Parenting Without Power Struggles: Avoiding bribery, rewards and negotiation in favor of helping young children make good choices

Pow·er strug·gle (noun): An unpleasant or violent competition for power; refers to people in a relationship fighting about who is in control, with both trying to dominate the relationship in one way or another.

This unpleasant dynamic is not what most of us had in mind when we dreamed about having children, but it’s one almost all of us have fallen prey to with varying frequency and intensity. Power struggles are hard to avoid. Children are experts at drawing us into them. But it’s worth the effort to try to avoid this tug-of-war as it results in endless frustration and are detrimental to both parent and child.  When a power struggle ensues, nobody wins.

Guiding principles for avoiding power struggles:

  • Seeking power is developmentally appropriate. Young children are not doing anything wrong or misbehaving when they try to get their way or fight for what they want. It’s our job to guide them in acceptable ways to assert control. They can choose whether to brush their teeth before or after reading a book, but not whether to brush their teeth at all. They can choose to either eat all of their breakfast or take what they don’t finish in a to-go container, but they can’t obfuscate and eat a bite a minute to try to prolong mealtime to avoid going to school and make everyone in the family late.

  • Your job is not to control your child, nor can you control your child. You can’t make them do anything: eat, talk, pee in the potty, not call you names, not have a tantrum. Your job is to guide your children to make good choices and you do that by providing clear limits and boundaries that shape their behavior.

  • Young children thrive on clear limits and boundaries. Protracted negotiations and inconsistent expectations cause confusion and are an obstacle to children making good choices. That’s why kids often do better at school or child care versus home. Group care providers run very tight ships in order to maintain a calm and safe environment. The rules and limits are crystal clear, they are not porous. There are no negotiations or “gray” areas. If they clean up their toys, they get to choose new ones. If they don’t put their coat and backpack in their cubby, they don’t get to be the line-leader. Knowing exactly what to expect makes children feel secure.  They know what to do to be successful.  This teachers them to become strategic—to make good choices that serve them well—versus relying on manipulation.

  • Don’t judge a limit by your child’s reaction—aka don’t fear the tantrum. Just because your child doesn’t like a limit doesn’t mean it’s not good for her. The tantrum is just your child’s way of saying she doesn’t like your rule and is feeling frustrated or disappointed that she can’t have what she wants. Don’t expect a “thank you” for limiting your child’s sugar intake, screen time, etc.

  • Don’t take the bait. Young children are highly skilled at tuning into what yanks their parents’ chains and gets them in the jugular—otherwise known as “bait”.  While this feels so wrong, and exasperating, children are just trying to figure out how to gain the control they so desperately want and yet have so little of. Any reaction from you puts them in the driver’s seat and reinforces the behavior, even if your response is negative (which is naturally confounding to parents). The best way to respond to bait? Ignore it. Behaviors that don’t get a reaction tend to decrease. This doesn’t mean you ignore your child. Instead, address the underlying feeling but don’t engage around the provocative behavior. For example:

Child’s response to his dad who has just told him TV time is over: “I am going to take your voice box and throw it in the trash!” (True story).

Dad’s response: “I know you hate when the TV goes off. You love your shows. But that’s our family rule: one hour of TV. When you’re done being mad and are ready to read a book together, let me know.”

  • Impose limits that you can enforce and not ones that depend on your child’s cooperation. Any time you are trying to convince your child to do something, she is in control and driving the proverbial car. For example, insisting that she stays in her bed at night or that she doesn’t get up from the dinner table before mealtime is over. But you can put up a gate to ensure she stays in her room and enforce a rule that leaving the table means her mealtime is over. Kids give up strategies that don’t result in their desired outcome.

Most importantly, have a plan for how you’ll respond to your child’s unacceptable demands. When you don’t have a plan, that’s when things tend to fall apart.  Parents are more likely to become harsh and threatening and end up participating in and amplifying the struggle in a desperate attempt to gain back control. When you have a plan, it enables you to stay calm and loving while setting clear limits and avoiding power struggles.

Your Toddler is Strategic, Not Manipulative

Three-year-old Cassie is pushing the limits around bedtime, demanding an increasing number of books and songs and then calling out with a litany of problems she needs her moms to fix, such as her blankets being messed up or the animals on her shelf not positioned the way she wants them to be. Cassie’s moms are getting increasingly annoyed with Cassie and are feeling manipulated. Cassie is calling all the shots and they are angry at her for making them feel out of control. They don’t know how to turn it around. 

