Can you imagine how simple life would be if your children just did what you asked of them, when you asked it?
Better yet, what if they would do things they are supposed to even before you had to ask them?
Wouldn’t it be nice?
Before I discovered the joys of positive parenting I wouldn’t have believed this was even possible.
Back then, I couldn’t even figure out how to get kids to listen to me, let alone get them to do what they were asked. Even simple requests for a specific action or a change of behavior from my kids could oh-so-easily escalate into monster power struggles.
And frankly, it was wearing me out.
Here are just four of many simple requests I can recall that got totally out of control – I’m sure they will sound familiar in various ways:
Me: Can you please bring your cup through to the kitchen?
My Daughter: In a minute Mom … (and she is lost in the TV program again)
Me: Kicking your sister is not okay
(Cue defiant stare and a sneaky swift kick to his sister’s ankle.)
Me: Time to clean up kids, could you please clear the coloring things away?
My Daughter: Why should I? They’re not all mine!
Me: We don’t play with the knobs on the cooker, it’s dangerous
(30 seconds later little fingers have fiddled again.)
Each time, my hackles rose, my inner power-switch flipped to ‘On’. I’m in charge here right? I would assert my authority (via a raised voice, angry stare, threats of time out, and so on).
And I would eventually ‘win’.
But when we were done and the tears had dried, I would feel wretched inside. And my weary brain would crave relief and I would wonder – Is it bedtime yet?
It was a hollow victory.
My kids were sad. I was sad.
Sure, they jangle my nerves sometimes, but most of the time, they are fun, loving and amazing kids. I didn’t want to spend their entire childhood looking forward to bedtime. I wanted to spend time with them and enjoy it.
So I got to thinking – is there some other way to get them to listen to me and do as they are asked without all this stress and drama?
Thankfully, there is. And it works too.
Armed with my action plan, scenarios like these not only arise less often but when they do, they are quickly and quietly diffused into a peaceful mist of calm. Well, more often than not. We don’t always hit the target (hey, I’m human too) but our home has been transformed by this fresh approach.
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Below, I’ve put together a list of what works for us. Take a look and see what you think. And throughout, remember that you don’t need to raise your voice and gear up for a fight to get your kids to listen to you. You don’t want to be an opponent. What your kids need is an ally. A calming presence. Assume that role in your head, and you will be ready to address their need.
Here we go –
1: Employ Empathy
Stepping into your child’s shoes may feel like the very last thing you want to do when your own personal focus is on your desire to arrest a behavior, or to get something done.
But step back from that a moment and think about it.
You are focusing on your agenda — the desire to get what you want, to the exclusion of what’s important to your child in that moment.
But they have their own agenda too.
Why on earth would they want to act on yours?
The trick is to try and align what you want with what they want.
When both of your needs are met the urge to argue, fight or defend your agenda (the essential ingredients of a power struggle) automatically vanish.
The first step to doing this is seeing and acknowledging their view of the world. This will not only make them feel heard and valued, it will help you to get to the root of the potential power struggle.
When you understand what’s driving the behavior it becomes so much easier to proceed with kindness and respect.
You can express empathy by describing what you are witnessing. For the above examples this might look like this:
‘You’re busy watching your TV show right now and moving the cup will distract you from that.’
‘It looks like you’re angry at your sister about something.’
‘It sounds like you’re concerned the clean-up routine will be unfair and it will all be left for you to do.’
‘I see that you find the knobs on the cooker very interesting and fun to turn.’
I find when I do this it often stops my children in their tracks. A flicker of appreciation flashes in their eyes. Before they return to whatever-it-was they weren’t supposed to be doing. Or steadfastly avoiding those things that they were.
But that flicker is your spark.
Your route into the heart of their internal battle of the moment.
It’s time for stage two.
2: Set a Firm Limit
Many parents wrongly assume that positive parenting is passive, where kids are allowed to rule the roost. Not so.
It has many different aspects, the chief one among which is using your connection to guide them through life in a gentle, non-punitive way.
That includes setting firm limits and establishing acceptable boundaries of behavior from a position of respect and understanding. As psychologist Gina Stepp says, research consistently shows that ‘the most effective parenting style is characterized by warmth, respect, openness and support for autonomy within secure boundaries and limitations.’
Limit-setting in our examples might look like this:
‘We already agreed you could wait and bring the cup through when you’d finished your first show. It’s important we stick to our commitments.’
‘Kicking is not an acceptable way to show that you’re angry.’
‘When we’re involved in play that makes things untidy it’s our responsibility to help clean up.’
‘We do not play with the cooker – it’s not a toy.’
Of course, upon hearing the limit it’s entirely possible your child will assume the ‘So what?’ or ‘I don’t care’ attitude. Older kids may accompany this with an eye roll (my daughter is big on practicing this just now… It’s actually quite cute when it’s not annoying.)
And that’s fine. This is where you are bringing in your agenda to their attention. So, expect some resistance. However, to keep it from escalating, state the limits gently and with respect, even as you use a firm voice.
And, follow through immediately with an alternative. Something your child can do that helps them find a path out of their emotional maze and meets their agenda.
3: Provide an Alternative
Offering another option gives your child a way out. Often, kids get so wrapped up in the emotion that their brains struggle to find solutions.
Alternatives need to address the underlying issue – in our examples, that could look like this:
‘Is there some way you could meet our agreement without missing your show? Perhaps you could bring it through in the next ad break, or press the record button?’
