Written by: Michelle Topal, MSW, LCSW – Licensed Clinical Social Worker Raleigh & Durham NC
“No!” it is one of the first words kids learn. So, imagine your surprise when your child says it back to you in clear defiance, not cute mimicking like they did when they were toddlers. The response can naturally provoke you into reacting and this can quickly result in a power struggle. Power struggles are about control and your child’s behavior is a developmentally normal attempt to exert control and to get their needs met. The “good news” is that while your child learning to be assertive and voice their opinions and wants is a necessary part of their
It is not easy to resist your reaction of anger when you feel your child is being defiant and disrespectful. But as soon as you dig your heels in and take the bait, so will your child and you are well on your way to a power struggle. Kids don’t have to like what they are asked to do, just as we as adults don’t always like what we have to do. It just may need to get done. You can validate what your child is feeling and experiencing, such as “I know this is not fun to do.” However, it is important to not engage your child’s anger and defiance to barter, negotiate, or demand because the more you do this, the more you are diminishing your own authority and helping to escalate things into a power struggle. Your job is to help your child learn how to experience their feelings and express them effectively and appropriately, and these situations are opportunities for them to experience and build the skills necessary for conflict resolution.
There are some things you can do to avoid power struggles without giving in to your child or leaving your child feeling powerless and angry.
- The first (and one of the most important) thing is to remember your role as a loving parent. Your child doing or learning to do what is expected, is less important then helping them learn to handle unpleasant feelings effectively. These interactions are opportunities for your child to develop the ability to understand and regulate feelings, develop greater tolerance for the dissonance that happens when things do not meet their expectations and to foster important social and emotional intelligence,
- You are modeling behavior, so if you want your child to learn how to respond with calm, you need to be. Disobedience from your child can be frustrating and infuriating. It is easy to allow your emotions to take over. But you want to model the behavior you expect from them, so be calm, clear, consistent, and non-punitive about what is expected. Getting angry and reactive will teach your child behavior that is not effective, not help resolve the problem and likely lead you to say and do things that can escalate the situation.
- Remember your child’s behavior is developmentally appropriate. It’s their job to test limits. It’s your job as a parent to create and maintain the limits for them to push against; not rigidly, but consistently and not angrily but with firmness, confidence, and love. It is important to remember you are the adult but reminding your child of this to reinforce your authority, actually weakens it.
- Just because your child is saying no and inviting an argument doesn’t mean you have to take part in it. It takes two to fight! Simply, calmly and firmly state to your child the expectations, possibly even with acknowledging you understand they may not like it. And then walk away. Disengaging from the fight and conversation sends a clear message that you aren’t giving in but also not going to engage in an unnecessary and unproductive argument. When you disengage, you are also not reinforcing your child’s argumentative and noncompliant behaviors. When you engage in the fight, your child has your attention and is learning how to get attention through negative behaviors. Also, if you engage in a power struggle, they are learning how to provoke you, how to get your attention, what it takes to delay doing what is expected and possibly how to wear you down so they feel they’ve “won” the battle. If you want to reinforce behavior, give attention and attend to your child’s negative feelings, do this after they have done what is asked to “reward” the desired behavior and validate and care for their feelings.
- One way to do this is to let your child know you would be happy to discuss their concerns, ideas, etc after they have done what is expected. This lets them know they have input at the appropriate time, but not at the time of the expectation to avoid, stall or deflect. It also lets them know you are not threatened by their ideas, but won’t be manipulated. See these experiences as opportunities to help your child grow in their verbal skills and ability to express and assert their needs and feelings in an appropriate way, and so make sure to follow-up and discuss.
- When possible giving your child choices is important. This gives them a sense of power and control over the situation and can deescalate an argument. When given a choice, it leaves your child feeling like he/she has a say and some power and control. It also helps them learn necessary decision making skills.
If you find your child increasingly defiant and non-compliant, and yourself less and less effective in how you approach this behavior, it may be helpful to talk with a professional who specializes in helping kids and parents.
Michelle Topal, LCSW has 30 years experience, specializing in child therapy Raleigh & Durham NC, parenting support, family counseling & exs who are co-parenting.
Call now for psychotherapy & family therapy in Raleigh & Durham NC.