Children are driven to get what they want, and will use any tools at their disposal that help them reach their goal—they are not purposefully trying to drive you crazy. If throwing a tantrum results in extra iPad time, a later bedtime, or simply getting more of your attention, your toddler is putting 2 and 2 together, making an important assessment: “Excellent strategy! Put that one in the win column.” This is not manipulation, it is strategic. Your child has cleverly figured out the “system”, which means you are raising a really competent kid. He is assessing the situation and figuring out successful ways to get what he wants, which is a skill that will serve him well in life. It is our job as the adults helping to shape children’s development in positive ways to teach them which strategies are effective and which aren’t (which is why you don’t want tantrums to be successful as then they become a useful tactic that they continue to rely on.)

And keep in mind that you can’t actually make your child do anything—eat, sleep, pee, poop, or stop having a tantrum. What you do have control over is how you respond to your child, which is what guides and shapes her behavior.  In the case of Cassie above, her moms established a clear, consistent and loving routine that they stuck to, confident that even if Cassie didn’t like it, it was good for her. (That’s why kids have parents—because we do know better!) This routine included allowing for a 5-minute period before lights-out when she could put everything into place the way she likes it; moms made it clear that after they said goodnight there would be no more interaction and that if she wants to "fix" something (rearrange the blankets if she chooses to get up and then get out of order; re-position the animals on her shelf...the list goes on) she could do it on her own. The first night was very stressful as Cassie protested vehemently, testing whether her moms were really serious. She screamed that she could never fall asleep if they didn't get the blankets back on her :"just right" But when moms held firm, by the third night Cassie adapted. Bed time became much more joyful (with moms feeling much less tense about what storm laid ahead) and Cassie got a much better night's sleep.

You're Not the Boss Of ME! And Other Bait Not to Take

 

I hate you—you are the meanest mommy and you are not invited to my birthday party! (3-year-old who was told she could not get a toy on a trip to the store to get a present for a friend.)

You’re not the boss of me! (4-year-old’s response to being told he would have to go in the stroller if he continued to run into the street)

 I will just starve! (5-year-old’s proclamation when parent said she could not have a snack bar for breakfast)

Any of these proclamations sound familiar? If so, you are not alone. Young children are unbelievably clever—they are highly skilled at tuning in to what yanks their parents’ chains and gets them in the jugular—otherwise known as bait.  While this feels so wrong and exasperating , children are just trying to figure out how to gain the control they so desperately want, and yet have so little of. Any reaction from you puts them in the driver’s seat, and reinforces the behavior, even if your response is negative--which is naturally confounding to many parents who expect that their children want their praise and will be deterred by their anger and disappointment. The best way to respond to bait? Ignore it. Behaviors that don’t get a reaction tend to decrease. This doesn’t mean you ignore your child—you just don’t engage around the provocative behavior.

So how to respond in a way that doesn’t result in a power struggle and that enables you to remain calm and loving? Remain calm--remind yourself that your child is just trying to cope with a limit or disappointment; acknowledge the underlying feeling your child is expressing--the challenge he is trying to cope with; and, implement the limit. The goal is to be responsive (showing empathy for your child's struggle while maintaining the limit), not reactive (which just fuels the flames and reinforces the behavior):

Child: I hate you—you are the meanest mommy! You are not invited to my birthday party!

Reactive response:  You are so spoiled and so ungrateful! And you cannot talk to me that way!

Responsive approach:  I know you’re mad you can’t get a toy today. It’s really hard to be in a store and not get something for yourself. I totally understand that.  Then just keep moving on.  If he keeps nagging you, start singing a silly song or talk about what he wants to do when you get home--to show with your actions that you aren't going to get drawn in.  The surest way to ensure your children won’t continue to make threats and be "sassy"  is for  them to experience that it doesn’t register a reaction.

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Child: You’re not the boss of me! 

Reactive response: We are your parents and you have to listen to us!

Responsive approach: (Let’s say your child’s reaction was in response to your telling him he can’t jump off the slide at the playground.) When you choose to do something dangerous, we will always keep you safe, even if you don’t like it. Then give him a big hug–doing the opposite of what he expects. Secure him in the stroller and move on. Stay connected and warm--be silly, sing a song, talk about what you see around you--to show that you are still present and  loving--you just aren't going to get into a battle of words over who is the boss! 

