You’ve asked your child to do something, and he or she is boldy refusing, whining, or just ignoring you all together. You probably feel frustrated and challenged, so you fight back – thinking that, as the parent, you have to prove yourself by “winning” this struggle. But your child is still digging in her heels.
Perhaps you end up saying and doing things you know you shouldn’t. Or maybe you give in to your child completely, because you’re too tired for an argument, and you just don’t know what else to do. Either way, you feel like you have no control over the situation.
Not having control feels threatening and insecure, doesn’t it?
It might surprise you to learn that, during a stand-off, your child feels the same way.
If we think about it, kids spend a large portion of their everyday lives following others’ rules and demands. Parents ask them to get dressed, to brush their teeth, to please eat something other than Froot Loops for breakfast. Teachers ask them to sit still, to pay attention, to get their math work turned in. Changes of all sizes constantly come into their lives, and they have zero say over it. Rarely are children asked for their thoughts, or given another option.
You may be saying to yourself that this is the natural order of things, that children are supposed to follow our commands. And maybe that’s true. But think about the last time you found yourself in a situation where you had no control. Maybe there were layoffs at work, or your to-do list was unmanageably long, or your spouse made a decision you disagreed with.
Whatever the situation, how did you feel about someone or something else having all the control, all the say? My guess is you found it stressful and frustrating, and understandably so.
The thing is, we can’t reasonably expect kids, who are still growing and maturing, to feel any different than we would. None of us – child or adult – feel safe and comfortable when circumstances are out of our control. Soon, we find ourselves clinging to any amount of power we can. In kids, this may look like refusing to do their chore, or put their shoes away, or wear a jacket outside. It’s annoying, yes. Even infuriating sometimes.
But let’s be honest – sometimes we grown-ups overreact to minor things, too.
Children’s need for control is not conscious nor purposeful. They’re not being bad or trying to upset you on purpose. However, that doesn’t make their refusals and whining any less aggravating; after all, you are the parent and your rules exist for a reason.
Fortunately, there are some proactive ways of giving your child a sense of control or power, without having to give up yours:
In situations that typically bring about power struggles, allowing your child to be a part of the decision-making process will often result in cooperation. As a bonus, you’ll also be helping them develop their problem-solving skills.
Now, it’s not a choice whether your 6-year-old brushes her teeth or completes her chore – those things are a given. However, it can be presented in a way that gives them some say. Make sure to present these choices with some excitement in your voice so they really feel like they’ve been offered something good! Here are some examples:
- “You can brush your teeth using your left hand, or your right hand. Which do you choose?”
- “You can brush your teeth before you put on your pajamas, or after. What do you think?”
- “You can play your game for two more minutes before brushing your teeth, or for three more minutes. Which do you choose?”
Relate Choices to Consequences
When you find yourself having to ask your child to do something over and over again, you are taking responsibility for something THEY should be responsible for. Instead of stressing yourself out by making the same request a hundred times, calmly present the consequences, and allow your kids to make their own choices.
- “If you choose to brush your teeth, you choose to read a book before you go to bed. If you choose not to brush your teeth, you choose to go straight to bed, without any reading time. Which do you choose?”
- “If you choose to brush your teeth, you choose to have the breakfast of your choice tomorrow morning. If you choose not to brush your teeth, you choose to eat only raw veggies for breakfast, because that’s the only thing that won’t harm your teeth.”
Make sure that both the “positive” and “negative” options are presented to your child. It may initially feel awkward to repeat the word “choose” so many times, but this language is important, as it emphasizes that they are responsible for the consequences whenever they make a choice. After they’ve decided, reiterate this responsibility by saying, “looks like you’ve chosen to have your 10 minutes of reading!” or “looks like you’ve chosen to eat raw veggies for breakfast tomorrow.”
Your child may choose the negative consequence a few times before they learn you mean business. This is why it’s important to be firm on consequences! No backing down, even if they suddenly scramble to do what was asked. Things might initially feel harder before they get better, but it’ll be easier in the long run.
Acknowledge Offers of Help
Many times, children want to help their loved ones with something, but we send them away because we think we can get the job done quicker or better if we just do it ourselves. This is an understandable feeling, particularly during busy times; however, every time we turn them down, we squelch their natural desire to be helpful. Later, we’re surprised when they won’t help on other tasks.
Next time your child asks to help you cook dinner, mow the lawn, or change a baby sibling’s diaper, involve him by giving him an age-appropriate task. Sure, you could get it done faster on your own – but a little mess is worth building his sense of competence, and will make him more likely to want to help with other things later.
Don’t Argue OR Give In
If you’ve asked your child to do something and they start whining or arguing, resist that urge to get pulled into a power struggle! Every time you plead for compliance or argue your side, you continue to add fuel to the fire. If you stop arguing and pleading, they will eventually have to stop, too.
However, this does NOT mean you should just give in. Every time you acquiesce to your child’s defiant or argumentative behavior, you teach them that this strategy works. Instead, make your expectations clear, and if your child protests, simply walk away. If they choose not to do what was asked, they choose whatever consequence comes along with it. Be calm but firm.
Don’t Try to Reason when Emotions Are High
You already know not to engage in an argument. But let’s say your child does something out of anger that really needs to be addressed. Don’t try to use that out-of-control time to impart wisdom! When emotions are high, logic goes out the window – and this is true for grown-ups, too. Get space from your child (and allow them to do the same) and save the discussion for when EVERYONE is feeling calmer.