power struggle

When a Child Prefers One Parent

Question:

Dear Dr. Rene,

I have a two years and eight months old girl. I nursed her for 18 months. After that point, I slowly have faded into the background. If daddy is around, I am out. I can’t give her a bath and put her to bed without dealing with tantrums about why daddy isn’t doing it. She regularly pronounces her love for daddy. Sometimes, she goes out of her way to say that she does not love mommy. I try to be cheerful in spite of this, but it is really, really hard. I feel like the third wheel in my own family. She also refuses to be comforted by me if he is around; sometimes even if he is not. My husband tries to make room for me, but it doesn’t seem to be enough. He says it is “just a phase,” but, for the most part, it has been like this for almost a year.

Answer:

It is normal for a child to go through phases of preferring one parent over the other. I have heard from many parents in this position, including my husband, that it feels really bad.

My older daughter was always equally happy if it was me or her dad giving her a bath or reading to her. My younger daughter took about three years to warm up to the idea of her dad participating. In the first year, she strongly preferred that I hold her. By two years old, she only wanted me to read to her and tuck her in. On nights when it was his turn, she complained and cried. While I know it hurt his feelings, he always seemed to take it in stride occasionally saying things like, “I’ll just keep loving her and eventually she’ll come around.” She did. By the time she was about three years old, he was among her best playmates.

In the moment, the first answer is to not react in a big way. If you over react and get upset or angry, the situation often escalates to a power struggle. Raise your voice and you may spark a tantrum. If you under react and give in to it being the preferred parent’s turn, you give your child’s push power. Your child is more likely to push for the other parent the next go around because it worked.

The second answer is to give your child empathy, validate their feelings and let them know you understand. My husband would say something like, “I know you’re sad, you love when mommy reads to you, she’s great at it.” This dampens their need to argue.

And third, move forward through the process. As you can, continue to read the story, tuck-in and give love. This means my husband would finish the bedtime routine through her upset. If I took over or if he gave up, it encourages the push to be bigger the next go around.

If bath or bedtime are particularly difficult, it may be helpful for the preferred parent to “be away” during that particular time for several days in a row, and the non-preferred parent should strive to make the time enjoyable. If it’s bath, bring extra toys, make it a bubble bath, give extra playtime. If it’s bedtime, read and snuggle a bit longer each night. When the preferred parent re-enters the schedule, continue to alternate nights often and work through the difficult times.

It may also be helpful for each parent to spend some fun alone time with each child in the house every month. This is being sure that individual pairs in the family get regular time to connect individually.

Sincerely, Dr. Rene

Getting a Three-Year-Old Out the Door in the Morning

Hi Dr. Rene,

I have a three-year and two-month old son. In the last month or so, it has been extremely difficult to get him to cooperate, so we can leave the house. He runs away when I try to get him dressed, get shoes and coat on, etc., and it is making it challenging to be on time for important things like picking his sister up from school. I try to leave extra time, but nothing so far has helped. If we are going somewhere he wants to go, it is a little easier, but he often says he wants to stay home and play, so it is very difficult when he does not want to go where we are going. Sometimes, if we cannot be a minute later, I have to force his shoes on and carry him to the car. It is very frustrating, and I know that he knows he has control over the situation when he runs away laughing as I follow him around with socks and shoes and a coat! How do I avoid making it a power struggle?  Also, if he refuses to put a coat on, and it’s cold out, should I let him go out without a coat? If I give him choices, he will tell me “neither.”  Thanks for any advice!

Sincerely, Amy

Mom of two

Hi Amy,

This is such a common time of day to struggle with children. I think the only time that tops getting out of the house is getting them in bed. The first thing I would do is build a schedule. Start by deciding what time you need to leave, let’s say this is 8:00 a.m. in the morning. Then, make a list of all the things that need to happen before you can leave, and decide about how much time can go for each. Then add 10 minutes, work your way backwards from 8:00 a.m. to figure out what time you and the kids need to get up and moving. That extra 10 minutes is time for him to work towards and you set it aside for him to play with legos, look at books or play with his trains. This way you can remind him, if you are getting dressed quickly you will have time for trains. It also give you a bit of a buffer, if the morning isn’t going well you have 10 extra minutes built in.