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Child: I will just starve! (5-year-old’s proclamation when parent said she could not have a snack bar for breakfast)

Reactive response: Giving in and letting your child have the unhealthy option he is demanding, while being very annoyed at him for putting you in this position.

Responsive approach: It’s our job to offer you healthy foods that you like; it’s your job to decide how much of it to eat—your body knows best when it’s hungry and full. Whatever you don’t eat we can put in a baggie to bring in the car in case you get hungry later. (Then move on—don’t respond to threats—as reacting to them or giving in makes this a successful strategy and will only put that strategy in the "win" column.) 

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It’s also important to keep reminding yourself that young children are largely driven by emotions, not logic, so irrational behavior is normal and to be expected. The part of the brain responsible for exerting control over emotions and impulses is not well-developed. This is why toddlers are much more likely to act on their desires, such as yanking a toy out of a friend’s hand, rather than thinking, “I really want that toy, but it’s not right to grab, so I am going to go find myself another toy.” Getting clear on expectations is critical because the meaning we assign to our child’s behavior impacts how we manage our own emotions and reactions to the behavior at hand. If we see the behavior as manipulative, or purposefully designed to drive us crazy, then we are much more likely to react harshly and in ways that escalate versus calm our child, and that don’t result in teaching good coping skills. If, instead, we see these behaviors in the context of normal development, then we can approach our children with empathy and are much more likely to respond calmly and ultimately effectively. “I know you want to play with the train and it can be hard to wait. But it’s not okay to grab. You have two great choices: you can give Owen back the train or I will give it back to him and we’ll find you another toy to play with until it’s your turn.”  (Remember, you can’t literally force a child to give back that toy so your limit has to be enforceable by you. To read more about setting effective limits with love, check out this blog.

When we take the bait and get reactive, we don’t gain control, we lose control. It often leads to very intense and unpleasant power struggles that are detrimental for both you and your child.

I Don’t Like the Choices You’re Choicing Me! How to Set Clear, Enforceable Limits…with Love

Marta has told her 3-year-old, Ruby, to pick up her toys 5 times in the past 10 minutes. Marta is getting increasingly agitated and annoyed, and finally shouts at Ruby that if she doesn’t put all the toys away, Marta will throw them in the garbage.  When Ruby continues to ignore her mother’s request, Marta pulls out a plastic trash bag and starts to fill it with Ruby’s toys. Ruby becomes hysterical and Marta feels horrible and ashamed. She takes the toys back out of the bag and comforts Ruby. Marta ultimately cleans the toys up after Ruby has gone to bed.

Every week I am in the homes of families with young children who are struggling with these kinds of scenarios. They are frustrated and angry that their children won’t cooperate, and that they are “driving the car”—taking the parents for a ride. Further, parents feel ashamed when they lose it, when they say harsh things to their children in the heat of the moment and make threats they have no intention of following through on (i.e., to never give them the iPad or take them to the playground again). Ultimately, these parents are depleted and sad, because by the end of the day all they have done is yelled and dealt with ugly power struggles, leaving little room for the pleasures of parenthood.

As I have watched these dynamics unfold on one home visit after another, it has become clear that one key factor at the root of the problem is that the limits and expectations parents set are often dependent on the child’s cooperation—to clean up their toys, get into their PJs, or climb happily into the car seat. The problem is that you can’t actually physically make your child do these things. And any time you are waiting for your child to follow a direction or trying to convince her to cooperate, she is in control. You can demand repeatedly that she not throw a ball in the house or to stay in her room after lights-out, but unless you have a plan for how you are going to follow through on the limit you are trying to set, your child is in the driver’s seat and she knows it. This is not good for her or for you.  So, as you go about setting limits, keep in mind that a limit is only as effective as your ability to implement it.

The following are key elements to an approach most parents find effective:

·         Make the choices and consequences crystal clear—and be sure that you can control the consequence: Dad has told Sadie (3 years) that he will make one breakfast for her. She can choose cereal or eggs. She chooses eggs. But as soon as Dad presents them to her, she refuses them and says she really wants peanut butter toast. She insists she won’t eat anything else and that she’ll just starve. Dad, recognizing he can’t actually make Sadie eat the eggs, responds: “Sadie—you know the rule: I make one breakfast. If you choose not to eat it, we will put it in your special to-go container that you can take with you to school in case you get hungry. You can choose peanut butter toast tomorrow.” Two days of following through on this limit—with Sadie experiencing the consequences of her choices—and breakfast battles were bygones.

