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  • Writer's pictureKathryn Wright

Power Struggles: The Power of Choice Giving

Please watch the video above for tips and advice on dealing with power struggles in children!

So often I have parents come to me and say: “I can't get my children to listen, no matter what I asked them to do they either do the opposite it's an argument, or they just refuse.” Unfortunately, this is a struggle that a lot of parents face no matter what age their child is. Luckily for you guys, I have some tips and advice on how I can help you get through these power struggles with your children!

There is a reason behind all our children's behaviors:

Even though we may not feel like these reasons are logical, it is important to remember that their feelings are always valid. With power struggles children are often feeling powerless. They are grasping for any opportunity to feel as though they are in control.

Let us take a moment to think about how often we make decisions for our children:

Depending on their age we may choose what they wear that day, what they are going to eat, what time they go to school, what time they go to bed, and the list could go on and on. As parents and it is our job to keep our children safe and to ensure that all their needs are being met. If we allow children to make these decisions for themselves, they most likely would not choose the appropriate decision. Although we are making these choices to benefit our children, it still leaves them feeling as though they do not have any control, and this leads to power struggles in the future.

Help children to feel as if they are in control by giving them choices.

Currently, when we ask a child to complete a task, they have two choices: they can either choose to comply, or they can choose to not comply. Oftentimes in power struggles, when a child is grasping for control, parents will see that they will choose to not comply. We can combat these power struggles by offering different choices.

Choice giving can be done in three different ways:

1. The first way is with tasks you know your children often fight. Many times, parents will say that they know what a power struggle is coming, or they know when their child is going to put up a fight. Whether it is homework every evening after school, or maybe at dinnertime trying to get them to eat vegetables. In these circumstances you can think ahead to other choices that you could give your child.

You may say: “Johnny, I wonder if you choose to do your math homework first, or if you choose to do your reading first.”

Or “Johnny, I wonder if you choose peas for dinner, or if you choose carrots for dinner.” 

When you give two direct choices to your children, it makes it more difficult for them to say no. And when they are making the decision, they are in control. 

2. The second way that you can give choices is for predictable behaviors. If you know that your child often struggles when it is time to leave playdates, or you know that they often struggle when it's time to do homework, you can set up choices ahead of time. 

This may look like: “Johnny, if you choose to play nicely with your friends at the park, then you are choosing to get 30 minutes of TV time after dinner. However, if you choose to be mean to your friends at the park, then you are choosing to leave right away, and not get extra TV time after dinner.”

You are setting firm boundaries for your child but allowing them to make the decision and take the ownership of their choices. They are choosing the consequence.

3. The third way that you can give choices is in other circumstances in life that may be more negotiable. The more often you give children choices, the more often they feel in control, and the less often you enter power struggles later. You may not have a preference on if your child colors with crayons or markers, but by offering this choice you are giving them an opportunity to feel more control.

An example of this could be “Johnny, I wonder if you would choose to color with crayons, or if you choose to color with markers.”

“Johnny, I wonder if you choose for me and turn off the light, or if you choose for you to turn off the light.”

“Johnny, I wonder if you choose for me to hold the leash when we walk the dog, or if you choose for you hold the leash when we walk the dog.”

These choices may not have a large impact on day to day life, and it may not make a difference to you on who completes the task, but it is an opportunity for you to allow your child to be in control. The more often you find these opportunities, the less often you will find yourself in power struggles for other tasks that may be nonnegotiable.

When we give children choices, they are in control of the decision that they make. However, you are in control of the choices that you give, therefore you are still making sure that their needs are being met.

When giving choices is important to remember several things:

  • Give choices that you are okay with and that gives you the outcome that you are looking for.

  • The goal of choice giving is to help our children develop their decision-making skills.

  • The goal is not to teach them good choices versus bad choices. There are several opportunities in life, that they will be placed in, where they can learn good versus bad. In choice giving we want to make sure that we are okay with either of the choices that they make.

  • Children learn cause and effect, they take ownership of their decisions, and they begin to realize that there are outcomes for every choice that they make.

  • They also learned that there are new opportunities in life where they can make different choices, and change the decision that they made

  • Giving choices teaches our children, a lot more than just being told what to do.

  • Discipline means to teach, not to punish. Choice giving does just that we are teaching our children to make decisions for themselves, while also giving them a sense of control and reducing power struggles.

You will be faced with some resistance

You are new to this choice giving and therefore your children are made to making choices. When they make a choice, and they do not like the outcome of their decision, they will resist. They have never felt this way before and now they must take ownership of the decision that they made. This is okay. Over time, they will get used to taking ownership of their decisions and have a better understanding of the cause and effect and outcomes of choices.

When you are faced with resistance, it is important to remember that you do not need to lecture them. Allow their frustration, and their ownership of the decision that they made, to be the natural consequence.

Validate your children's feelings. Acknowledge their frustration and how they are feeling in that moment, and then remind them that they will have another opportunity to make a different choice.

Let me give you an example of how this may look:

“Johnny, if you choose to complete your homework without arguing, then you are choosing to get 30 minutes of TV time after dinner. However, if you choose to continue arguing and not complete your homework, then you are choosing to go straight to bed after dinner.” Let’s say Johnny continues to argue and does not complete his homework. When he is sent straight to bed, he realizes that he was in control of his decision and he chose this outcome. You will likely see resistance at this point.

Validate Johnny's feelings: “Johnny I understand you are very frustrated that you have to go straight to bed. However, you will have a new opportunity tomorrow to make a different choice.”

You may have to repeat this several times while consoling Johnny.

You may feel as though this is an easy chance for you to begin lecturing. “Well, you made the choice to keep arguing, you chose to go straight to bed. You knew that this was going to happen. Maybe you should have chosen something else.” When our children are at this heightened state of emotion, they are not hearing anything that we are saying. By choosing to lecture you are only making the child more frustrated at you and taking the focus away from them having control of the outcome.

Stay neutral in your tone and validate your child's feelings, while also reminding them that they will have a fresh start the next day.

Let us quickly review the three ways to give choices:

Choice giving option number one: do you choose this, or do you choose that. Again, this makes it more difficult for children to say no.

“Do you choose to have keys peas dinner, or do you choose to have carrots for dinner?”

Choice giving option number two: If you choose this then you are choosing that.

“If you choose to argue with your sister, then you are choosing to go sit in your room. However, if you choose to play the board game nicely, then you are choosing to continue family time.”

Choice giving option number three: finding tasks that you are neutral on and don't care either way what the child chooses, but you're finding a way to help fill their “control cup,” and their need for control.

“Johnny, I wonder if you choose for me to fill up the bathtub or if you choose for you to fill up the bathtub.”

“Johnny, I wonder if you choose to have a brownie for dessert, or if you choose to have a cookie for dessert.”

These three different ways of giving choices will help your child feel in control, be empowered, and reduce the need for power struggles later. I hope you find this information helpful. If you have any questions on how you can use choice in your family, please reach out. I hope to talk to you guys soon.

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