Ultimately, the only power to which man should aspire is that which he exercises over himself.
- Elie Weisel
Our busy lives require that we move quickly from one activity to the next with our children. Get up, get dressed, eat breakfast, brush teeth, put on coat, grab the backpack, go to school, go through the school routines, come home, do homework, set the table, eat dinner, take a bath, get ready for bed – day after day. Each day contains numerous routines that require the cooperation of your children. Often those routines are mundane and some are even downright unpleasant and certainly not motivating to a child. “I don’t wanna.” may be a familiar refrain in your house or “I can’t,” “I won’t,” or simply “No.” If each of those routines becomes a negotiation and at least some lead to a power struggle, there can multiple major upsets in a day leaving parents feeling emotionally exhausted. After a few days or weeks of those kinds of struggles, parents can feel burned out and unable to bring their best selves to any task. How do you meet your own goals of being on time and moving through the day with your children without power struggles?
The secret, writes Parenting without Power Struggles author Susan Stiffelman[i] is to examine your own goals and motivations – “the thoughts and stories that precipitate your anger, fear or disappointment” and reframe them. She relays that what is most important is the energy you bring to any conversation particularly ones in which you are trying to get your child to do something. Remain calm and you remain in control of the situation. The minute you get angry, you engage your child in a power struggle. Your emotion communicates, “I am losing control. I don’t know if he’ll cooperate.” Push and your child will instinctively push back. Push harder, your child – or any person for that matter – will push harder in response. It’s human nature. And the escalation continues. Once a power struggle begins, adults feel as if they must win in order to maintain their authority but then, who really wins? And what is that teaching the child? The implication is that the way to influence others is to exert your force to break them down. This seems to conflict with a goal of creating a self-disciplined child, a child who is taking responsibility for his or her own actions and the consequences associated.
You may think, “Well if I get angry and yell, my child will comply.” And yes, you may be right. In the moment, they will comply because they fear your reaction. However, they are more likely to push back harder at a time when you most need their cooperation. They may become passive aggressive and they may also seek revenge through destructive behaviors. This is a dangerous route.
And what if, in a fantasy parallel universe, your angel child cooperated with everything you told them to do including the times when you get mad at them? I would tend to be more concerned about that angel child. Where is the sense of self-agency? Where is the motivation to have some control? Where is the strength to assert one’s needs and desires? No, the instinctual push back you receive from your children is ironically a part of who you want them to be – strong, self-determined, independent, goal-oriented (albeit in this case, not your goal but theirs). The good news and the bad news is that the ability to move through the routines of the day without upset lies with you, the parent. Will it always work and go smoothly? Of course not. But there are some ways that you can be a better influencer of your children’s behavior to help them move through the day with greater ease and less angst.
Think about your thinking.
What presses your buttons? What gets you angry, upset or disappointed the most? “He left his dirty clothes on the floor again!” You do the laundry. You’re the one who picks up the dirty clothes to get the laundry done. Your child does not see the importance of remembering to put the clothing in the hamper. So clearly the goal is yours and yours alone. So first, examine your thinking about it. Jot down on paper all of those button-pushers .
- Not eating dinner.
- Refusing to put on a coat.
- Forgetting to bring in the dishes after eating.
- Going slowly in the morning and not getting out on time.
Now ask yourself the following questions of each of your button-pressers. What is the goal?
- To ensure he’s getting good nutrition and promote healthy eating habits.
- To make sure he’s warm and doesn’t get a chill.
- To teach a sense of responsibility so he cleans up after himself.
- To ensure that he makes it to school on time.
Why is it important to you? Often the response here is to be a good parent or that it’s part of your role as a parent. What if I know that these things won’t be accomplished if I get upset? That in fact I’ll only be effective as a parent if I can influence my child? In these situations, my anger will defeat my ability to meet that goal. What if I realize that if I get angry and push
- At dinner
- When leaving the house
- After eating a snack
- When trying to get to school
I am not successfully meeting my goal of doing my job as a parent. Stiffelman writes, “He who is most attached to a particular outcome has the least amount of power.”[ii] Reframing your thinking about the effectiveness of your role in the situation may help you remain calm when those pressure situations arise. But there is more that you can do to prepare for those situations so that you are ready.
Discuss and involve your children ahead of time. Seek your child’s input and cooperation when you are not in the pressure cooker. Find a calm time and bring up the topic of your morning routine. You might say, “We had a tough time getting out this morning. I really want to make mornings fun and easy for both of us. What do you think we can do?” Write it down together. Draw pictures. Formalize your child’s ideas. If you’ve already done this and things are going awry, it’s time to revisit it. Refresh your routine. Things change (like weather requirements for clothing) and routines must also change. My son and I created our first morning routine poster last Fall but it needed a refresher. He was able to write and draw his own poster this time without my help though we talked through each part of it.
