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Prevent a parent-child power struggle with this simple trick

Updated: Feb 18

"Don’t touch that!" "Stop interrupting me!" "Take your feet off the couch!" "Be gentle with the cat!"

You know the feeling - the often palpable tension of the moment between your directive and your child’s compliance. The reaction to the direction can vary: perhaps your child pulls back and complies immediately, or they ignore you completely, or they sigh and roll their eyes, or they actively defy your command, or a host of other variations the provoke a variety of feelings in us. Our responses to their choices at that moment can also take on a multiple iterations: we repeat what we said, we expand on the reason why we told them to do what we did, we threaten some punishment/consequence if they don’t do what we said, perhaps we physically remove them from the situation, put them in “time out,” or we engage in a back and forth debate on the topic… Do you see anything here you recognize? It’s a common source of great frustration for both parents and children.

Is it possible to sidestep this power dance? Without claiming this tact is a magic wand, there is hope to be found in simply shifting from demand to description - from instruction to information. How could that change things? 

As I often suggest, let us first think of our own feelings and preferences. “The steps are slippery.” This is information. What would you do with that information? You might walk more slowly, hold the railing, or take an alternate route. Do you need another adult to explicitly tell you these options? “But my child doesn’t know what to do! I always have to remind them to hold the railing!” If they are of the age and ability to walk up stairs by themselves, the chances are extremely high that they will figure out what to do without direct instruction. They are human beings. By nature, we are a pretty self-preservationist species. That instinct for physical self-preservation, though, can get hijacked by another kind of self-preservation - the preservation of personal dignity. Even 3 and 4 year olds have it, and for sure our preteens and teenagers have it on high alert. 

The indignity of it all!

Have you ever defied your parents simply because you felt the need for some control - “I’ll make my own decisions, thank you,” whether said aloud or under your breath. Maybe it’s been that restaurant example when your mother tells you that you should order the chicken salad and while that had looked appealing, there’s something in you that now cannot stomach it and soup of the day it will be (or you’ve learned at this point that it’s better to keep the peace and really she’s asking to share the salad… but that’s another can of worms). 

Our children also resent being treated as if they cannot make simple decisions, and while that is not likely the intention meant in “Hold the railing, it’s slippery,” that is unfortunately what we’re saying. Perhaps this sounds similar to the discussion in my post “Full Confidence” or in the part about the importance of letting go in “Why Low Stakes Failures Are Essential For Your Child’s Success.” It’s a theme with variation that giving them control over low-stakes decisions not only increases their confidence and their resilience, but, as we will discuss here, also decreases the provocation of a power struggle - and that increases our parental peace of mind.

In allowing our children to make a good (or bad) decision based on information, instead based on following a demand for compliance, we avoid putting our children or ourselves in a position to either acquiesce or win. We don’t necessarily mean to, but we often set up a “moment of truth” and then find ourselves shouting, You’re not listening to me!” What we are really saying, of course, is “You’re not obeying me!” What if we simply - and intentionally - didn’t set ourselves, and our children, up for this fight? Without a deft or comply scenario set before them, there’s much more room for everyone to breathe. Without an ultimatum, neither we nor our children have to struggle to win or “save face.” Everyone’s dignity and agency can be preserved. Information can change the terms of the game.

Information about Information

What constitutes this “information” we’re talking about? It usually is simple information about the nature of the item or situation: the stairs are wet, it’s your grandma’s birthday, the house we’re visiting has a pool we’re allowed to swim in. With that information, we can let our children draw logical conclusions: walk slowly, wish her happy birthday, bring a swimsuit and towel, etc. “Cats usually like gentle touch head to tail” or “It’s usually best to ask a cat’s owner how to approach their pet.” That’s information about the cat and the situation. Maybe they’ll be too rough and the cat will run away or nip at them. We have informed, we haven’t tried to control the situation, and we can see how it unfolds. Our reactions and palpable fears or expectations also contribute to the tension or calm of the situation and will be discussed in a moment.

