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From Eating to Excreting: 3 Tips to Avoid Power Struggles

Suggestions on how to reclaim order out of the chaos

Published on: June 07, 2014

how to get a kid to cooperateAll humans struggle for power and control over their own lives and young children are no different!

Ideally we want our kids to do what we need them to without us having to do anything more than merely ask. Let's not kid ourselves; that is just not going to happen most of the time.

"I said so" or "you have to" is about us asserting our power over them and can feel disrespectful to the child. Our children have little to no control over much of their daily lives. That is why most power struggles revolve around their physical self or body.

Power struggles often are associated with what goes in their body, what goes out of their body, what goes on their body, and where they put their body! We cannot force-feed our children by shoving food down their throats or toilet-train them by forcing them to urinate or defecate. Those are things that are completely within their control. Our kids are pretty good about regulating their bodies' needs. They are going to do what they need to based on their bodies’ cues, so the more we get involved the more they tend to resist and push back. So what is a parent to do?

There are small things we can change in our communication style that will invite our children to do what we ask.

Here are just 3 tips and strategies to invite your children to cooperate when you need them to.

1) Get clear — communication with an enforceable statement

We frequently hear from parents that they feel like their children are trying to “manipulate” them. Parents start reporting this behavior as early as the ripe old age of 2! And yes, these children can and do become very skilled manipulators or negotiators. However, this only happens when someone has been modeling and teaching these skills.

As I discussed in my GROW Parenting blog post, "Threats & Bribes: Two Sides of The Same Coin," Children are not born with these skills; they acquire them over time. How does this happen, you might ask? It happens when we, as their parents, use what are commonly known as threats and bribes as a means of parenting or discipline. We have all tried it at one time and are all guilty.

Quite honestly, threats and bribes can be very effective in the short term, and can produce the results we want almost immediately! What most parents do not realize is that there are huge costs to utilizing these tactics in the long-term. They can literally backfire.

When we use threats and bribes in our parenting, our children develop the amazing ability to get us pulled into trying to control things that we truly cannot.

Enforceable statements instead tell kids what WE will do or allow ... rather than trying to tell THEM what to do. It is also a means of inviting our children's cooperation instead of forcing our will upon them. When we use enforceable statements we are continuing to share power and control with our children, which invites less resistance. And we don't end up doing something that we don't want to do or have a conversation that we are not interested in having.

Examples of enforceable statements:

  • Dessert is available to those who have eaten their healthy foods first.
  • I'll listen as soon as your tone and voice sound like mine.
  • I'm happy to provide iPad time when the chores are done.
  • I’m happy to buy you the clothes I feel are age-appropriate.
  • I'll be happy to listen to you as soon as I am finished talking on the phone.

2) Become a partner — give choices

We all want choices in life. Your kids are no different. Once they become toddlers, control becomes important. This is because at around age 18 months, children begin to separate from their parents. This is the first time they realize they are a separate entity. With the separation they gain ideas and preferences. When once you could hand them any plate, at age 2 they may throw themselves on the floor demanding the blue plate!

dad with daughter at mealtimeIf you think of it as control, it all makes sense. You don’t care which plate they use. You just want them to eat lunch. To stave off conflicts, it is helpful to offer LIMITED CHOICES throughout the day so your kids have some control over their lives. Offer choices over things you don’t care about. Offer choices before making a request or telling them what to do.

Instead of “go brush your teeth,” try “do you want to brush your teeth first or get your jammies on first?” Choices can also help you get out of a frustrating situation. When your kids are already in a fit, sometimes offering choices, after empathizing or reflecting their emotion first, will help move them on to the next step.

There are many choices in every situation. To increase the effectiveness of choices, it is important to:

  • Offer only two choices that work for you.
  • If they don’t pick or want a third option, you simply choose for them: “No problem, I’ll decide.” Follow through on that choice.
  • To stay out of a power struggle, offer the child an opportunity to make a choice on something else.
  • Keep your tone and attitude calm and relaxed as if this is no big deal for you. You are fine either way they decide.

3) Show curiosity — ask more questions

When we make a direct request or demand we are telling our child what they have to do. A parent who "tells" uses commands to communicate with their children. This not only can fuel power struggles and conflict, but it eliminates our children's ability to make choices and think creatively while feeling respected.

Telling ultimately invites resistance and the body tends to feel tense, whereas asking sends the message to the brain "look for an answer" while feeling relaxed. A parent who "asks" uses curiosity questions to involve the child in making good decisions and owning their behavior. When parents use questions children feel important and in charge of themselves.

Here is how a request can be communicated in the form of a curiosity question:

  • “Go brush your teeth now please” vs. “What do you need to do now to keep your teeth healthy?”
  • “Put your plate in the dishwasher” vs. “What did we agree you would do when you were done eating?”
  • “Sit down!” vs. “Where does your bottom belong?”
  • “Don't forget your coat!” vs. “What are you going to bring with you so you don't get cold?”

Getting clear, inviting your child to be a partner and showing curiosity will not only increase the likelihood that your child does what is asked, but it also fosters a relationship between you and your child that is built on trust and mutual respect.

Try one or all three tips today and see what happens. This is a process so experiment, be consistent and have fun with it! 

This  article was originally posted at GROW Parenting, then republished on ParentMap in 2014.

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