It seemed like a reasonable thing to ask my 5-year-old daughter to set the table. I even asked nicely: “Honey, it’s about time for dinner. Can you set the table, please?” But instead of a chipper “Sure, Mama!” or even a grudging “Fine,” Belle responded with a loud “No!”—which sent my blood pressure skyrocketing and launched us into a prolonged back-and-forth. Despite my efforts to set firm limits, we had been having a lot more of these moments.
“Parents often worry that power struggles are a sign that they’re not parenting right,” said Jim Stokes, Ph.D., a psychologist at the Child & Family Counseling Center in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. “But being insistent is your child’s way of learning to be her own person.” Follow these expert strategies to help you maintain control.
Your child wants to express his individuality by making his own choices, so try understanding his resistance. If you want him to do his homework right after school but he wants to do it later, ask him why. Is he hungry? Does he need a break first? Approach the situation as an opportunity to problem-solve with your child. In the case of homework, you might agree to a 20-minute break before diving in, but no screen time. Since he’s participated in the decision-making process, he’ll be more likely to agree to the boundaries that have been set. Look for various ways to empower your child’s growing need for autonomy. “Let him have control over other things like which cereal to have for breakfast or what clothes to wear,” says Laura Goodman, a licensed parent coach at Boost Parenting, in Duluth, Minnesota. Letting him have a say in some parts of his day may make it easier when it’s time for you to make the decisions.
When your kid picks a fight, it’s not always a sign of strength. “Everyone is susceptible to stress, including children,” says Dr. Stokes. “If your child is tired, hungry, or overstimulated, she will be more likely to resist when you ask her to do something.” If you have to go grocery shopping on the way home from picking her up from school, you can predict she’ll fuss because she’s tired from a long day. Dr. Stokes recommends acknowledging how she’s feeling by saying something like, “I know you’re tired but I have to run this errand now. I’ll hurry and then we can go home so you can rest.”
Power struggles are also likely to happen during times of transition, such as morning and bedtime. “Your kid can’t always jump from one thing to another,” says Dr. Stokes. She may be reluctant to leave her toys and go to school or might be overwhelmed by the morning rush. Try using humor to lighten the mood or take a quick break for a hug or a back rub.
If your child refuses to clean his room, you might be tempted to threaten to take away the iPad for the week. Regardless of whether you decide to enforce these consequences, try to stay calm; otherwise your child will be more likely to respond heatedly instead of rationally. “Try to identify your own triggers—such as feeling disrespected or unappreciated, or needing to assert authority—that make you initiate a power struggle,” suggests Tracie Giargiari, Ph.D., a psychologist at Thrive Health and Wellness in Longmont, Colorado. “Even if your child is the instigator, the situation changes when you remain calm.”
Sometimes, you may just need a five-minute break to decide how to handle the situation. You might say, “Since we’re both upset, let’s talk about this in a few minutes.” When you return to the conversation, you can either come to a solution together or explore the reason for his resistance.