The information we give may be about our own availability - "When I'm finished with what I'm doing I'd be really happy to talk" or “I have to pick everyone up right at 3pm for an appointment” (and we can stop ourselves there without adding “So make sure you’re ready to go” - that’s the logical action item). What if they’re late? Berate them? Better, we could continue to inform them. What would we like in that situation? Would we want our parent to say, “I can’t believe you’re late! I told you I had to pick up right at 3! Do I have to send a note into school for you to be ready?” I would guess that dignity preservation warning bells would be going off. Perhaps instead, and the trickiest part is often keeping one’s voice calmly even, we can state, “I was here at 3pm. The doctor’s office will need notice that we are running late.” At which point you could have your tardy child call the doctor’s office themselves to explain that you all are running late. Without providing a moral to the story (meaning we stop ourselves from saying, “Does that teach you not to be late again?”), conclusions and future intentions will likely be made by your child themselves. You took the punch out of the fight, taking the focus off of you and leaving it where it belongs, on them.

One of my favorite parenting authors, Rudolph Dreikurs, reminds us that we can really only control ourselves. We can try to control by punishing and restricting, but in the end we can only control our own choices and, in doing so with equanimity, we can set standards with less anger and frustration. I may choose not to eat at the table with someone who is playing with their food (without making a scene), or I may cheerfully choose not to serve dessert until plates are clean. Subtle, but a choice, not a threat or ultimatum. Again, if you get past the antiquated language, Children: The Challenge has brilliant ideas for creative calm within the storms we've become accustomed to.

How repetition can lead to a special kind of “deafness”

In addition to preserving our children’s sense of dignity and respect, constantly giving direct instruction can lead to a selective kind of deafness in our children. “Direction deaf,” our children learn to tune out our repetitive redirections and also typically opt out of responsibility. If any of us expect to be reminded not matter how capable we actually are of doing the right thing, some of us learn to wait for the reminder, it’s coming anyways. 

Sometimes it’s not an outright fight of defiance, but becomes a game of defiance - whether unconsciously or deliberately. Noncompliance can be a very effective way to capture and hold adult attention. What may look to us like not caring can actually be a lot of caring for your undivided attention. Risky behavior may have the “worth it” trade off of center stage billing. 

Let’s take “The enchiladas are hot” and say that it’s significantly different from “Don’t touch the enchiladas - they’re hot.” How is that so different? Both communicated that the enchiladas were hot, did they not? If we can leave out the command, the information allows for personal choice and doesn’t always require direct instruction. Low stakes trial and error - a third degree burn will not ensue if the enchiladas are touched and there’s actually less likelihood that they will be touched without the command. We may actually be provoking a game of “chicken” when our words or actions imply the assumption that they will make a bad decision and that we are ready at the quick to catch them. Whether we say, “Don’t touch it” or hover around it, it's clearly our focus and the tension can be interpreted as a challenge more than a warning. 

I’ve learned to put the enchiladas on the table, maybe say “hot out of the oven” (but most likely that’s obvious) and walk away, unless I’m about to sit down myself of course and then I actively pretend to not care about the hot pan whatsoever. Our youngest is the most prone to testing the limits for himself and he will often reach out to touch it, but since I now pretend not to notice, it’s been a pretty self-limiting experience. When he does touch it, I’ve learned not to react. If there’s no social benefit to the pain, pain isn’t typically preferred. I’ve informed and he’s chosen. We don’t make it the evening’s entertainment.

Again, we’re not doing this “trial and error” on the edge of a cliff. We are letting them choose and act based on information instead of instruction in fairly low stakes moments that teach them how to handle the higher stakes moments on their own (more on the importance of low stakes trial and error). Telling them what to do simply will not build their executive functioning skills. Whether we call it emasculating, infantilizing, micromanaging, over-managing, or nagging, none of us like it, even when it’s done with the very best of intentions. We can break the cycle and start with information or intentional silence.

