How to tame power struggles

Power Struggles with Toddlers: How You Can Both Win the Battle

Last Updated on May 29, 2021.

Are you sick and tired of power struggles all day long? Here are 5 strategies to end power struggles with toddlers without yelling, whining, or crying.

A child’s primary goal in life is to feel a sense of belonging and significance. They achieve this goal by seeking power and attention. And they will achieve both, whether you participate or not. 

There comes a point in every parent’s journey where they realize that they cannot make their kids do anything. You can’t make them eat. You can’t make them use the bathroom. It’s not possible to force them to sleep. These are the power struggles that plague parents everywhere. But you can’t just let your kid stay up all night or eat cookies and ice cream for every meal.

How to Tackle Power Struggles with Toddlers Head On

These power struggles with toddlers are a natural part of the parent/child relationship, but no one wins when we engage in these standoffs. Tensions escalate and relationships can be damaged in the process. Instead of raising your voice, try these fail-proof steps to tame the power struggles in your house.

Connect

Equally important to a child’s need for power is a child’s need for attention, or connection. If you don’t actively meet your child’s need for connection in positive ways, your child will act out and get your attention, often through bad behavior. The negative attention you give them when you’re angry and frustrated is good enough to meet their needs.

So the first step is to connect. You can do this by getting down on their level and having an eye to eye conversation. Empathize with them. Let them know you understand their feelings. Make them feel validated. 

It might sound like this:

“Julien, I know you want cookies right now. Cookies are delicious! I love cookies too and I wish we could eat them for every meal!. But you need a balanced diet with lots of healthy food to help your body and brain grow. It’s my job to make sure you eat food that keeps you healthy”

Sometimes kids just need to be heard. If you validate their feelings, and possibly commiserate with them on the issues, you might end the battle in its tracks.

Set Boundaries

After you connect with your kid, he’s much more likely to hear you. This is where you should set boundaries. Tell your kid what’s non-negotiable. You get to set the rules for engagement, but make sure there’s some area for flexibility. 

It could go something like this:

“I cannot let you have cookies right now. We will eat dinner in 15 minutes, and we do not want to fill up on sweets before we eat our healthy food.”

Give Power

And now comes the really powerful part. Give your child power to control what happens. Offer choices that fit within your boundaries, or ask your child if he has any ideas on how you can compromise. Giving up some power is the only way to end the power struggles with toddlers.

You could phrase it like this:

“We can have a treat after dinner though! Would you like to have two cookies after we eat our healthy food? Or would you rather get a scoop of ice cream?”

Or you could say:

“You may have one cookie with dinner, or you can save your cookie for a snack before bed. Which would you like to do?”

If your child pushes back, and demands their cookies right now, stand your ground. Give them a firm response, like:

“I know you would like cookies now. I’ve explained why I cannot let that happen before dinner, but I am happy to talk about other options if we can talk calmly.”

And if your child is still insistent, do not engage further. This might be a good place to use the “Asked & Answered” strategy (see below), or just simply go on with your day.

Reflect

Once you and your child come to an agreement, it’s a good idea to just review what happened. Point out that your child did an excellent job compromising and you’re glad that they were able to make the best choice for them. Emphasizing that they made a choice will help them feel powerful.

Try it like this:

“I’m glad we talked about the cookies! And I’m excited to share cookies with you after dinner. You made a great choice!”

How to tame power struggles with toddlers.
How to tame power struggles with toddlers.

Other Tools to Tackle Power Struggles

Here are a few more tools you can use to end the power struggles.

Consequences

If you find yourself constantly fighting the same battles, it’s time to let consequences take over. Do you fight every day over picking up toys at the end of the day? Do you constantly fight over wearing a coat to school? A consequence is an outcome that is determined ahead of time and is the result of your child’s behavior. THere are two kinds of consequences: natural and logical.

Natural Consequences

Consequences that occur without any action on your part are natural consequences. For example, if you’ve reminded your child over and over again to grab their coat as they walk out the door, but they fight you because they “hate wearing a coat,” you can let the natural consequences teach your child a valuable lesson. Let your child know that you’ll no longer participate in the fights about wearing a coat, and that it’s up to them to remember the coat, or they will suffer through the day.

And then, you just let them forget their coat and be cold at recess. Next time they will bring the coat. [Note that you should only do this if it’s not dangerously cold. Safety is the top priority]

Logical Consequences

Consequences that are related to the misbehavior, but require action on your part are considered logical consequences. For example, if your children refuse to pick up their toys at the end of the day, you might implement a consequence that you’ll bag any toys left out, and place them in the garage for a week.

After one or two weeks of no toys, your children are likely to start cleaning up after themselves.

Consequences are extremely effective, especially if you follow our complete guide to consequences. There’s a free workbook to create custom consequences included! Check out our guide to consequences here!

When / Then

One of my favorite parenting tools is to use a “when… then…”. This is where you arrange your normal daily activities so that the unpleasant ones happen before the fun ones. Note that this is not a situation where you offer a reward.

For example, a common “when/then” in our house is “When you pick up your toys in the living room, then we can get our painting supplies out.”

There are so many ways you can use this tool, but it’s important to remember that you must follow through. You don’t want to say “When you finish your homework, then we can go to soccer practice” unless you are truly willing to let your child miss soccer practice if their homework isn’t finished.

Another important factor is to make sure you use the word when and not the word if. The word implies that it’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of timing. On the other hand, if you use the word if, you’re implying that it may be done or it may not be done. It may seem like a subtle difference, but it changes the intent of the statement. 

Asked & Answered

Have you ever answered the same question half a dozen times, or more, within the same day. Your kids are trying to pressure you into changing your answer. They’re trying to get their way. It’s one of my least favorite power struggles. But it offers an opportunity to use one of my favorite tools is the “Asked and Answered” strategy.

Instead of repeating your answer, say “You already asked that question, and I already answered it.” (or “Asked and answered!” for short).

Using this phrase lets your kids know that you’re aware of their tactics, and your answer isn’t changing. You’re refusing to engage in the conversation. For power struggles to occur, there must be two participants. And this is a quick and easy way for you to simply bow out of the struggle.

Conclusion

Did you skip ahead? No problem! Here’s the quick version. To end power struggles with toddlers in the moment, use a 4 step strategy for a win-win result.

  • STEP 1: Connect
  • STEP 2: Set Boundaries
  • STEP 3: Give Power
  • STEP 4: Reflect

Use other tools to avoid power struggles:

  • Natural Consequences
  • Logical Consequences
  • When/Then
  • Asked & Answered

What You Should Do Next…

1. Snag Our Connected Parent Challenge

Are you ready for more activities to build a rock-solid bond with your kids? Try our Connected Parent Challenge! It’s 15 Days of 15 Minute activities that are sure to improve your connection, diminish bad behavior, and create lasting memories. Plus, I’ll deliver more amazing parenting strategies to your inbox weekly (don’t worry, unsubscribe any time!).

2. Join Our Free Online Community

Connect with like-minded moms (and dads!) in our free online community. You’ll find a plethora of resources to help you through your parenting challenges. Plus, you’ll find me there! And I’d love to connect.

3. Take a Free 60-Minute Parenting Webinar

Do you need actionable strategies right now? Register for this free 60-minute webinar titled How to Get Kids to Listen, Without Nagging, Yelling or Losing Control. You’ll walk away with parent-tested tactics to get your kids to listen starting today.

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