Really think through the order and logistics of things. If you are forever chasing him to get shoes on at the last minute, have his shoes on as part of getting dressed or shoes before breakfast. If you rush around each morning to pack his school bag, make packing his school bag part of the evening routine instead.

Once you have your schedule, work with your child to make it visual. Take pictures of him going through the process, find pictures online of the activities or help him draw the pictures, and then make a poster of the steps. Give him choices, if you can, about the order of the morning or of activities for how to spend his 10 minutes.

Then think job and choices. Jobs are making him the shoe picker or the cereal pourer and the light switcher on the way out or the car key carrier to unlock the door and let everyone in. These are easy and fun ways to help him buy into the behavior. An individual job may only be interesting for a day or two while others may be interesting for a few weeks (like the car key carrier or radio tuner). Choices are asking does he want to get dressed on the bed or the floor, does he want cereal or oatmeal or does he want his red coat or blue. Choices work because they share power. When he says “neither” to choices, you can reply, “you can choose, or I will choose for you.” If he participates then, fine. If not, you can choose for him and move on.

When all else fails, consequences are fair game. It is fine to say, “if you don’t have your shoes on, your feet might be cold,” and then swoop him up and go, putting the shoes on later. Hopefully, if you can accept this as just a part of the plan, it will be less frustrating when you use them.

Sincerely, Dr. Rene

 

 

How Choices Work in Positive Discipline

Child looking for direction

When offering choices in discipline, the goal is to offer two positive choices for the child that both meet your goal in parenting. These choices can focus on the how, what, when or where. Let’s say you need to have the playroom cleaned up. Offering choices about how could include, “would you like to start by yourself or with help?” or, “would you like to throw the balls or drop them in the basket?” Choices about what may include, “would you like to start with the blocks or the balls first?” or, “would you like to start with red toys or blue toys?” A choice about when would be, “would you like to clean before bath or before bed?” A choice about where would be, “would you like to start on this side of the room or that?”

Choices work because the child gets to have some power. Choices elicit cooperation; the child willingly does what you want her to do because she gets to make a decision. This is especially true for young children under five years old because they have very little power in their day. They are often told where to go, when to go and to be quiet while they are going there. If you ask a three-year-old who is hemming about having to take medicine, “would you like it with a spoon or a dropper?” and they reply, “dropper,” they are more willing to take the medicine because of their newly found sense of control.

The choices don’t have to be important ones. For that child who is hesitant to take medicine, you could offer, “would you like it with juice or water?” The next night ask, “standing or sitting?” The next night ask, “in the kitchen or in the bathroom?” None of these choices are terribly important in the process, but they tend to gain compliance for the parenting goal of downing the medicine.

To be fair, both options must be good for the child. Steer clear of offering one positive and one negative option. I think of Alicen, who makes a lot of noise throughout the day; she hums, whistles and sings. By the end of the day, it can be a bit much. When we are all in the kitchen getting ready for dinner, I might say, “you can do that in here very quietly or out in the foyer loud.” Neither of those options is particularly bad. If I offered one positive and one negative, I might say, “you can do that in here quietly or go to your room.” In this case, my language is manipulative. I am saying, “here is a bad and here is a good; now which do you want?” Children typically understand this and think, “well, duh! Nobody wants the bad.” They are forced to choose the one you want them to choose. That is not a choice; it is a consequence and should be stated as such: “If you do not quiet down, I will send you to your room.” When there is one positive and one negative, it is a given what will happen; it is not a choice. Rather than provide a false choice that is actually a consequence like “you can mow the lawn today or be grounded; which do you want?” parents will get better results by stating the cause and effect clearly, “if you do not mow the lawn, I will ground you.”

In most discipline, choices come after any needed “I” messages or empathy but before consequences. As you enter into discipline, it is best to address emotions first. Help yourself and your child to calm and manage emotions before you try to discipline or to fix the situation. Once that is done or if that is not needed, think choices before consequences. Choices work because they elicit cooperation. Children are often happy to do the thing you want them to do. Negative logical consequences work because you are putting your foot down. Children are often resentful of the process or angry that you just trumped them. The order of response would be to lead with the choice.