·         Communicate their choices with all the positivity you can muster. Children pick up on your tone which can be contagious. Approaching these encounters with tension and threat in your voice: “If you don’t clean up those toys, I’m throwing them in the garbage”, puts them in a negative and oppositional frame of mind. I like the concept of giving “two great choices” which frames these moments in a positive light and puts children in a more cooperative state of mind: “Tessa, you have two great choices (said with a genuine smile): if you put all the toys away, you can have them all to play with again tomorrow; if you choose not to clean them all up, the ones that don’t get put away will be placed in a special box and you won’t have those to play with until (fill in the blank—however many days you think is appropriate.)

·         Always end your presentation of choices with “you decide”. This reinforces the idea that you aren’t the one making the choice. Remember, you can’t actually make your child do anything—eat, sleep, put toys away, not have a tantrum, etc. What you do control are the consequences of your child’s choices/actions: “Ben, you’ve got two great choices: If you throw the ball into the basket, you can keep playing with it. If you choose to throw it at people, the ball will go away. You decide.”  Once you follow through on the limit, I strongly encourage giving your child another chance within a reasonable period of time—maybe an hour later—so he can experience the positive outcome of making a different choice (ie, getting to play with the ball.) This is how children learn to make good decisions.

·         Incentivize with natural, positive consequences (vs. rewards or taking things away): “Natalia, you’ve got two great choices: If you cooperate with getting into pajamas, we’ll have time for one extra book before bed; if you choose not to cooperate, I’ll get you into your PJs on my own, but that means we won’t have time for an extra book. You decide.”  I find you can use the concept of saving time for almost everything.  When kids cooperate with a task or limit, it takes less time, enabling them to do more of the things they love—which in fact mirrors real life.

The benefits of having a plan you can implement are: 1) it enables you to remain loving, present and supportive, while also in the driver’s seat—where you, not your child, belongs. I think of this as “responsive” versus “reactive” parenting. There is no need for anger or punishment—your job is to show your child with your actions that cooperating with or accepting a limit is not a choice, it is a direction. And it is not an option to obfuscate or draw you into a knock-down-drag-out battle that raises everyone’s blood pressure and results in both parents and children feeling out of control; and, 2) experiencing the consequences of their actions helps children learn to make good choices. This doesn’t mean your child isn’t going to have a total meltdown when you actually follow through—for example, put her breakfast in the take-away bag when the timer goes off to signal the end of breakfast. But remember, that doesn’t mean your approach is wrong. Just because your child doesn’t like a limit, doesn’t mean it’s not good for her. Further, keep in mind that you are not responsible for your child’s decisions—you are in charge of offering clear and appropriate choices and implementing the consequence of your child’s decisions.

The next time you find yourself in that moment when you’re about to give in on a rule you know to be a good one, remind yourself that: 1) Setting limits is loving, not mean; it is when you don’t set and enforce clear limits, and your child continues to push and push and work your last nerve, that you are much more likely to get mean; and, 2) We live in a world that doesn’t adapt to us—we have to do the adapting. Giving your child the gift of loving limits will help her be more flexible and adaptable—key ingredients for success in all aspects of her life.

I said I want the red bowl! Responding to Toddlers’ Irrational Behavior

Claire Lerner, LCSW
Amelia, told that she can’t have a fifth book before bedtime, shouts: “You are the meanest mommy! You are not invited to my birthday party!” Derek, when offered a choice between carrots and cheese, not ice cream, before dinner announces: “I don’t like the choices you are choicing me!” Alex hurls a bowl of his favorite cereal off the table and screams, “I said the red bowl, not the blue bowl!” If any of these exclamations sounds familiar, you are not alone. Welcome to what can feel like the Wild West of toddlerhood.

But seen through the eyes of the child, and through the lens of development, these behaviors, while maddening, are utterly normal, and signal important milestones are being achieved. Further, these incidents don’t have to be dreaded, as they are opportunities to teach children to manage their emotions, learn to cope with frustration and disappointment, and find ways to feel in control of their ever-expanding worlds in prosocial, acceptable ways.

