Has this ever happened to you?
It’s time to get ready for bed. You tell your child this. She says she doesn’t want to go to bed. You say, “It’s time. You have to get up for school tomorrow.” “I don’t want to go to school,” she says. “You have to go,” you say. “I hate school. And I’m not finished with [whatever],” she says. “You can finish that tomorrow,” you say. “You have to go to bed now.” “Just 15 more minutes,” she responds. Now, you respond. Next, she responds. Then you respond… At the end of the day, bedtime took an hour and a half and there was yelling when it could have taken 20 minutes with no yelling.
It’s normal for kids to resist parents’ directives. But is resisting kids’ resistance effective? Not really. And teaching parents to “take the fight out of it” – to stop responding to their child’s resistance with a counter-argument, a lecture, an explanation, a promise, a threat… This is a key piece of my work with families.
On the one hand, this makes sense, right? When you tell your child to get ready for bed or turn off the screen, you shouldn’t have to argue about it. Ideally, kids should listen when their parents tell them something. And all the while you’re arguing, or explaining, or cajoling… your child is still not listening.
So we want to take the fight out because, especially with really strong-willed kids, engaging with their resistance is not actually an efficient way to get them to listen. But I also ask parents to do this because, as a parenting tool, taking the fight out is an excellent fit with the strong-willed child’s temperament.
For a discipline approach to work long-term, it’s important to use strategies that fit with your child’s temperament and personality. This is especially true for kids who resist discipline and boundaries! And nonresistance is crucial when it comes to strong-willed kids, precisely because strong-willed kids have a high need for control – and when you choose not to fight your child you’re not only choosing to not add fuel to the fire; you’re also reducing your child’s stress as well.
Because deep down, your child would rather not fight with you. Strong-willed kids are tenacious, they’re powerful, and they display a perfect willingness to fight for what they want, so it can be easy to assume that they enjoy the conflict. In fact, though, the battle is rooted in their desire for control, not a desire to fight, and they’re actually happier and they feel more secure when you’re not resisting them.
Now, I’m not saying that kids should just do whatever they want. Your taking the fight out of it does not mean no limits and no rules. As a parent you do have rules and you do give directives. It’s just that when your child pushes back, you’re not engaging with that push-back.
Here are three simple steps to eliminating the battle that arises when your child is initiating a power struggle:
- Have an accountability system in place.
If the IRS were to tell you that taxes are due, and you said No, I don’t want to pay, and they just kept telling you to pay and that’s ALL they did – this is not the same as holding you accountable to pay, right? Stating a rule, explaining why the rule must be followed, answering objections to the rule, cajoling, making threats… these by themselves do not constitute an accountability system. And if you don’t have a way to hold a strong-willed child accountable when they don’t listen, then simply disengaging when they argue does mean they’ll do whatever they want. Why wouldn’t they?
A lot of parents have trouble with accountability because their discipline system is based on common misconceptions, for example, that withholding meaningful things like the ski trip is an effective consequence when a kid just refuses to listen.
This blog is not about discipline, so I won’t describe my approach here. But if your system isn’t working and/or it cannot be used consistently – meaning every time it’s needed – then give me a call. An effective and easy-to-use system is possible, and the first step toward disengaging from the power struggles is to have an effective accountability system that’s easy to use consistently.
- Next, set a time just to pay attention.
Pick one or two conflict-prone times (say, bedtime or the transition to school) and just notice: What do you do when you tell your child something and he resists it? What did he say? What did you say to that? What happened next? What happened after that?
What I see in my practice is that most grownups have very little awareness of just how often they engage in power struggles with their kids. So set aside some time for noticing so you can become more aware of your part in the fight. You really need to have this awareness in order to choose something different instead.
- Decide ahead of time what you will do while you’re not engaging.
If you’re not going to engage with your child’s argument, what will you do instead? It’s almost impossible to just not respond. You need to occupy your mind with some alternative or you’ll get pulled in. For example, you can (silently, to yourself) count by 4’s, or think of words that start with Z. Or you can do some housework, or sing a song to yourself. This technique sounds simplistic, but it’s important. You do need to give your mind something to focus on besides the argument if you’re going to successfully disengage from it.
Here’s an example of what this might look like:
Everyone has just eaten dinner. You ask your child to rinse his dishes and put them in the dishwasher. He says, “OK, I will,” and, leaving the dishes on the table, he heads to the TV. Rather than comment on or take exception to his choice to watch TV instead of doing what you asked, you say, “Thank you. You may watch TV after you put the dishes in the dishwasher.” “I’ll do it in 15 minutes,” he says. You don’t say anything. He turns on the TV. You turn it off and repeat, calmly and in a neutral tone: “You may watch TV after you put the dishes in the dishwasher.” “All I want is a stupid 15 minutes,” he yells. You don’t say anything. He continues to yell, saying mean things that are difficult to hear. You go back to the kitchen to do your part of the post-dinner cleanup.
Of course these interactions will look different depending on the situation and depending on your child. For example, if you’re not in a situation where you can easily delay the fun thing until they’ve done what you’ve asked, you’ll want to apply your accountability system.
And yes, at first your child’s behavior may escalate. This is normal. If the escalation is non-violent, for example, a tantrum or a verbal rant, you should follow the advice I describe here – hold your child accountable without engaging with the rant.
If the escalation is violent, you should physically disengage from your child until he’s able to be with you without hurting you. It’s beyond the scope of this blog to detail an effective response to physical aggression. But maintaining your parental authority without engaging with the push-back is important and effective, and it’s MUCH better to accept escalation as natural and then hold your ground, even though this can be unpleasant at first. Your child’s response will change as you continue to hold strong.
Taking the fight out of it is key when you’re working with a strong-willed child who has a high need for control. When your child gives push-back and you respond without engaging, you have much less fighting, less stress, and you also strengthen your position as the leader in your home!