‘How could you use words to show you’re angry instead?’
‘Which of the things would you like to clean up first? Little brother will do his share too.’
‘But, I do so love it when you help me in the kitchen! Can you peel these mushrooms for me? Or would you rather lay the table?’ (Insert age-appropriate hands-on task that will satisfy twiddling tendencies and offer choice but limit it to 2-3 options!)’
Guiding our children in this way helps them to calm down, paving the way for the creation of neural pathways that will one day lead to their own self-regulation.
In his book Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, John Gottman suggests that if a child can learn to stay calm under stress ‘it helps him be better able to handle his own frustration and anger and be more responsive to and cooperative with adult guidance.’
Hard to believe in the heat of the moment, but it’s true!
4: Be Prepared to Establish a Boundary
If, after all your efforts, your child is still not responding, you may need to employ a boundary. Think of a boundary like a consequence. Without it being a punishment.
In our four examples, it could work like this:
‘It seems we need to limit cups to being used only in the kitchen again for the rest of the week.’
‘It looks like you need to stay in here with Mommy for a while until you can control your feet.’
‘I can see that we need to find an alternative to coloring just before dinner tomorrow.’
‘The cooker is a no-touch zone. We don’t go near it.’
All limits and boundaries need to be age appropriate, with a timing that makes sense to your child.
- Limiting cup movements was effective because at 8 years old my daughter understood how the change would affect the freedom she had previously enjoyed
- Keeping my 5-year-old close for a time following his kicking behavior needed to be an immediate boundary for it to make sense to him
- Banning pre-dinner coloring the next day also worked with my 8-year-old because she had a mental vision of the time delay between her refusal to clean up, and the boundary I set as a result
- Repeating the limit regarding the cooker was key to the long-term safety of my then-toddler. To work, the limit and boundary setting needed to be done in a calm, non-emotional way. And repeated as many times as necessary. Just that. Eventually your child will get the message and give up trying to twiddle your knobs to get a different reaction
Now – don’t expect your children to necessarily be happy about limits or boundaries. In fact, they may trigger another very strong emotional reaction. Charge your empathy bank – you need to be there, and be ready to acknowledge and hold that fall out. And then seek to reconnect by offering your presence, and helping your child move their focus from the source of their distress onto something new, with your loving guidance.
Having experimented a great deal with this approach (yep, there have been plenty of power-struggle opportunities!) I think my main learning point has been that children will respond best to any given request if they are invested in the outcome. To become invested they need to:
- Feel heard
- Feel understood
- Be shown (sometimes repeatedly!) where the limits and boundaries lie
- Understand that you will enforce those limits and boundaries — albeit gently, and with respect
- Trust that you will give space and time for them to air their feelings about those limits and boundaries
With these things in place they will begin to understand that your limit is what it is. And that you still love them, and value them even though they may not agree with it.
If you adopt a consistent, compassionate approach to power struggles your children will gradually learn that you are not the enemy. You’re just doing your job as A Fine Parent. And when they start to get that, it’s a beautiful thing to behold.
Before I leave you with the action plans, I want to share this little incident from our house that warmed my heart oh so much…
The nightly teeth-clean had been going badly with my son (then 4) for a few months. It was the end of the day – he was tired, I was tired. And he had at some point realized that he could disrupt the bedtime routine by simply refusing to open his mouth.
One perfect little nugget of a power struggle right there. Every night.
I tried calm. I tried stern. I tried logic. I tried endless negotiation. I tried letting it go. Nothing was working, and it usually ended with him crying and us both being sad. And teeth only partially clean.
So I tried something new – for three solid nights I empathized, held him close, and repeated the limit that ‘We all need to look after our teeth.’ Over and over. We still had the battle, but I could see him observing me closely, It was like a tiny tendril of connection creeping between us.
On the fourth night something magic happened – he calmly took the brush from me and simply said ‘I’ll do it Mama.’ And brushed beautifully. There were tears that night too. Mainly from me. Of joy, no less!
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Power struggles can often simply be a sign of crossed power lines. To stop things short-circuiting in your house bring these simple and effective parenting reminders into play every day:
- See your kids – watch their reactions, body language, facial expressions. And find the emotions below the surface that are creating them.
- Hear your kids – listen to what they have to say. Properly. With grown-up listening ears.
- Speak to your kids – ask them about their day, their happy, their frustrations, their love. And tell them about yours.
I call these the ‘Three Wise Parenting’ reminders. Perfect for our own little monkeys. And what’s been most effective in my quest to figuring out how to get kids to listen to me and do what they’re told.
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
The success of limit setting can be greatly enhanced by preempting the power struggle before it arrives. Practice the following Stop-Short techniques whenever you get the chance, and help avoid the battle before it even begins:
- What is my child’s agenda here? How can I phrase this limit to address that agenda so my child can receive it calmly and favorably?
- How would I respond if another adult said this to me? Am I expressing myself with respect?
- Am I in the right place emotionally to help my child cope with this limit just now? If not, can I take a short timeout (perhaps, shut myself in the bathroom for a few minutes!) to calm down first?
- Am I fully invested in this limit? Am I ready to show my child this is important, or is my message confusing?
- Is the limit I’m about to set necessary/reasonable? Can I cut my kids a little slack?
It’s not always possible to take a parental time-out before setting a limit, but by checking in with ourselves regularly in calmer times we will be better prepared when tensions are running high.