For anyone who has spent an extended amount of time with a child aged 1-18, you are most likely familiar with struggling for power. “The Power Struggle” as I call it usually starts with a simple request from the adult and much to our chagrin, the child refuses. As soon as the child refuses, the issue escalates into one that is monumental and sides are drawn. Here is a sample:
Me: “Pick up your socks.”
Preschooler: “No. I don’t want to.”
Me: “I said pick up your socks.”
Preschooler: “I said no.”
Me to myself- This 3 foot tall person is not going to tell me what to do. This child is going to do what I say and this is not about the socks. This is about who is in charge here….
Me: “Pick up your socks or you are going to timeout.”
Preschooler (crying): “I don’t want to pick up my socks. I want to play.” (still crying)
Preschooler to self-This tall person is telling me I can’t play. I want to play. Why are they trying to interrupt my playtime? I am not picking up socks because I want to play…
Me (yelling): “Get your socks up now!”
Preschooler (in crumbled ball crying): “noooooo…”
Me: “Ok-you are going to timeout.”
Let’s pause our story here to take inventory:
#1. Socks are still on the floor
#2. I am mad and yelling at a preschooler
#3. Preschooler is in timeout as a sniffling mess
Instead of making a demand about the socks, I could have approached it differently. Children of all ages naturally push boundaries and try to cross lines that have been drawn. This is how they figure out how the world works, how we work, and the “rules of engagement” in a variety of contexts. In this case, picking up the socks was not a case of national security, but I escalated it when I chose to engage in the power struggle.
Yep- as parents we forget we have a choice sometimes. The child is doing what comes natural. As the parent, I have to have enough discipline to stop myself from engaging. There are going to be times as a parent when you have to make a demand and it has to happen immediately, but it’s important to KNOW when that might be. (Safety is usually a good time for that!)
In this case, I could have used some strategies to avoid the power struggle and still get what I want:
Frontloading: “You have 5 more minutes to play and then we are going to do some clean up. That will include picking up your socks.”
Yes, If: “Yes, you can continue playing if you can quickly get your socks off the floor.”
Controlled Choice: “Would you like to get your socks up right now or when it is clean up time?”
Set clear expectations: “I know you want to play, and that is fine. When you are done, you are going to help pick up your things including your socks. Arguing is not going to be an option.”
These are just a few things I could have done to avoid the screaming, timeout scene over a pair of socks. Amazingly, this same approach works for middle schoolers and teenagers. They are in bigger bodies and have much louder voices, but the strategies still work because instead of struggling for power with your child, you are setting clear boundaries and are prepared to enforce them.
Next time the older kids ask if they can go somewhere or if they can stay out later than usual, try some of these strategies. Regardless of the age of the child, you will be surprised how you can focus on the real issues instead of escalating into a power struggle!