By Maureen McElroy, MA; MS; LCMFT
Are you feeling challenged, threatened or even defeated by your preschooler’s behavior? If so, the two of you are likely engaging in power struggles. Rest assured that there are some trusted strategies for addressing power struggles. These strategies are based on knowing the Secret Code of your child’s misbehavior.
If your child is engaging in power struggles, look for the “secret coded message” in the behavior. That secret coded message is often “Let me help and give me choices.” Look for ways to give your child “positive power.” Having power can make people (young and old!) feel capable. Children who feel capable will less often turn to power struggles to get that feeling.
Asking your child for help is an effective way to give them positive power. When you are in the produce section of the grocery store, ask your child to hold the produce bags for you. Invite them to pick out the best-looking oranges or bananas. When you are getting dinner ready, invite your preschooler to learn how to wash and tear lettuce or set the table. Allow them to clear their own dishes, even if it makes you a little nervous.
Notice when a job you are doing sparks your child’s interest. For example, if your child is intrigued by the spray bottle you use around the house, find a way to allow him or her to clean some windows or doors at eye level. If little ones are following you around as you prepare for a holiday dinner, invite them to make placemats. Find a way for children to contribute, and they will feel that sense of positive power!
Offering limited choices is a simple, useful way to give children positive power. If you are in the habit of choosing your child’s clothing each day, consider offering a choice between the yellow shirt or the green shirt. Limited choices are helpful, because letting a preschooler choose from among all their shirts can be overwhelming. Instead, offer two choices, both of which are acceptable to you.
Sometimes, as parents, it’s hard to recognize that our children’s capabilities are increasing. For example, maybe you are in the habit of packing your child’s lunch. A preschooler can help with this task. For example, if you typically include a piece of fruit in school lunches, invite your child to choose the fruit and put it into their lunch container. Invite them to put the napkin in each day. Follow the child’s lead to see what other pieces of putting their lunch together appeals to them. As children become involved in these tasks, they build a sense of competency, and by kindergarten, you can teach them to make their own sandwiches and pack an entire lunch by themselves!
When we are in a power struggle with a child, it is much like a game of tug of war. Each party is using all their strength to make the other person do what they want. Try “dropping the rope.” Your relationship with your child is not about winning and losing. It is about guiding and teaching. Maintain the limit, but don’t continue to argue. This may mean that you need to act rather than talk. For example, if you are in a store, and your preschooler is begging you to buy an item, and your rule is that children get items for birthdays and holidays but not just because they want something, then maintain the limit. If he or she is crying and yelling at you, don’t engage in a battle over the item. State the limit once, and don’t give in. Be firm and friendly. Sometimes that may mean that you need to act rather than talk. For example, if your preschooler is not following the rules for the use of the slide at the park, it may be more effective to leave the park calmly when this behavior pops up, rather than to get into argument about the proper way to use the slide.
Encouraging your preschooler can go a long way toward preventing power struggles. Notice improvement: “I remember when you used to need Mom’s help to put your coat on. Now you do it all by yourself!” Express appreciation: “Thank you for helping me carry in the groceries. It would have taken me a lot longer if I didn’t have your help.” Find ways to spend one-on-one time with your preschooler. Follow their lead when you play with them and let them invite you into their world.
It is easy to blame our preschooler for being difficult. No doubt about it, life with a preschooler can be challenging! Parents find they can be much more effective in meeting that challenge if they give themselves what they need in terms of getting enough sleep, eating well and making time for what is important to them. If, as parents, we don’t find ways to take care of ourselves, we can be the ones who increase the escalation and emotion of exchanges with our preschooler.
The next time you find yourself in a power struggle with your preschooler, remember that you are receiving a Secret Coded Message. It’s your mission (should you choose to accept it!) to find ways to give your child positive power so that they can feel capable. When you accomplish that mission, you will feel quite capable, too!
This article appears in the February 2023 issue of Washington Parent magazine.
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