Four Tips to Help Ease Power Struggles With Your Children

These four research-based strategies can be applied to help children ranging from toddlers to teenagers.

Throughout parenting, it’s inevitable to sometimes get tangled in a net of unwanted behaviors such as power struggles, negotiating, or defiance, sometimes even before we’ve finished a cup of lukewarm coffee in the morning. (Solidarity to those who have found yesterday’s forgotten cup of sad, cold coffee still in the microwave the next day.)  When you find yourself in those choppy situations, these simple positive-discipline strategies can help you confidently navigate the situation back to calmer waters by applying the four “Kid P.E.R.C.s.”

P – Preview Expectations

Testing limits is a normal and healthy part of child development, but there are ways to reduce the likelihood of them occurring. Taking proactive measures can establish clear expectations for our children ahead of time, rather than being reactive to them misbehaving, protesting, or not listening if the boundary isn’t established or concrete. 

While it’s simply not possible to anticipate every altercation with kids (any parent who has given their child the wrong color sippy cup can attest to this) being aware of their regular triggers can help us avoid an issue before it starts. This can be done quickly countless times a day, with statements such as, “Playing at our friend’s house is so fun and it can be hard to leave! I’ll let you stay as long as we can, but when I say we have to go, we need to go without arguing. Showing me that you can do this means we can have another playdate soon.”

The social, emotional, and behavioral training program Responsive Classroom explains: “The steps we take before challenging situations arise will have a much more powerful and lasting impact on children. The more time we devote to this proactive work, the more skills children will develop and the more they’ll be encouraged by the positive effects of their behavior on themselves and others.”

When kids know exactly what their boundaries are, it helps to minimize the occurrences of them pushing or straying beyond them entirely. Not only will your day go smoother, but your kids will feel more secure when they have a clear sense of what they should and shouldn’t do. 

E – Empathy

Think of a time you have been really upset or angry. Is it ever really helpful for someone to flippantly say something like “Calm down!” or “There is NO reason to be upset!”? (This is basically the worst.)

This is where empathy and teaching emotional intelligence come into play with our kids. Dr. Mark Brackett, a professor in Yale University’s Child Study Center and founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, explains in his book Permission to Feel:

“Emotional intelligence doesn’t allow feelings to get in the way – it does just the opposite. It restores balance to our thought processes; it prevents emotions from having undue influence over our actions; and it helps us to realize that we might be feeling a certain way for a reason.”

This doesn’t mean that we have to understand kids’ rationale or give the green light to poor behavior. Even though we may think it’s absurd that our child is melting down over wanting a red shirt instead of a blue shirt, it’s a major deal to them at that moment. We adults can have irrational moments at times, too. 

Remember, all positive or negative feelings children have are okay – it’s the coping skills to those emotions that we want to foster in a productive manner. Helping to identify their feelings is the first step. We can almost always relate to a child’s emotion, just not the problem causing it. 

Swiftly and genuinely verbalizing that we understand helps our kids to feel seen and heard, which can help to process their feelings more effectively. If your child does end up still having a hard time, wait until they are calm to model healthy coping skills to help those negative emotions, such as taking deep belly breaths, hugging a stuffed animal, getting fresh air, or journaling instead of alternatives like screaming, hitting or throwing things.

R – Rules Stay Consistent

It’s such a common scenario: our child is on the verge of a meltdown, we just have to get one thing done, and it’s so tempting to give in so you can have a moment’s peace. While that may work in the short term, it wires their brains that doing things like begging, pleading, whining, or crying will ultimately work to get their way. Being steady with your expectations and rules is crucial for kids to understand when there isn’t wiggle room.

When enforcing rules, remember the Four C’s: Be Clear, Concise, Calm, and Consistent. If their emotions are running high, their developing brains can’t process lengthy statements or explanations, so keep it short and sweet. This may lead to some–ahem–spirited feelings from them temporarily as they adjust, but over time will result in fewer and less severe reactions as you enforce those rules. Stay strong and may the odds be ever in your favor. 

 C – Celebrate Successes

Picture someone regularly pointing out what you do wrong but rarely recognizing what you do right. This type of relationship is rarely motivating and often has the opposite effect. As a parent, you are like the CEO of your family and it’s important to create a “company culture” in your home that is positive and fair. 

Let’s just be honest – There are many aspects of parenting that require constant reminding, intervening, and consequences as we try to raise good humans. That is why it is equally important to spotlight our kids’ positive behavior, not just the negative behavior. 

On those days where you feel like you are constantly correcting your child, try to balance it out with just as many (or more!) comments about the things they do right. Positive reinforcement goes a long way to foster a moral compass for our kids, encourage good choices, and build their self-esteem. 

Kid P.E.R.C.s in Action

Here are common scenarios where these strategies can be impactful:

Scenario 1: Child Refuses to Pick Up Toys, Causing You to Experience Certain Death by Lego

P – Preview Expectations: (Before playtime) “Before I take out the Legos, remember it is your job to clean them up right when we are done. That way, we can keep playing with our Legos.”

E – Empathy: (Child is upset) “You seem frustrated because you don’t want to pick up your Legos. Cleaning isn’t always my favorite thing either, but we all have to pitch in to help. Let’s see if we can clean them up before the end of this song to make it more fun!”

R – Rules Stay Consistent: (Child initially is resistant to picking up toys) “Your choice is to help pick up the Legos or we cannot play with them next time. This helps us learn how to take care of our toys.”

C – Celebrate Success: (Child picks up toys) “Wow, I noticed how responsible you were by putting away those toys. This means we can play with them more tomorrow. Great job!” 

Scenario 2: Child Has Strong Opinions Over Turning off the T.V. 

P – Preview Expectations: (Before turning on the T.V.) “You may watch TV for one episode, then we will turn it off for snack time. Showing me that you can do this means we can watch more later.”

E – Empathy: (Child is upset) “It looks like you are mad about turning off the T.V. because you like this show so much. I know how that feels. Don’t worry, we can pick up right where we left off tomorrow.” (This is a child after my own Netflix-loving heart.)

R – Rules Stay Consistent: (Child is begging for more TV) “Our T.V. time is up for the day. We can watch it again tomorrow. Would you like a banana or an apple for snack?”

C – Celebrate Success: (Child turns off T.V. with little to no resistance) “You’ve really been working hard to follow our rules with the T.V. I hope you’re feeling so proud of yourself!

Scenario 3: Leaving the Playground Requires Major Mental (And Hey, Sometimes Physical) Gymnastics

P – Preview Expectations: (Before leaving for the playground) “I will let us stay at the playground for as long as we can. When I say it’s time to go, that means we have to leave right away.”

E – Empathy: (Child is upset) “You may be feeling sad to leave the playground because it is so fun to play there. I’ve felt sad over leaving something fun, too. Let’s take some belly breaths together as we walk to the car to feel better.”

R – Rules Stay Consistent: (Child protests when it’s time to go) “It is time to leave now. Either you can walk or I will carry you.”

C – Celebrate Success: (Child follows expectations) “You did such a great job when it was time to go! This shows me that we can come back to the park again soon. I appreciate you!”

We’re All in This Together:

While some parenting moments will inevitably be overwhelming, the methods to help don’t have to be. Proactively naming expectations, empathizing with feelings, staying consistent with rules, and celebrating successes can help you get back to a smoother scenario for both you and your child. 

Meanwhile, as you continue to wear a million different hats each day, remember to focus on your accomplishments as a parent and not just the mishaps. Know that you are trying your very best and tomorrow is a new day. And hopefully, one when you can finish that hot cup of coffee.

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