First: “Do you want the red or the blue sweatshirt?”

And then, if necessary, follow that up with a logical consequence.

Second: “If don’t get dressed now, we will lose our time for the playground.”

This puts the happy option first and follows up with the less agreeable way if happiness fails. The other order – consequence first followed by choice – is usually less effective. Children will be less willing to choose if you were just firm with them. An example would look like: “if you do not get dressed right now, we’ll lose our time for the playground. Now which do you want the red or the blue sweatshirt?” You already put your foot down, so it is far less attractive to take you up on a choice. Choices should come first because they are flexible and open. Consequences are closed; there is a built-in outcome.

There are a few exceptions to the “choices first” guideline. Aggressive behaviors tend to go straight to consequences. Hitting, kicking, biting and screaming in someone’s face are behaviors that do not have choices available; they just don’t. In those cases, I tend to think consequences first after attending to and offering empathy to the “victim.”

There are a few expected stages in development when choices can be especially effective.  At various ages, many children are driven to gain independence in particular ways. Around two to three years old, most children are driven to do things for themselves. Parents of toddlers and preschoolers often hear, “I’ll do it myself.” It is helpful if parents can offer choices such as, “would you like to do it by yourself or with help?”

Around six years old, children tend to push for more control over their schedule and routines. It can be helpful if parents offer choices such as, “would you like to read books or color now?” or, “let’s invite a playdate. Would you like to call Lindsey or Emily to play?” Around eight years old, children may push for more physical independence.  Choices such as, “would you all like to sit with us or a few aisles away?” can be helpful.  In the pre-teen years, children tend to need more privacy. Parents can offer choices such as, “would you all like some time alone in your room or in the basement?” If children feel thwarted in their push for independence, they may become evasive in their efforts. If you feel struggles happening over these pushes for new independence, it is most helpful to examine the amount of control you are exerting over your children.

Children benefit from practice at making decisions. Kohn states that children “learn to make good decisions by making decisions.” Ideally, you are offering these choices throughout the day, not just in discipline. Asking questions like, “would you like peanut butter or ham and cheese?” or, “do you want to play blocks or balls?” provides children with safe opportunities to practice making choices. These opportunities are out of the moment of discipline. There is less hanging in the balance. The better children get at weighing the options and making decisions when the decisions are not weighted with importance, the better they’ll handle choices within discipline. When my children came to me at seven years old and asked, “what should I do about this?” I wanted to be able to give it back to them by asking, “what do you think you should do?” To gain experience problem-solving – to come up with and weigh options –  children need practice.

As a general guideline, when children are under five years old, provide only two choices. If you open the closet and ask a three-year-old, “what would you like to wear?” the choices can be overwhelming. Children will let you know when they are ready for wider choices. You might ask, “do you want the red or the blue sweatshirt?” If they reply, “how about the green,” they are likely ready for more options. By all means, if green is another sweatshirt which meets your parenting goal, it is fine. If the green is a party dress, and you are headed to the muddy playground, you might say, “I really like the green too, but today it is red or blue.” It is fine to reiterate choices. If this strategy still doesn’t work, you can choose for them, but you have to let them know that is coming. You could say, “this is taking a long time. You can choose, or I will choose for you.” Most kids will choose immediately because they don’t want to lose that power. This shift should not sound like, “okay. This is taking too long; I choose the blue.” If you swoop in and take their power without warning, you will surely be met by upset or tantrums.

