Give a reason.
In our busy lives as parents, we may not even notice ourselves barking out “do’s” and “don’ts” to our kids: “Get your shoes on now,” “Turn off the computer,” “Stop that,” and so on. Then we get frustrated when they ignore us or resist doing what we’ve asked.
Here again, we have the beginnings of a power struggle. But we may be able to sidestep it if we help them to understand why we are asking (i.e. give them a reason).
Note: “Because I said so” is not a reason (and may lead to more power struggles or secrecy).
Help kids understand rules or requests that may seem arbitrary to them and, when relevant, show them the impact of their behavior on others. This strategy will not guarantee immediate compliance with your requests, but it will show your kids that you are making reasonable requests and will also model the importance of using good reasons to motivate behavior.
For example: “Please go get your shoes on now. We have to leave in one minute or we’ll be late to pick up your friends and that would not be nice manners.”
6. Respect their reality.
Respecting our children’s reality means letting them feel, think about and experience things in a different way than we do. The primary tool for doing this is empathy (see strategy #7).
Keep in mind that you don’t have to agree always with your child’s perspective, you only need to acknowledge sincerely that it’s her way of seeing things. Read more here about how to respect your child’s reality.
Empathy, as I’ve written about before, is the most powerful tool we have as a parent.
When we practice empathy with our kids, we show respect for their feelings and their reality (which are often different from ours; see below). We show that we are really listening, and that we understand (or are trying to understand) their point of view.
Empathy has the power to sidestep or diffuse power struggles. Empathy also creates a safe place, emotionally, for our kids to be with hard feelings (like rejection or failure).
When we don’t know what else to do in a situation, use empathy. When we have to insist on something or follow through on consequences, we can also use empathy.
For example: “Sweetie, I know you don’t want to wear your seatbelt. It squeezes you and it’s itchy. You wish you didn’t have to put it on (empathy). At the same time, the seatbelt keeps you safe when we ride in the car and we all wear seatbelts when we drive somewhere (give a reason).”
Please note that practicing empathy does not oblige you to change or fix anything about the situation. This is an important distinction. You can offer empathy for your son’s frustration at having to wear a seatbelt he finds uncomfortable without the need to take the seatbelt off. You are simply reflecting the feelings you are noticing with genuine understanding, and validating them.
Here’s another example for an older child: “Love, I can see you’re having a lot of fun and you really don’t want to leave the party yet (empathy). You wish you could stay longer. At the same time, we are picking Mom up today and she will be worried if we are late (give a reason). Please say goodbye to your friends and go get your things (request).”
To recap, here are all 7 strategies:
- Share your power
- Let them make mistakes
- Give a reason
- Respect their reality
* Unless you live in a cold climate and it’s wintertime, and said choice may lead to frostbite or worse. This is an important exception to this principle: if your child’s choice may pose a risk to anyone’s health or safety, then it’s not an option. Instead, be authoritative, give a reason, and go straight to empathy (and possibly on to distraction, which is most effective with younger kids).