Last week I joined Greg & Lisa Popcak on their radio program More2Life to talk about positive ways to deal with power struggles with our kids. We’ve all been in situations with our kids when we are butting heads with them: they just asked for candy for the fifth time in the store in as many minutes; they refuse to come to the dinner table; they hide from us at bedtime.
How do we deal with power struggles with our kids without weakening our relationship with them? Here a few tips for actually strengthening your connection with your kids while addressing problem behavior.
Routines help kids know what to do and when. Our routines create smooth grooves in the road of family life, and our kids are comforted and secure living in the certainty of those grooves. This is as true for teens as it is for tiny ones. However, routines are especially powerful in managing problem behavior in toddlers and preschoolers. What’s the terrifying trio for little ones? Eating, sleeping, and toileting. If our power struggles erupt in these areas, we have a problem because we cannot force our children to eat, sleep, or pee. They are ultimately in control. We can only encourage their compliance with our expectations through gentle, loving persuasion and by keeping healthy routines and rituals around the trio.
Eating dinner together every night after a family prayer and over enjoyable conversation is both a routine and a loving ritual that gives our child positive associations about food. Having a comforting bedtime routine (bath, story, prayers) prepares a child for sleep. Even taking a potty training toddler to the potty on the hour is the kind of routine he needs to experience success.
Ensure your children know ahead of time what you expect of them: Have clear rules around behavior in your home; before an outing remind them of expectations regarding purchasing things, wandering off, or basic manners. Don’t forget that small children usually need lots of patience and reminders about our rules and expectations. We also don’t want to set kids up for failure by expecting them to be more mature than they are. For example, we can expect our teenager to sit politely at Grandma’s dinner table for an hour, but our toddler will probably turn the napkin rings into eye glasses!
Modeling Appropriate Behavior
If a child is having a problem with an inappropriate behavior (hitting, lying, grabbing toys), instead of ignoring the behavior or punishing him for it, we can mentor him in making a better, wiser choice. For example, if our child is taking another child’s toys, we can say gently “let’s ask Jane if we can play with the blocks when she’s done” and then we can help our child cope with his feeling of frustration and disappointment over having to wait; we can then play with him until it’s his turn. If we have a hitter, even if the child is very small, we can model “a gentle touch” by physically placing her hand gently on the dog or the other child.
Kids watch everything we do: How we act is a much more powerful lesson that what we have to say. If we tell our kids to do one thing, but something different ourselves, they notice. If we don’t want our kids to hit, yell, gossip, or lie, then we can’t do these things either. We must model kindness, respect, and love in the way we treat our children and others.
The Peace Place
Many parents know about “time outs” –placing your child in designated area for a specific period of time as punishment for unwanted behavior – but sometimes time outs actually create power struggles in the relationship. If the problem is disconnection between child and parent, time outs might make the problem worse. If this is happening in your family, I suggest viewing time outs as cool offs instead. Especially when children are very young, being isolated away from the family can feel threatening and frightening.
Designate a cool off spot where your child can go to calm down and collect himself. This space should be very inviting and comfortable – think comfy pillows, stuffed animals, books. The goal is not to punish the child, but to empower him to gain his composure so that it becomes a habit. This is your Peace Place: a special place where kids and parents alike go to find some peace and quiet.
If the problem is a disconnection between our child and ourselves, then we should take the cool off with him. We can snuggle and read together in the Peace Place until things are calm, and then talk through what happened.
I know it seems bonkers to consider laughing with kids when they’re pressing our buttons, but it often works. In his book Playful Parenting, Lawrence Cohen offers several strategies for defusing tense moments with our kids through play or a playful attitude. If you struggle with bedtime, dinner time, or chore time, make a game out of it. My husband used to tap his fingers under the table during dinner pretending to be a mouse coming to hunt for my son’s food: “Hurry take a bite! The mouse is coming to eat it!” My son loved this game and we were able to encourage at least a few extra bites this way!
Just having a playful spirit instead of a grumpy one can defuse a tense situation. Racing to see who can pick up the Lego the fastest instead of yelling at the kids to get them picked up, trying to put our child’s jacket on his legs when we’re trying to get out the door, even announcing that dinner will be served on the front lawn – these are playful, fun ways to reduce the tension in otherwise difficult situations. Instead of weakening your relationship with your child through threats and fighting, you are actually strengthening your relationship.
I think the bottom line with all these suggestions is that our goal should be to mentor our child, to view him as a disciple who needs guidance, not a prisoner who needs punishment. If we try control our child through threats or with physical force it might work in the short term to get them to do what we want, but often at the expense of their trust in us.
For more ideas for maintaining your connection with your kids while addressing problem behavior, see these awesome resources:
Parenting with Grace by Greg and Lisa Popcak
Positive Discipline by Jane Nelson (see also her books specifically on preschoolers and teens)