While choices often work, sometimes, they just don’t. You warn children to make a choice, and they fall to pieces. Or, they do make a choice, but then throw it down and run from the room screaming. When choices fail, you can fall back on consequences. Moving to consequences also prevents you from being bogged down by choices. Occasionally, we have a parent who says that choices don’t work because, for example, “my child says ‘no’ to the initial offer, so I come up with other choices, and she just refuses every option,” or, “we go in circles all day because he’ll pick something and then change his mind and fight for the other.” In these scenarios, the child has led the use of choices into a power struggle. The idea is to offer one set of choices, encourage a decision, and then move forward. If choices break down, move to consequences rather than join in the struggle by offering a series of choices. If the choices initially work and then a bit later the child starts to lose interest, it is fine to offer a second set of choices to keep the momentum going. It is successful if you are cleaning the playroom together and initially offer, “would you like to start with the blocks or the balls?” and the child chooses and starts picking up the blocks. If interest fades six minutes later, you can offer another set of choices, “do you want to finish the blocks by yourself or with help?”

Another possible challenge with choices, is when a child will choose one, but then push for the other. Let’s say you offer, “would you like cereal or oatmeal?” The child chooses oatmeal, you make it, and as you set it on the table the child says, “no! I want cereal.” At that late point, if you then make the cereal, the child will push for the second option often. There is more power in getting you to make two. If you want that push to end, offer empathy around the first choice, but stick with it through the upset. Say “I know you like cereal. I am sorry, but I’ve already made the oatmeal, and that’s what is for breakfast. You are welcome to cereal tomorrow.” It may take a few times of sticking with the first choice, but if you are consistent, the push for the second thing should lessen. If you have a child who does this often, you can confirm before making the oatmeal. After you have offered and child chooses, you can say, “I heard you, you picked cereal. I am going to make it, and we are going to stick with it. Do you understand?” At least then you’ll feel better about sticking with the first choice.

Choices are flexible and work because they share power with the child. They also teach decision-making and often result in a more peaceful exchange than consequences.

Want a Better Morning Routine with Kids?

Family Using Digital Devices At Breakfast Table

Believe me, I know, mornings in a busy house with kids can be tough. There are several guidelines that can help in this hectic transition time.

  • Build a real routine – Many families have a solid bedtime routine, but fewer have a great morning routine. If you are one of those winging it in the morning families, it is time to get a routine. Start by deciding what time you want to walk out the door. Next, list all the things that need to happen before that from wake-up to out, and decide about how much time you’ll need for each step. Working backwards gives you a wake-up time.
  • End with fun so you have something to work towards and a buffer – Now take that well planned schedule and bump everything earlier by 10 minutes. Set aside this bit of time at the end for the kids to do something enjoyable. This may be reading or lego time, it may be time with the puppy. This gives your kids something to work towards, and gives you a 10 minute buffer for sanity’s sake.
  • Get visual – Work with your child to make a chart or a poster including the steps of your new routine. Let them make the decisions to write a chart, draw pictures or take pictures for the illustrations. Give them time to decorate it and make it their own. Put it somewhere easily visible to all.
  • Stick to the schedule – Help your child make it through the routine, and have the 10 minutes for something enjoyable at least a few mornings. Make it your goal to stick to the schedule for a month, a routine only helps if you do it.
  • Think logistics for sticking points – If getting dressed is a battle, put it first rather than last in the routine. Make a rule that breakfast is for dressed people. If you’re really desperate, have them sleep in their next day clothes (at least the shirt, underwear and socks).
  • Give jobs – To keep kids in the routine, it may be helpful to give them individual responsibilities as they go. Make one the toothpaste squeezer, another the cereal pourer. Titles are appealing to younger children. Think to rotate jobs every few days.
  • Give choices – Choices allow the child some power. Here and there, share a bit. Ask, “do you want cereal or oatmeal this morning?” or, “do you want to wear shorts or a skirt?” or, “do you want to get dressed by yourself or with help?”
  • Give challenges – Can they get dressed before you? Can they get to the table faster this morning than yesterday?
  • Do what you can the night before – In our house, homework isn’t complete until it is in the backpack and by the front door with all papers signed. Some gung-ho families make lunches the night before and lay out clothes. Every little bit helps.
  • As they are able, give them more responsibility in the process – If you trust, let them take over the tooth brushing. If they do, let them wake-up by an alarm.
  • Plan with simple and healthy in mind for breakfast – It’s great if you can cook a full hot breakfast every morning. I am not knocking that at all, in fact I’d like to wake-up at your house! I often cook on the weekends, but go the easy route on weekdays keeping health in mind. We do a lot of scrambled eggs, hard-boiled before eggs, whole grain cereal, yogurt, cheese sticks, toast and fruit salad. Things that take just a minute or two, and we can keep well stocked.

