Steering away from power struggles

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  October 31, 2011 06:00 AM

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Barbara - can you point me to some resources - books, websites etc. to help me more productively deal with my 3.5 year old daughter? We seem to get into power struggles with her on an almost daily basis that are not productive, in fact quite frustrating and we're now at a point where yelling is far too common - raising our voices started out as a way to get her attention, but it no longer has that effect, and it makes me very sad to see that it upsets her 14 month old brother. I know there is a better way, I just need to figure out what it is.

Admittedly we may have been too lax with her a year or so ago when her brother first arrived, but we've been working hard at giving her limits and following through. She is a kind, bright, loving child but these power struggles are taking a toll on all of us. We've tried limiting her choices (giving her some control within reason), spending plenty of quality time with her, one on one, and will continue with those things but the daily drama over which pair of underwear to wear and the fact that she has to wear a skirt or something over her tights have got to end... Please point me in the right direction!


From: In Need of Guidance, Westford, MA

Dear INOG,

There are so many different ways to avoid power struggles with a preschooler, and I'm happy to report that I put them all together in one column. Here's a sampling:

Offer choices. I can tell you've done some homework, because you said you're already doing this. At the risk of repeating what you already know, there are reasons why the choice option doesn't always work for parents so here are so I just want to make sure you're familiar with these five guidelines: (1) Offer the choices as soon as you see you are headed for a struggle, but before the struggle escalates; (2) Offer only choices you can live with; (3) Offer two options, no more: "Do you want to wear the green shirt or the red one?" (4) Stay on track. If she sticks a third choice into the mix, respond simply: "That isn't one of the choices." Then repeat what the choices are. (5) Make eye contact. Kneel down at her level. It's much harder for her to ignore you.

Pick your battles. Does it really matter if she wears a skirt over her tights? For appearance? At 3 1/2? That wouldn't be a battle I'd want to pick. If you're worried the tights aren't warm enough, get leggings. She'll find them just as comfy.

Enlist her in problem-solving. Like giving her choices, this strategy works because it empowers a child. Be sure to state the problem first: "You and your brother both want to play with the same truck. I wonder how we can solve this problem?" Pause. "What ideas do you have?"

I'm always happy to recommend books! Try:

"The Preschool Years,"
by Ellen Galinsky and Judy David. This is a golden oldie but I still think it's the most accessible and developmentally helpful book for this stage.

While I'm on the subject of golden oldies, learning to be a reflective listener is perhaps the greatest strategy of all, and no one explains this better than Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish in their classic parenting book, "How to talk so kids will listen & listen so kids will talk." I once called it the Parenting Bible and it stuck. Look for the 2004 printing.

"No! Why kids of all ages need to hear it and ways parents can say it," by David Walsh. I love this book for many reasons -- for one thing, Walsh is really good at naming the problem, for instance, how hard it is to say "no" in a "yes" culture. (And don't assume that because of economic hard times, parents are better able to say no.) But speaking of which: there's a chapter on preschool age, so maybe just borrow this from the library instead of buying it.

"Taking Back Childhood, Helping your kids thrive in a fast-paced, media-saturated, violence-filled world," by Nancy Carlsson-Paige. This is not a how-to book, but you'll fine it helpful because one of the book's core values is sharing power with kids in a constructive way.

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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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