Getting clear on expectations is critical because the meaning we assign to a child’s behavior influences how we manage our own emotions and reactions to the behavior at hand. If we see the behavior as manipulative or purposely designed to drive us crazy, then we are much more likely to react in angry or harsh ways that escalate instead of calm our child. If, instead, we see these behaviors in the context of normal development, then we can approach our children with empathy and be more effective in teaching good coping skills.

Here are some important factors that influence young children’s behavior that are helpful to keep in mind when dealing with challenging behaviors:

1) Young children are driven by emotions, not logic, so irrational behavior is normal and to be expected. The part of the brain that controls children’s ability to think, plan and problem-solve does not start to develop until close to age three and is not fully formed until well into adolescence. So young children are largely driven by their impulses and cannot be expected to respond to reasoning or logic.  

2) Toddlers are becoming increasingly aware that they are separate beings—that they can have different thoughts and feelings from others. This means that while they want to sleep in your bed, they know this is not what you have in mind. This new cognitive milestone, coupled with toddlers’ innate drive to exert some control over their world, leads to an all-out effort to bring you around to their way of thinking. They are extremely clever and will try any and all tactics at their disposal (calling you names, threatening to never go to sleep, or throwing a knock-down-drag-out tantrum, to name a few). This is often what many parents call “manipulation,” but which I like to think of as strategic, as beautifully illustrated by this shrewd three-year-old. When she cried out for food every night after she was put to bed (not more than 15 minutes after having passed up the snack offered at book-reading time), her parents appeared at her bedside, snacks in hand. The next morning she told her dad, “I just want to let you know that tonight after you put me to bed I am going to be very hungry!”

3) Toddlers have strong feelings but few tools for managing them at this young age. Think about it—many adults are still working on being aware of their feelings and choosing to act on them in healthy ways.

So, what’s a parent to do?

  • Stay in control when your child is spiraling out of control. Managing your emotions and reactions is one of most important parenting tools at your disposal. When parents get reactive and emotional, it tends to escalate the child’s upset and intensify power struggles. When your child is losing it, she needs you to be her rock and stay sane and rational.

  • Keep in mind that you can’t actually make your child do anything–eat, sleep, pee, poop, talk, or stop having a tantrum. What you do have control over is how you respond to your child’s actions, as this is what guides and shapes their behavior. If throwing a tantrum results in extra iPad time, a later bedtime, or simply getting more of your attention, your toddler is putting two and two together, making an important assessment: “Excellent strategy! Put that one in the win column.”

This is not manipulation, it is a smart calculation, and means you are raising a really competent kid. He is figuring out successful ways to get what he wants, which is awesome. It is our job is to teach our kids which strategies are effective and which aren’t. So any behaviors you don’t want him to rely on can’t be successful, or what would be the motivation to give them up?

  • Show empathy and validate the feeling. “I know the blue shirt is your favorite and you are really disappointed that you can’t wear it today, but it’s in the wash.” It isn’t feelings that are the problem, it’s how they get acted on that can be problematic. The more you validate feelings, the less likely children are to have to act on them.

  • Set the limit and provide acceptable choices. “Your choice today is the red or yellow shirt.” If your child refuses the “choices you are choicing” him, then you let him know that you will make the choice. He may throw a fit. As calmly as you can, put a shirt on him and move along so he experiences the consequence of his actions. That is how children ultimately learn to make good decisions—by experiencing the outcomes of their choices and assessing which get them what they want and which don’t. If a tantrum leads to you taking that blue shirt out of the laundry, you: 1) give him the false expectation that he will get everything he wants, making it harder for him to learn to be flexible and accept alternatives—a critical life skill for getting along in the world; 2) send him the message that tantrums or refusal to cooperate are successful strategies, which he will naturally continue to rely on; and 3) communicate that you don’t think he can handle this disappointment, a missed opportunity for him to experience that he can indeed survive wearing a different shirt—building flexibility and important coping skills.

When my son was three and my daughter one, after over 600 consecutive nights of his getting to choose the books we read at bedtime, my daughter spoke up and said, “I want Clifford!” Since it seemed utterly fair for her to finally get a chance to choose, I promptly started to read about the big red dog, when my son shouted: “I NEVER GET TO CHOOSE THE BOOK!” What planet do you live on? (said the voice in my head). Talk about irrational! I completely mishandled it (despite being a child development specialist even back then), shaming him for being so selfish and engaging in all sorts of inappropriate and ineffective responses, like freezing him out and refusing a hug at bedtime. I still cringe when I think about it 20 years later. But I ultimately learned from my mistakes and made some course corrections. It’s never too late.

