Choices: The Solution to Power Struggles With Your Child

Child choosing strawberries

All parents have experienced power struggles with their children. This frustrating tug-of-war may have you perplexed on why a compromise cannot be reached. However, these situations are all a natural part of growing up for our kids and give parents an opportunity to help their child grow.  These are the moments where children can learn to recognize their needs, negotiate on their behalf, and build autonomy.  Don’t think of it as a lost battle with a child, but with the framework that you are helping your child navigate the world.

So, let’s start with why it is important to let go of the “power.” As parents, we know that children can’t always make the best decisions and they need adult guidance to make safe choices. And yet, to help build successful adults we need to allow children to negotiate needs and build their own autonomy.

How do we navigate the fine line between providing opportunities to grow and keeping our children safe? The answer is offering choices.

Offering choices allows a way to give “appropriate control” to your child while making sure there are no right or wrong choices.

For example, if your goal is for your child to have a healthy snack, you could offer apples or oranges. This provides the child a choice and both offer the desired outcome of a healthy snack. The key is to only offer choices that you find acceptable. Do not offer a choice and then rescind the offer after they have chosen. This is not only confusing and can lead to a power struggle, but it can impact your child’s ability to trust and negotiate needs.

Some children may already jump to negotiating and ask for an unhealthy snack. This is where you can re-offer the choices. However, if your child negotiates with another healthy snack, be open to this negotiation. It may feel unnatural, but it is important to keep the end goal in mind.

In the snack example, this may mean a child asks for bananas. Instead of creating an unnecessary power struggle, remember you just want them to have a healthy snack. Do you have bananas available? Can your child safely eat bananas? If yes, teach your child how to compromise by modeling a compromise. When you say “yes” to your child and follow their idea, it communicates that you value them as an individual. This helps them find their voice and learn that they have an impact on their environment.

Compromises promote the ability to negotiate needs but also demonstrate that an adult is listening to the them. It shows that words have power and can be used to be proactive rather than reactive. By using our words, we are teaching children social skills in a safe environment with trusted people.

This skill can then be generalized to peer communication and play. So even though it may be difficult to “give control” over to a small child, when done appropriately it helps our children to thrive.

Here are some tips on offering choices:

  • Start small. Even small choices can make a big impact!
  • Only offer two or three choices you are comfortable accepting.
  • Never take away a choice after it has been offered.
  • Be open to negotiating.
  • Say “yes” to choices as many times as you can so the “no” becomes more important.
  • Don’t say “no” to an appropriate choice during negotiation.

Choices are a great way to help our children develop social skills, develop autonomy, learn to negotiate needs, and build trust.