Do you feel like you’re always battling your child? You tell them to do something and you immediately get a “no” followed by whining and complaining or outright defiance? A simple request that turns into a war is enough to send us over the edge sometimes.
In this article we’re going to talk about how to avoid power struggles by using a secret weapon -- Choices!
Battle for Control
When our kids are putting up a big fuss, whether it’s about going to bed or getting off electronics, they push our buttons so quickly that our brains go into resistance mode and we allow ourselves to be pulled into a power struggle. We want the best for our kids and we know how to get it to them efficiently and effectively so they should just do what we say. Some of us are extra frustrated because when we were kids, we didn’t give our own parents such grief and that thought makes US even more frustrated with this whole situation.
We’ve talked a lot about helicopter parents in my previous podcasts but now I want to talk about another type: Drill Sergeants. Parents who always want to tell their kids what and how to do things are called “Drill Sergeants”. Kids of drill sergeants grow up feeling they’re not listened to and their opinions don’t count. They are ignored.
Well, for parents who want to raise kids who are followers that might work well. But who is really trying to do that? Anyone? No way, our society tells us we’re supposed to be raising leaders, right? Now I do want to mention that most of us fluctuate between being a helicopter parent and a drill sergeant depending on the circumstance, our kids’ mood and our mood. It’s nothing to be ashamed of but it is something to be aware of. It’s when we switch into our drill sergeant mode that our kids start joining the army to battle anything coming their way. Yikes!
What’s a parent to do? Shut down our natural drill sergeant tendencies and bring choices into play. We should give away control as much as possible especially about things we don’t really care about and as many times a day as we possibly can. Allowing our kids lots of choices gives them the power over their lives that they are seeking. It not only will build confidence about their ability to make decisions but also reassure them that they can control some things in life. It’s soothing to not only their hearts and minds but also to your mind and spirit. Who wants to go through life feeling like we have to battle our kids at every turn?
One thing to note is that you need to give choices when things are going well, before any power struggle erupts. How do you do that?
Offer Playful Choices When Young
When kids are little, I find that parents can have a lot of fun offering playful choices that help to serve as distractions that wind up easily preventing battles.
Here’s a classic drill sergeant parenting move: It’s time to go to bed. Please go change and get ready.
Often, you get the classic answer: No! I don’t want to go to bed!
In this case, emotion is already engaged so you’ve got a battle on your hands. So, what can you do instead BEFORE any resistance happens?
“It’s time to go to bed…” and then offer some of these options:
- Would you like to walk backwards to your bedroom or hop on one foot?
Would you like to race daddy or mommy back to the bedroom?
- Would you like to take a bath first or brush your teeth first?
- Would you like to brush your top teeth first or your bottom teeth?
- Would you like to wear your pajamas tonight to bed or put on your clothes for tomorrow so you don’t have to do in the morning?
- Would you like to go to bed in 5 minutes or 15 minutes? (knowing full well that 15 is your goal)
- Would you like to read one book or two? (knowing you are prepared to read two!)
Notice how I’m giving just two choices, not a huge menu. You want to focus the options to be things that you’re ok with. Just like the time for going to bed I offered two times that I liked – 5 minutes or 15 minutes. If an hour isn’t an option, then I don’t offer it. You also don’t want to put yourself in a situation where you’re waiting for a response.
Decide for Them If They Can’t Decide
Choices, when offered, should be decided within 5-10 seconds. If it takes longer, you’re being held for ransom, so you need to go ahead and decide for your child. It’ll sound something like:
“Oh, this is so sad. It looks like you’re having trouble deciding. I’m going to give you a bath before books. I’m sure tomorrow night you’ll be able to choose on our own.”
Now some kids might have a tantrum at the prospect of you choosing for them but you need to brace yourself for that and give them empathy and love but their time to choose has passed. This might seem crazy at first but after a few rounds of this your child will know that if they really want some control over things in their lives, they’ll have to do it on a timely basis.