Playdates and Stressed Kids

Dear Dr. Rene,

My son is almost three years old. He is very verbal and cognitive, but seems overwhelmed easily in playgroups. If we are at playgrounds and there are three or more kids nearby, he wants to leave. If an indoor group is loud, or children are misbehaving, he gets extremely upset. He manages better when play is with just one other child, but even that often ends in tears. He hates to leave the house, he says, “let’s just stay home,” even when it’s a place he loves to go. He dislikes other children or adults touching him. He is also an only child and takes after me. While I try not to show it, I don’t like crowds and don’t care for other children being rowdy. Do I continue to put him in these stressful situations?

Sincerely,

A Worried Mom

Dear Worried Mom,

I think there is a best answer in the middle. Yes, continue to leave the house and continue to schedule playdates. Leave the house for more low-key activities, think play at the park rather than busy gym class. Plan one-on-one playdates with kids that tend to play well rather than playdates with several children at the same time. One-on-one actually tends to be better for play skills, and there’s no real downside relative to bigger groups. Managing group play becomes more important as he is a bit older.

When things get to busy or loud, give a lot of empathy and step out for a time. When others misbehave, if he is not directly involved, distract him away when you can. If there’s no distraction, talk him through it and let him see the resolution. If he is directly involved, think empathy and wait for the calm. Talk through on the quiet, calm side.

Pulling too far back means no playdates and you never leave the house. Both are important towards social development, but you want to aim for things that may be successful. Just diving in to big groups means he will struggle through and enjoy social less. Aim for the middle.

Sincerely,

Dr. Rene

Introduction to Power Struggles

The first step to addressing a power struggle is to recognize when you are in one. Power struggles generally happen around tasks such as getting ready for bed, getting homework done or getting everybody up and out of the door in the morning. In parenting, a power struggle is defined as a time of the day that typically goes poorly. It’s a pattern that goes poorly often enough you may dread that time of day. If you just had difficulty today, but it’s usually smooth, that’s not a struggle it’s just a bad day.

If it truely is a power struggle, often the second step is to realize what you are doing as response is not working. If getting ready for bedtime is a struggle, likely you are chasing children around the room, yelling and wrestling them into their jammies. This is you participating in the struggle which validates it to be a push AND is likely repeating discipline patterns that aren’t working. The idea, once you realize you are in a struggle is to step back and change what you are doing as response. I am not saying give in, I know you have to get them dressed and ready for bed or feed something for dinner. I am saying change what you are doing in response. Shake up the dynamics of the struggle.

In power struggle moments rely on setting clear boundaries, positive directions, catching good behaviors and using contribution, choices and consequences. Use techniques to step out of the struggle rather than chase them around and struggle back.

To learn more about these techniques, join me for a morning workshop on managing power struggles. This is being held on Saturday, April 21st. For more information and to register, please visit http://www.eventbrite.com/org/283710166?s=1328924.

Want Kids to Listen? Stop Repeating Yourself!

It’s an all too familiar scenario…

Mom is almost ready to leave, children are still coloring in the kitchen. Mom says, “hey, time to get your shoes on, and could you turn off the tv, please?” Mom keeps moving to put the breakfast dishes in the sink. Children ignore mom’s request and keep coloring. Mom walks over to gather her things, turns off the tv herself and says, “really, get your shoes.  We gotta go.” Children continue coloring. One child looks up briefly, sees mom looking through her purse and checking her phone, so back to coloring. Mom, without looking up says, “shoes.” Mom, putting on her coat snaps, “shoes now! (five seconds pass) That’s one….(five seconds), two….(five seconds), do you hear me? I am counting! GET YOUR SHOES!” Crayons drop, kids move towards shoes. 

Parent asks child to do something. Child ignores request. Parent repeats request. Child ignores. Parent escalates. Child ignores. Parent, who was initially calm, loses it and yells. Child listens and moves into action. Parent is frustrated that child doesn’t listen.

