Parenting , , , , , , ,

Power Struggles with a 4-year-old

I love that my son is almost four. He is so fun and sweet and is a joy to be around.
Except when he refuses to listen to me. Then I am at my wits end because he won’t follow the rules. I had to ask, bribe, threaten, and yell this morning just to get him to brush his damn teeth. I don’t like how that feels, and I know he doesn’t like it either.
I asked him what went wrong this morning and he said “I just don’t like being told what to do.” I’ve been trying to remember to ask him politely, and I think its been helping, but neither one of us have enjoyed parts of today because I don’t seem to have enough patience for his willful disobedience/budding independence.
Suggestions, thoughts, comments, all appreciated. I come from a family of yellers and have been working really hard on not yelling but I am not doing well.

Here’s the thing about power struggles: once they’ve started, you’ve lost. The only cure is prevention. You can’t prevent all of them, but you can reduce the likelihood that they will happen.

The problem with power struggles is a long term one. You can win now, you can force your will because you’re bigger. As your child grows, you have to up the ante. Also, it’s unlikely that by winning you’re actually accomplishing what you’d hoped when you started. When you start off wanting your child to brush his teeth, your goals are probably something along the lines of wanting your child to value personal hygiene. If it’s a power struggle, the focus moves quickly from personal hygiene to personal power.

Keys to prevention

  1. Choose your battles. Consider what you are trying to teach in the moment. Know before you speak whether or not you are willing to push all the way though, no matter how awful it gets. If this is a hill you’re willing to die on, then proceed.
  2. Communicate clearly. Sometimes if we’re afraid of a meltdown, we avoid saying things and wind up sounding confused Do not end the sentence with “okay?” or start it with “are you ready to ___?” “It’s time to brush your teeth.”.
  3. Offer as many positive choices as you can. (Note: “Do you want to brush your teeth or do you want to sit in time out is not a positive choice, it is a threat.) “Do you want to put the toothpaste on yourself?” “Do you want to put pjs on first and then brush, or brush first and then pjs?”
  4. Empathize. Do not use the word “but” anywhere in your empathy. Stop your sentence after the empathy. “You don’t want to leave. You’re having so much fun and it’s hard to stop.”
  5. Wait. Some kids just need the option to decide on their own to do the task. If your child heard you, then behave as though you are certain he is on the way to completing the task. You’d be surprised how many kids go ahead and brush when they are given the space and time to get there on their own.

This list isn’t magic. There will still be struggles. It is helpful to do some long-term thinking ahead of time. Knowing your own limits can help reduce the number of power struggles. Letting your child have a voice in daily decisions isn’t coddling or “giving in.

There’s a difference between being flexible and being wishy-washy. If you start off certain, “It’s time for bed,” but after your child gets upset you change the bedtime rules, that’s confusing and can result in more resistance as your child tries to figure out where the limits are. On the other hand, if you are flexible about bedtime, you can approach it with more choices, and give your child more agency. If bedtime is non-negotiable, perhaps morning routine can be within the child’s purview. It depends on what works in your family.

Living with a four-year-old requires an insane amount of patience and humor. At no point in my answer do I want to imply that I managed to pull it off all the time. You’ve got a great start in that your child has identified what bothers him. Now you can involve him in making the decisions ahead of time, and then he’s telling himself what to do.

One final tip for dealing with kids who don’t like to be told what to do (and that’s most of them). Collaborate on making a chart of daily routines– ask your child what order, and what’s important, and add your own things too, and put it on the wall. That way you aren’t saying what to do– the chart is. “Hey, buddy, what’s the chart say we should be doing now?” works better than “You should be brushing your teeth.”