“No!” is one of the first words kids learn. But it’s never a pleasant moment when your child says it back to you in clear defiance, not cute mimicking like they did when they were toddlers. The response can naturally provoke you into reacting, and this can quickly result in a power struggle.
Power struggles are about control, and your child’s behavior is an attempt to exert control and power over you. The good news is that while your child’s learning to be assertive and to voice his opinions is a necessary part of his development, power struggles do not have to be.
It is not easy to resist reacting in anger when your child is being defiant and disrespectful. But as soon as you dig your heels in and take the bait, so will your child, and you are off and running.
You can validate what your child is feeling and experiencing by prefacing your conversation with, “I know this is not fun to do.” However, it is important not to engage your child’s anger and defiance by bartering, negotiating or demanding, because the more you do this, the more you are diminishing your own authority and helping to escalate things.
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It is important for children to learn how to say no and resolve conflicts appropriately and respectfully, and these situations are opportunities for them to experience and build the skills necessary for conflict resolution.
There are some things you can do to avoid power struggles without giving in to your child or leaving your child feeling powerless and angry.
• The first thing (and one of the most important) is to remain calm. Be calm, clear, consistent and nonpunitive about what is expected. Getting angry and reactive will not help resolve the problem and will likely lead you to say and do things that can escalate the fight.
• Remember your child’s behavior is developmentally appropriate. It’s his job to test limits. It’s your job as parents to create the limits for him to push against and to maintain not rigidly or angrily but consistently, with firmness, confidence and love. It is important to remember you are the adult, but reminding your child of this to reinforce your authority actually weakens it.
• Just because your child is saying no and inviting an argument doesn’t mean you have to take part in it. Simply, calmly and briefly state to your child: “We have already talked about this. I’m not going to fight with you. You know what is expected and what the consequences are.” And then walk away. Disengaging from the fight and conversation sends a clear message that you aren’t giving in but also you’re not going to engage in an unnecessary and unproductive argument.
• Let your child know you would be happy to discuss his concerns, ideas, etc., after he has done what is expected. This lets him know he can have input, but at the appropriate time, not as a way to avoid, stall or deflect.
• When possible, giving your child choices is important. This gives him a sense of power and control over the situation and can de-escalate an argument. It also helps him learn necessary decision-making skills.
If you find your child increasingly defiant and noncompliant, and yourself less and less effective in how you approach this behavior, it may be helpful to talk with a professional who specializes in helping kids and parents.
Michelle Topal, MSW, LCSW, is the owner and a therapist at Change for Living Counseling ( changeforlivingcounseling.org) and Erin Towle-Silva is a licensed psychologist there.