Don’t Fear the Tantrum: Just because your child is unhappy with a limit doesn’t mean it’s not good for her

Claire Lerner, LCSW

Sabrina, 3, throws a knock-down-drag-out tantrum when told her iPad time is over. She was in the middle of her game and insists she get to finish it. Her mom, Marcella, agrees to let her have 5 more minutes—to keep Sabrina happy and desperate to avoid a tantrum. But when time is up—again—Sabrina demands: “One more minute, just one more minute!” Marcella gives in a few more times until she cracks, shouting: “It’s never enough for you! If you don’t give me that iPad right now you won’t have it again for a month!” (A limit which Marcella admits she would never implement.)

Every week I am in the homes of families with young children who are struggling with these kinds of dilemmas: the 2-year-old who won’t go to sleep until she has been read an ever-increasing number of books so that bedtime is now 2 hours long; or the 3-year-old “fascist dictator” who is holding the family captive with his endless demands for control—over EVERYTHING. These parents are exhausted, frustrated, angry and resentful; they are also sad and feel like failures, because by the end of the day they feel like all they have done is yelled and dealt with ugly power struggles, leaving little room for love or joy.

As I watch these scenarios unfold, it becomes clear that one major root of the problem is that parents are doing anything possible to avoid the tantrum and keep their children happy. The problem?  This approach just leads to more tantrums, and to missed opportunities to help children learn to adapt to life’s limits—to cope with the inevitable frustrations and disappointments we all confront as we make our way through this world. That’s why limits are loving, and why avoiding them is not.

The following are some key principles that many families I work with find helpful for establishing clear and appropriate limits while remaining loving and present.

  • Change your mindset—see limits as loving. Parents who feel they are being “mean” when their child is upset that they won’t read that 8th book at bedtime (“just one more and then I’ll go to sleep!”) or prepare a 3rd meal after their child has rejected the first two options (that she had requested), naturally have a hard time following through with a limit. Their child’s protests trigger strong emotions that flood their brains, making it hard to think through what their child really needs in that moment. This results in the kids driving the car—calling the shots—which leaves parents feeling out-of-control, manipulated and angry. Many times parents don’t even recognize this loss of control when it is happening. Unfortunately, and ironically, this usually results in parents actually getting mean—they lose it and start yelling, shaming and punishing, which leaves everyone feeling miserable and the child having learned little about better coping skills.

So, keep reminding yourself that limits are loving, because they lead to flexibility and the development of effective coping strategies—accepting a cheese stick instead of candy, or finding another toy to play with when the one they want is off-limits. This ability to adapt is what ultimately makes children happy and helps them be successful in the outside world, now and in the future  Observe any child care center or preschool class and you will see how children learn to cope effectively with limits: not being the line leader or snack helper; having to lie down on a cot for an hour even if they aren’t tired; needing to share their favorite toy…the list goes on.

  • Keep in mind that young children are not misbehaving on purpose; they may have learned unacceptable behaviors because they are effective in getting their way or yanking your chain and gaining control, but they aren’t purposefully trying to drive you mad. With this perspective, you will be better able to implement limits calmly and with empathy for how hard it is for your child to learn to manage her strong desires and impulses. And when you are clear about expectations while remaining loving, and avoid a lot of anger and shaming, your child does not get consumed with upset about the “break” in the relationship with you in that moment. She is able to be calm and adapt more quickly.

  • Establish and enforce limits that you know are good for your child. Don’t assess them based on your child’s response. If you think setting limits on screen time or how many kisses you give at bedtime are good for your child (kids who get 2 or 3 are no less well-adjusted than kids who get 20)—go for it. But don’t expect your child to be happy about it, or thank you for ensuring that they get ample time to play pretend or do a puzzle versus interacting with a beloved screen. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that if your child is unhappy at times, that he is an unhappy child and you are not a good parent. Quite the opposite. So don’t fear the tantrum. Just because a child doesn’t like a limit, and is unhappy in the moment, doesn’t mean it’s not good for him. (I have yet to hear a 3-year-old say, “Thanks, Dad, for not letting me have those M&M’s before dinner. I know how important it is to eat my growing foods.”)