The unfortunate thing if you are in this cycle is you are actually teaching your child to NOT listen. By repeating the request, you are directly teaching them to tune you out. The child is learning that, when you start talking, you are going to say it two or three more times, so they wait. They learn that they have at least a few more minutes from the first request before they have to listen. They learn you are unpredictable, sometimes you really mean it, and sometimes you just don’t, so they watch.

To break the habit of repeating yourself, you have to make a new habit. The idea is to say it once, and then expect them to listen. Accept that at least initially, you may have to move into action and help them to listen. You may have to help them at first because together you’ve created the pattern of tuning out. So let’s say you buy in, and starting now, decide to say things once and expect children to listen. For starters, the new pattern is going to fail. Tomorrow morning, you get their attention and very clearly say, “it’s time to go. Put on your shoes, please.” They are not likely to listen as listening the first time is not the familiar habit. Rather than repeat and frustrate yourself, move into action. Take child to shoes, or take shoes to child, and get them started. You can still give them choices about which pair of shoes or which step to sit on. You can give them a challenge to put them on before you sing the alphabet. You can still be polite and say please. The point is, you can still talk, just avoid the repeated asking them to put on their shoes again. Hopefully you will be less frustrated. Even if you have to stop what you are doing to help, at least you only said it once.

Have faith that you are building a new and better habit. It should only take a few weeks before a six-year-old starts to realize, “oh, you are only going to say things once. You actually expect me to listen.” With a two-year-old, it can take until they are three, but it is a far better habit to be in as a parent, to say things once and expect listening than to start down the path of repeating to be ignored.

We had a mom in class who said, “I get this, but it’s crazy. I must say 16 times every morning, ‘put on your shoes.’ No one is listening to me, but I”m making four lunches, and I’ve got four boys running amok, and you want me to stop making lunch.” Yes, I either want her to stop making lunches and help them listen, OR, better yet, save her breath and wait until she is done making lunches, and then gather everyone to ask them to put on shoes. Wait until you are in a position to move into action and expect listening. In her current habit she is directly teaching them to tune her out 16 times, making the rest of her day that much harder. Clearly there is a need to change the habit.

Struggles with Three-Year-Old

Dear Dr. Rene,
Our three-and-a-half-year-old daughter is very strong willed – a trait I share – which leads to a variety of difficulties. We are having particular issues over clothing and bathtime. She wants the same outfit everyday and refuses to take baths. I have tried offering choices and compromises, but every option is met with a complete meltdown. We are at a loss about what to do as she is otherwise a sweet little girl.
Thank you,
Ginny, Mother of One

Dear Ginny,
These are common stages for show-downs with young children. Getting dressed in the morning, getting ready for bath or getting ready for bed are often cited by parents as tough times of the day. Thankfully, there are several techniques to approach and help soften the struggle.

On the rare day that getting dressed or getting in the bath goes smoothly, gush a little. Notice her good behaviors, describe back to her what she did. Be sure this is behavior specific, something like, “wow, you got dressed all by yourself. That was helpful.”

Setting clear boundaries means letting them know up front what your expectation are and ways to be successful before the behavior happens again. If these are daily battles, there is no reason to wait for it to blow up. Be proactive, get in front of the behaviors. Talk her through before she starts to get dressed tomorrow.

If that doesn’t work and you find yourself in a struggle, it is good to think choices and contribution. Direct choices about where to get dressed or which piece of clothing to start with can be helpful. Contribution is giving her jobs through the struggle. This would be making her the sweater selector or the sock matcher for the family. It’s best to be a job related to the task.

If all that fails, you might fall back on consequences. Consequences are best if they match your child’s behavior. This means keeping the behavior in mind while developing your response. Matching in content is the hardest, but in this case it might be her having to get dressed alone or you picking the outfit.

There is a good book titled Kids, Parents and Power Struggles that breaks down the dynamics and walks through these steps in a more detailed way. Hang in there, strong willed may be a trait that serves her well in the long run.
Sincerely,
Dr. Rene
blog@parentingplaygroups.com

%d bloggers like this: