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The secret to stopping power struggles

“Time for bed,” my husband says. He’s not talking to our 3-year-old. He’s talking to me, because I’ve been going to bed waaaay too late, and I’ve asked him to help me out. Even so, whenever he tells me what to do, I balk. “OK,” I say noncommittally, and I stay up even later.

Think about the last time someone pressured you to do something. What was your gut reaction?

How about the last time you told your 3-year-old what to do? Did she do the opposite of what you wanted?

Mine did.

We’ve been struggling with power struggles in my house lately (nap time is particularly tough), and I’ve been losing. So, when one of you wonderful readers asked me for a post on the topic, I was more than happy to oblige. (And get a few reminders for myself, since I don’t always do things the way I intend.)

The secret I’m about to share isn’t spelled out quite this way in my book, Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science. So I’m glad to add to our understanding of power struggles here.

First, the letter:

I’d love to see a post on how to deal with power struggles with 3-year-olds. Because my daughter is so strong-willed, she tries to assert herself often, in ridiculous ways.

For instance, she tries to tell me which route to take to school and then unbuckles her car seat in protest if I don’t adhere to her demands. All of a sudden she refuses to wear any other shoes to school but her winter boots, despite the 80-degree days here in South Florida — don’t be jealous.  [I am jealous.] She tells me to stop talking, for no reason other than because she doesn’t want me to talk to her. She will run away defiantly at the park and get farther and farther away, all while glancing back at me, until she is standing in the middle of the street when she knows it’s dangerous, just to make me run after her.

It’s driving me crazy!! It makes no sense and it’s hard to figure out how to discipline behavior like that because I don’t spank and I don’t overreact, but some of her behavior is dangerous! Any advice on this topic would be greatly appreciated!

– B.C.

Raise your hand if you can relate.

The surprising thing we need to know is that the brain is wired to resist being coerced. Our children are acting on instinct. They’re not doing this stuff on purpose to push our buttons. Being controlled or coerced instinctively triggers defiance. (Unless we’re feeling very connected, in that moment, to the person doing the controlling.)

Why? This defensive reaction protects us from going along with someone who doesn’t have our best interests at heart. It’s actually a good thing.

We parents often call this behavior “strong-willed,” stemming from the belief that our child is defying us on purpose and fighting hard to take the upper hand. Developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld says we need a new word: “counterwill.” Counterwill more accurately describes the brain’s instinctive defense to being controlled by another’s will.

So telling our kids what to do triggers counterwill. But we need our kids to do things, like take their naps and keep their car seats buckled and put on their shoes and not run into the street. What now?

Two secrets:

1. Give choices.

“I know you like to navigate. You may choose one street this morning. Would you like to take 3rd Avenue or 4th Avenue?”

“What else do you need to be able to go outside? Yes, shoes. It’s pretty warm out, so those boots might make your feet sweat. But it’s your decision.” (Maybe it’s a little embarrassing to you if your kid shows up at school in winter boots on a hot spring day, but shrugging off minor things will make discipline easier on yourself.)

“Would you like to buckle your car seat by yourself? Or shall I help you?”

“Yes, you may camp out on the floor instead of sleeping in your bed.”

Having a say is the opposite of feeling controlled. Keep it to two options, though, to avoid overload. And, of course, allow a choice only in situations where the answer doesn’t matter to you. This isn’t about letting a child take over all decisions. I like the way Susan Stiffelman, author of “Parenting Without Power Struggles,” describes our role as parents: Be the captain of the ship–not controlling, but in control.

2. Connect before you direct.

That’s Neufeld’s line. I mentioned that counterwill is triggered unless our child is feeling a connection with us. Neufeld says: “[Having a good] relationship is not enough. The attachment instinct needs to be engaged in the moment.” The way to engage your child’s attachment instinct, which trumps his counterwill instinct, is to create a connection. Neufeld’s strategy:

Collect eye contact, collect a smile, collect three nods. “The most powerful force in the universe is now on your side,” Neufeld says. Then make your request.

Today, at nap time, I tried this. My preschooler was coming out of her room for the fourth or fifth time (we don’t have a lock on the door at this age) and I felt my blood begin to boil. Deep breath.

I knelt down to make eye contact. She was talking about an upcoming trip.

“A well-rested girl will do better on the plane to Arizona,” I said with a smile. She paused.

“Are you looking forward to Arizona?” Smile. “Yes!”

“Do you want to be well-rested on the plane to Arizona?” “Yes!”

“What do you need to do to be well-rested?” “Sleep!”

“Mm. Do you want to sleep?” “Yes!”

I gently picked her up and carried her back to bed, singing a song about a girl named Geneva who wanted to rest. And, miraculously, she did.

What are other ideas for creating a little connection in the moment?

Acknowledge emotions. “You’re telling me to stop talking. You don’t want me to tell you no, huh? I understand, you really want to do X.” If tantrum ensues: “Yes, you really want to do X. You’re feeling frustrated. I see you’re feeling so upset. Would you like a hug?”

Create a game for the two of you. “Today I have a special treat for us. I’ve printed out a map of our neighborhood, and together let’s pick a route to school. This will be your very own route. Would you like that? We can take your route to school every Tuesday.” Or, when getting dressed is a chase: “OK, you run down the hallway toward me for a hug! Then we put on one piece of clothing. Run, then shirt. Run, then pants.”

Give big greetings. “I’m happy to see you!” (Not “How was preschool? Did you keep your pants dry today?”)

Share something you like about your child. “I love watching you play at the park. You ask other little friends if they want to play with you. It’s really nice. OK, we’re here. Where’s the safe area to run? Yes, the grass. Where’s the danger zone? The street, you got it. So we stay on the grass.”

Be present. Stash your phone. Keep the TV off. Listen and ask questions. Suggest that thing your child loves to do together–reading a story or building with blocks–before he has to beg you. When my husband takes even 15 minutes for this as soon as he gets home from work, the evening goes so much more smoothly. When he immediately launches into whatever happened that day, our daughter tugs on him, tries to talk over him, repeats “Excuse me!” and says, “Daddy, you’re talking too much.”

That’s one illustration of Neufeld’s view that misbehavior is a signal: Address the relationship now. Deal with the incident later. (Now: Give full attention. Later: “Sweetie, it’s rude to interrupt when I’m talking.”) If we give choices and connect before we direct, we won’t often need to use consequences or resort to tricks.

To dive deeper on power struggles, see Susan Stiffelman’s book or online courses. Neufeld also offers video lectures, but I find Stiffelman’s site a little friendlier. OK, enough for now: I’m up waaaay too late already.

Have a question or a story about power struggles? E-mail me–I read every one.

Tracy Cutchlow's picture
Zero to Five

Tracy Cutchlow is the author of Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science. Parents magazine called it "the coolest--and easiest--book for new parents." Tracy was the editor of two bestselling books: Brain Rules and Brain Rules for Baby. Sign up for her weekly parenting tips at