You just keep churning out the choices when things are calm. One thing is certain, if a kid’s brain is triggered into an emotional battle, choices won’t work. Their brain is “off” so don’t start trying to load in choices right then. Sometimes we try to fix things by using choices like a kid having a tantrum over what you’re serving for dinner: “Oh, you don’t like the chicken nuggets for dinner? How about mac n cheese or spaghetti?” When your kids are upset, let them be upset. Give them love and empathy and maybe a few hugs until their emotions have settled down and then, and only then, would you try to solve the problem and might offer some choices to do that. “Wow, I can tell you were upset earlier about having chicken nuggets. That’s so sad. Tomorrow would you like spaghetti or mac n cheese?” This is all assuming you don’t mind having spaghetti or mac n cheese for dinner.
Teens and Choices
Those of you who have older kids might say to yourselves that those fun-filled choices of hopping and skipping to bed or the car for are beyond you and you might just be right. However, your battles can be bigger, can’t they? Those tweens and teens really want control over their lives. When kids don’t have control, they can set the whole house into a tailspin of tension and mistrust that can make every day miserable. To counter that tendency, as kids grow, we need to transition them to making more and more decisions so they are prepared for the real world. You aren’t protecting them from anything by being over protective and restraining them.
You need to up your game by allowing them more choices that are more advanced. Here are some examples,
- Instead of, “go brush your teeth” you give them a choice of brushing their teeth twice a day or paying for extra cleanings.
- Instead of dealing with a stinky teen who won’t bathe, let them know they are welcome to shower either before dinner or in the morning, dinner or breakfast will be served accordingly.
- Instead of doing their laundry for them and demanding they bring you their dirty clothes, let them know they can do their laundry on Saturday when you’re not using the machine or after 5pm during on Mondays. In that example, notice you’re not only giving choices but you’re helping them with a life lesson in laundry.
- Instead of hearing them complain about what you’re cooking for dinner, ask them which day they’d like to make dinner, Monday night or Sunday.
- Would they like take out the trash before dinner or after dinner?
- Would they like to use their laptop in the kitchen or the dining room? (notice their bedroom isn’t an option)
- Would they like help with your to help with math or would they like to have a study group?
- Would they like to join a soccer team or a baseball team?
I do want to let you know that you don’t need to make a choice about everything. Brushing teeth in most families isn’t a matter of a choice but allowing them to pick electric or hand brushing or which toothpaste or what timer to use to know they’ve brushed long enough can all be options offered as choices. You get to choose the topics that can have choices.
In a previous podcast, I talked about a mom who was having trouble getting her kids to wear their helmets when bike riding. It’s a safety issue that’s non-negotiable. The only choice I would offer would be do you want to ride with a helmet or not ride a bike? That’s more like a threat. I’ll talk in my next podcast about how to use well defined boundaries in situations like that instead of choices so stay tuned for that.
Resistance to Choices – How to Handle It
Now there are lots of you regular listeners who tell me that choices are amazing, but they don’t always work. Maybe they work with one child but your other child just likes “no” a little too much. Here are some tips:
- If they won’t choose quickly enough or want to make their own options, hold fast and let them know they can choose next time, but you go ahead and choose for them this time.
- If you’re consistent then they know you’ll be true to your word. Give them empathy if they start giving a major fuss that they don’t like the options given. Feel free to go brain dead and say “I knooooooow” as a response. It’s ok for our kids not to like all our choices so we need to make sure we keep our emotions in check in the event our kids don’t like our choices. Saying something like: “This is so sad. That’s not one of the choices right now. I’m happy to let you choose something else at a different time.” Then you go ahead and pick one of the choices. Don’t let getting grief from your child throw you off.
- If your child really won’t choose and a major battle still ensues, I’d recommend you go listen to Podcast 10 on Consequences and Punishments. You’ll get a lot of ideas on how to react in a calm and loving manner.
- Feel free to email me as well or connect with me on Facebook. I love brainstorming with parents their challenging situations!
Using choices and giving kids lots of practice with making decisions is super healthy. As kids learn to trust that you value their opinion and hear what they have to say, their self-worth and self-esteem can grow and blossom. You will see your child empowered and wanting to cooperate instead of going to battle with you. In the end, you’ll be looking for more ways to give your child choices.
Bottomline: use choices, use them often, use them with just a few options that you like.