When Silence Speaks Loudest

Some situations don’t even really require information. They are either very obvious or will become obvious to our children if they are allowed to experience it independent of instruction or hyper-vigilance on our part. If we are the ones doing all the looking out and looking ahead, many of our children won’t see the use in doing it themselves (why double the work?). Some children find that they’re less frustrated if they’ve “checked out” since they know they’re going to be reminded anyways. This circles back to the importance of trial and error, as much as we may secretly want to bubble wrap our beautiful babies. 

“The pan in the oven is hot” - now at least congratulate yourself for not saying “Use an oven mitt!” - but of course the pan inside of the oven is hot. We probably didn’t ask our 4 year old to take anything out of the oven, and our 10+ year old is almost assuredly pretty tuned into their heat sensors (or will be soon) and would appreciate that being recognized with silence. We may have to put our hands over our mouth (I know I do at times) and try to control our reactions should they indeed get a minor burn. “I run my hand under cool water when I get burned” and leave it at that, or the attention may be worth the burn, as discussed. 

They read us like a book - even if they’re preliterate

They read our interests and stress levels, all the time. They’re watching for how we cope with their choices. Are we still holding the rope for a tug of war? After giving them information, is the ball of personal choice really in their court for solo practice and or still in play between us and them? If we clearly ready to rush in or volley, then it’s a game. If we really moved on to something else, there’s not much use in playing keep away from yourself and tug of war ceases to be a war without both people tugging. 

It seems too subtle and similar to make a difference, but amazingly it usually does.

I’ve been in countless situations where information was more effective than direct instruction. I know a lot depends on my tone of voice, not so easily communicated here in text. “That’s too loud for my ears” instead of “Stop that!” “Wet shoes stay out on the porch” instead of “Don’t walk into the house with wet shoes!” It seems too subtle and similar to make a difference, but amazingly it usually does. “People don’t want feet on the table they eat on.” “These things will break if we stand on them.” With younger kids, we can solicit their help instead of their obedience with questions like, “Where do you think we could put these to keep them safe?” I often think of how information can just sound like “company policy” instead of personal prodding. “Dishes are washed right after use here, signed, 'The Management'.” 

Perhaps we can talk more sometime about creative ways “The Management” can uphold the company’s policies without feeling like the police. It really can be possible. 

We Can Outsource The Info and Outsource The Strife

I often outsource the info if I get pushback, especially in public places. For example, “The store needs everyone to walk so no one gets run into and things don’t get knocked down,” or “Employees don’t usually like cleaning up after people.” If that gets called into question, I cheerfully reply, “Let’s find an employee and see what their store policy is on that.” The trick is to keep our voice and faces totally neutral (I’m constantly strengthening my deadpan acting skills). 

At a friend’s house, if my child puts their feet on the couch, I would direct them to ask our host if they were ok with that, open to the possibility that they are. Often enough the thought of asking an adult curbs the offensive behavior. And then our challenge is not to look satisfied that we won, but neutral about their choice to take their feet off instead of ask - that either would be ok with us. It’s our host’s couch. At our house when nieces and nephews or our kids’ friends are over, I (or our kids) might inform them that “We sit or lay down on our couches” or "We eat at the table." For really young or bouncy kids we try to set them up for success and play away from areas that would require a lot of information about what we do and don’t do. 

Let's set everyone up for less stress

Practically speaking, are the directions and commands we’ve been giving over and over effective? We don’t necessarily have to work that hard to get the results we are looking for. And what are the real results we want? Children who instantly obey our constant commands or capable children who make good choices? Our part in this is key.

Perhaps it all boils down to connection. We all want connection - authentic, loving connection with our children. Yes, we want them safe and respectful, but above and below it all, we want a meaningful connection with our children. And that can start by showing respect through the assumption of capability or emerging capability. 

Give it a try. Try information or neutral description over command and direction, maybe just for a week, and see if it feels any better, any more gracious and effective. Perhaps with fewer power struggles, we will all have more energy to enjoy our learning, growing, dignified children - and ourselves.

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