“You can’t make me!” screams your expressive child. Your breath quickens, heart rate elevates, blood pressure rises and a throb starts at the temples. At times you may feel like you “have to” make your child do things against her will. Tasks as simple as being asked to brush her teeth, take a bath or get dressed can easily escalate into an argumentative power struggle in no time.

Unfortunately, your child is taunting you with the truth by screaming, “You can’t make me!” In the long run, she is right. A parent/child relationship should be built on trust, not fear. Forcing her to do something against her will may cause her to feel overpowered or controlled and ultimately cause damage to a peaceable relationship.

How can you avoid these power struggles with your young child? Side step confrontation. You can’t control your child’s behavior, but you can control your own. When you hear phrases like, “you can’t make me,” simply leave the situation and invite cooperation by saying, “Please, let me know when you’re ready to cooperate.” Then go on with your planned activities; brush your teeth, get dressed, take your vitamins or sweep the floor. When you avoid pushing back, you avoid resistance.

Offering choices when appropriate can also be very helpful. Some examples include:

  • Would you like to brush your teeth before or after your bath?
  • Do you want bubbles in your bath tonight or no bubble bath?
  • Do you want to wear your yellow shirt or your green shirt?

These choices do not allow your child to avoid doing necessary tasks, but instead gives her a sense of independence as she makes her own decisions. Offering choices invites cooperation. As you give choices also listen for your child’s suggestions, as in, “No, I want to wear my red shirt.” The red shirt may not be the choice you offered, but it is your child’s offer of cooperation.

You can also invite your child to problem solve with you. When facing resistance to tooth brushing you may say, “It’s important to me that you have clean healthy teeth. Can you think of ways to make sure you have clean healthy teeth?” Side stepping confrontation and offering choices to encourage cooperation can result in a win/win situation. Your relationship with your child shouldn’t be a contest with winners and losers.

Our child is full of viable ideas if you give her a chance to think, and yourself time to listen. When the solution comes from your child, you reinforce her trust in your commitment to make a situation better.

What is the best tactic you’ve used to avoid confrontation with your child?

Amy Bontempo is the Manager of Family and Community Engagement at Penfield Children’s Center.  She supervises the Community Outreach Educator, Volunteer Coordinator,  Parent Mentor Program, and Family Programs of which Penfield host over 60 per year.  She has served on the Board of Directors for the Down Syndrome Association (DSAW) of Wisconsin since 2011 and previously served on the Volunteer Respite Committee for Children’s Service Society now part of Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin Community Services, and the Family Resource Connection of Milwaukee Co.

Satran, Pamela Redmond. “Choose Your Battles.” Parenting. Meredith Women’s Network. Web. 5 May 2014. http://www.parenting.com/article/ending-power-struggles-and-arguments.

Sims, Karan. “Dealing with Power Struggles.” PositiveParenting. Web. 5 May 2014. http://positiveparenting.com/dealing-with-power-struggles/.

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