When we ran into trouble with which jacket or coat to wear, we talked about it after school and decided on a temperature range that determines which coat to wear. Now there’s no room for negotiation in the morning. Instead, we check the temperature gauge. As changes occur, continue to refresh your routine by discussing ways you can improve it when you are not in the moment.
Cultivate calm. My close friend’s adult daughters tease her about her “strange calm” during stressful times when they were little. But they admit that they cooperated more readily when “strange calm” took over their mother’s demeanor. Take a moment for yourself if you need it. The “Let’s fight” attitude from a child can really stir up a parents’ hot emotions so in order to respond with a calm tone, take a moment for your own cool down. Remind yourself that an angry tone WILL escalate the problem and you are allowing your child to engage you in a duel. There are only winners and losers in a duel and so it is better to not engage.
Offer limited choices. Find two options that are acceptable to you and offer them as a redirection. Your child may say, “I’m not cleaning up my toys!” baiting you to engage in a power struggle. Your response could be “Would you like to take care of the dolls or the stuffed friends? I can help with whatever group you do choose.” Or “Would you like to read a book together or go see Dad after we pick up the toys?”
Channel the energy of an intended power fight into helpful behaviors. Engage your child in constructive action. This gives them a sense of directed power. “Mommy has to get the house ready for friends to come over. Will you help me get ready? Which toys would you like to start picking up?”
Act kindly and firmly. Don’t talk. Remove your children from the problematic circumstance by taking their hands and walking them away. The key is in the words “kindly and firmly.” Allow them to walk on their own. If you pull hard or drag them, anger is implied and the situation will move directly to a power struggle. Move on to your own activity quickly without discussion. The children know what they are doing is unsafe or not right (since they are baiting you to fight) so not talking infers, “I know you know what to do and what not to do. So do it.”
Be brief and direct. Often we ask our child to do something with a question mark at the end. Or we ask politely including “please” because we want to teach them good manners. There are certainly times when good manners are important. When it’s a safety issue or a routine chore that needs to get accomplished, parents can use brief and direct language that leaves no room for negotiation. But if this is done sternly and with an edge of anger, it will result in a power struggle. If you remain calm and confident, saying, “Take this to the kitchen.” It is often enough to gain compliance and also, express that this is what needs to be done for the family. If it’s met with resistance, then try another of these interventions such as giving acceptable choices or asking for help.
Use logical consequences. Often there are consequences that follow from an action that can be pointed to in order to help children learn about cause and effect. Sometimes it requires thinking in advance about times of day or activities that you know are typically problematic and planning how you will incorporate those logical consequences. For example, I know that E has a tough time getting dressed. He is sensitive to clothing and everything but pajamas seems to bother him. If he is struggling with putting on clothes, I can remind him that he will not be able to play with friends when they invariably come knocking. It’s critical that these consequences are a direct result of a particular behavior and make sense. “You will have to go to your room and stay there if you don’t pick up your toys.” sounds punitive and may not directly relate to the action. Instead you may say, “We will not have time to go to your favorite store today if you are unable to pick up your toys. I’ll wait until it’s done.”
Ask whether going to the cool down spot would help. If your child has gotten worked up, then ask if they would be comforted by the cool down spot. It is important that this is not a punitive time out, ala “Go to your room!” To learn more about cool down strategies and setting a place for cooling down in your house, check out “Cooling the Fire.”
Problem solve after she cools down. Go through your problem solving steps asking what happened? How did you feel? Why did you choose this action? What other choices could you have made? How could we do this differently tomorrow? This reflection will help prevent future similar incidents.
Infuse fun. This can be a real challenge when you are pressed for time. But think about your routines, the ones that you struggle to get through each day. Are there songs that you could create with your child (to a popular tune) or rhymes you could make up together that could help you get through an activity? Preschool teachers play a particular song during clean up time each day that signals the routine. Is there a song you can play while you are setting the table to get ready for dinner? One constant with children is that they are always motivated to have a little fun. If you can create that opportunity and move through a routine, you can feel pretty great about what you are doing. Please write in to tell me about it! Check out these transition songs for clean up or waiting time.
If you’ve been engaged in regular power struggles with your child, that is life as they know it. If you are trying some new ways of being as suggested above, give it some time. Your child will have one expectation of you, the old way of being, taking the fight to the next level. She will likely be surprised when you do not lock horns. Children change their strategies and adapt in response to adults but they also will continue to test you for consistency. Have confidence that being calm and confident in the situation will lead to better outcomes for both of you.
I tend to be a goal-oriented person with high standards for myself. Checking items off a list gives me great satisfaction. But when it comes to my child, I realize the focus must be on the development of his self-discipline. Remaining calm and focused will allow both of us to achieve our respective goals and even allow for energy at the end of the day for some personal time. Ahhhh.