  • A limit is only as effective as your ability to implement it. This means it is not dependent on your child’s compliance. Think about it: you can’t actually make a child clean up her toys. You can demand repeatedly that she put her things away, but as long as you are in the position of trying to convince your child to do something, she is in the driver’s seat—she is in control, and she knows it. Instead, you can clearly explain that she has two great choices: if she puts all the toys away, she can have them all to play with again tomorrow; if she chooses not to clean them all up, the ones that don’t get put away will be put in a special box, or on a shelf high up, and she won’t have those to play with for a day or two. This is a consequence you have control over and sets up a clear structure that helps your child make good decisions as she experiences the outcome of her choices. Another common example—telling a child to sit on the steps as a “time-out”. This is rarely effective as the child can keep getting up and you have to keep coaxing them to sit back down. You can’t make a child stay on the step and attempts to do so typically lead to an increase in both the child’s and parent’s distress, raising the volume and intensity, making it less likely the child will calm down and be able to learn any lesson from the experience. It is usually much more effective to establish a place in your home that is safe and has boundaries where your child goes to cool off (that is not punishment!) when his whole mind and body is out of control (For more on this topic, go to: http://www.pbs.org/parents/expert-tips-advice/2016/01/time-helpful-harmful-young-children/

  • Have a plan. Without a plan, reactivity rules. The child provokes a situation, such as procrastinating eating breakfast. She takes one bite every 5 minutes to delay the inevitable—brushing teeth, putting on shoes and a coat, and heading to child care. Dad starts to feel out of control—his daughter is calling the shots—and he feels his blood pressure rise. How can he make her get a move on? (Remember—any time you are trying to convince your child to do something, she is in control.) He tries coaxing and bribing her to eat faster (which naturally results in her slowing her pace—power is oh so pleasurable to the young child). Then the reactive, right brain completely takes over and Dad crosses to the even darker side: he yanks her out of her high chair (as she is screaming “you’re hurting me” which amplifies his annoyance and adds some guilt), says all sorts of awful things to her, straps her angrily into her car seat, and everyone starts their day miserable. Sound familiar?

So, anticipate these kinds of events and have a plan that includes clear choices with consequences you can implementIt may go something like this: “Layla—we have 20 minutes for breakfast. We’ll put our friend Time Timer* on to help you keep track. When Time Timer beeps, whatever you haven’t eaten can go in your special take-away container to bring in the car in case you get hungry.” Keep in mind that you are not responsible for your child’s choices—you are in charge of offering clear and appropriate choices and implementing the consequence of your child’s decisions.

The benefits of having a plan are that: 1) it enables you to remain loving, present and supportive, while also in the driver’s seat—where you, not your child, belongs. I think of this as “responsive” versus “reactive” parenting; and, 2) your child learns to make good choices. This doesn’t mean your child isn’t going to have a total meltdown when you actually follow through—putting her food in the take-away bag when the timer goes off. But remember, that doesn’t mean your approach was wrong. Just because your child doesn’t like a limit, doesn’t mean it’s not good for her.

  • Make the choices very clear and concrete and present them with all the positivity you can muster. I’m a big fan of telling kids, in a very upbeat voice, that they have “two great choices, which is awesome!” (Children pick up on their parents’ tone which can be contagious. Approaching these encounters with tension and threat in your voice: ”If you don’t clean up those toys, I’m throwing them in the garbage”, puts them in a negative and oppositional frame of mind.) Be sure each choice you offer has a clear outcome. Layla quickly changed her approach to breakfast—eating most of her food while at the table—after just 2 days of her Dad’s newly implemented plan. Understanding clearly what her choices were, she was able to make a better decision for herself (and her dad)! Here are some examples from families I have recently worked with:

  • If you throw the ball into the basket, you can keep playing with it. If you choose to throw it at people, the ball will go away.

  • You can cooperate with getting into pajamas and we’ll have time for one extra book because we’ll have more time; or, I’ll get you into your PJs on my own and no time for an extra book.

  • You can stay in your room and get yourself to sleep; or, we will put the gate up to help you follow the rule to stay in your room at bedtime.

The next time you find yourself in that moment when you’re about to give in on a rule you know to be a good one, remind yourself that we live in a world that doesn’t adapt to us—we have to do the adapting. Giving your child the gift of loving limits will help her be more flexible and adaptable—key ingredients for success in all aspects of her life.

*The “Time Timer” is an awesome tool for self-regulation and helping kids know exactly how much time they have for pretty much anything: book-reading at bedtime, meals, playtime, cleaning up.  Google it!
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