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Avoiding Power Struggles

child behavior

In setting limits for your child, it is important to be firm but equally important to be reasonable. You are the parent and you are in charge, of course, but that does not give you license to bully. Battles over control can often be avoided, leaving your child feeling valued and respected and leaving you with an acceptable outcome. Here are a few tricks to keep in mind as you work to achieve this.

  • Don't ask "yes" or "no" questions or offer open options. Asking, "What do you want to wear today?" will only get you a room strewn with clothing. Instead, try holding up two items and saying, "Which one of these would you like to wear today?"
  • Offer an alternative that is acceptable to both of you. If your child is underfoot while you're cooking dinner, for instance, involve her in the process of preparation rather than shooing her out to play in the living room. Giving her an unbreakable mixing bowl and a spoon, or a safe but real task she can perform nearby-tearing lettuce for a salad, for example, or taking napkins to the table-heads off conflict and teaches lessons about appropriate and safe behavior in the kitchen.
  • Don't say no automatically, but when you do, stick to it. It's tempting, especially when you're busy or harried (and what parent of a 1-year-old isn't most of the time?), to say no without thinking when your child asks for something out of the ordinary. Often your first parental reaction is the right one, but always think before you speak; maybe it wouldn't really hurt anything to let her play in the water in the sink or snack on a piece of fruit if she's hungry and lunchtime is still a long way off.

Once you have turned down a request or forbidden an activity, however, don't reverse your decision and go back on your word. This is especially important if your child's response was to whine, cry, or throw a temper tantrum. Giving in will only convince her that her tantrums are an effective-and acceptable-way to change your decision. You will have encouraged a pattern.

  • Give a time-out -- or take one yourself. If conflict can't be avoided, sometimes the most effective response is giving your child a time-out. This should be framed as an opportunity for him to calm down, collect himself, and start over again. For an older child, this usually involves sitting in a chair (or on a bed or staircase) for a specified period of time so that he can calm himself down. But for children as young as 1 year old, limited use of time-out is recommended. Before imposing a time-out, try simply turning away from a child when he behaves badly.

A good rule of thumb is to put your child in time-out one minute for each year of age, but use your judgment about what works best -- maybe it will take only 30 seconds or so. If your child is especially out of control, you may want to hold him on your lap for the duration of the time-out, physically restraining his flailing arms and legs, if necessary, and trying to soothe him verbally: "I understand how upset you are that you can't play with your brother's construction set. When you calm down, we'll get one of your toys from your room and play with that instead."

If things go awry and you are really angry, take a time-out yourself. Try the reliable standby of counting to 10, or say to your child, "I'm so angry I don't want to talk about it right now. I'm going to sit down and be quiet until I feel better." You will get a chance to calm down yourself, while also demonstrating to your child that there are acceptable ways to handle anger.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.