Many of you know that moment when you realize that your kid is squaring up and ready to go to battle with you. It can be over anything, right? It is that moment of truth when you take a breath and face the loud, little human in front of you. The stakes are high, and it can feel as real as walking into a store on Black Friday with one objective in mind–coming out on the other end unscathed.
As a family and child therapist in Washington, DC, I work with families and children on these moments and how to enhance parent-child relationships to withstand growing pains. One modality in particular resonates with me in my work, Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT), developed by Dr. Sheila Eyeberg. In my work with families and in training other clinicians in using PCIT, I have distilled vast research and countless hours of clinical work into these five strategies that can get you through many parenting moments without additional clinical support. I’m sharing them with you to help re-strategize those battlefield moments.
Make a choice
What’s your endgame? You have a few choices. Do you want to stand firm? Or would you rather be more creative in your approach? Once you make this choice, stick with it. If you’re gearing up, then jump down to #5. If not, then keep on reading. Sometimes it’s just not worth losing your sanity to battle over the last carrot on the plate. Other times, it’s important to communicate to your child that you mean business and it’s important that your child trusts your judgement. Any decision is fine as long as you stick with it. Once you waiver and negotiate, your child will only learn to outlast you.
Share the plan with your child
A good preventative factor is to start modeling effective communication. They may be tiny, but they are smart and far more aware than they let on. Prepare them for what is going to happen. Let them know that “First we will eat breakfast. Once we are done, everyone will put their dish on the counter. Then I will put the food away and you can either play with the toys in the living room or watch a video until I am done.” Make sure to let them know that you appreciate how helpful they are being. Then give your child a two minute warning, then a one minute warning. During that interaction, praise your child for transitioning from one task to the other. If they have a hard time transitioning then move on to strategy #3 or #4.
This strategy is easily my favorite. While it cannot always be implemented, the basic framework is that as a parent, your role (among other things) is to protect, prevent, and be positioned. This is how we keep kids from dangerous situations. In the above scenario, if your child is not putting their dish on the counter, first use a nonverbal gesture to remind them to do so. Point to the dish, then the counter, making sure that they see you. It’s incredible how much a child pays attention when you’re NOT talking. If they do it, then great. Smile and say “Thanks for putting your plate up there. You’re so helpful.” If they don’t, and run to play with their toys or get the screen of their choice (TV, tablet, phone, etc), then calmly, go to where they are and with a neutral affect say “Your dish belongs on the counter after you’re done eating.” If they still don’t do so, gently but firmly remove their toys, or the screen/control. Then point to their dish. If they do it, then praise. If they don’t, let them know, once they do, then they can play with their toys or watch the video. It’s important to stay calm and stick to minimal talking. If they tantrum–their most powerful weapon–ignore them and begin to talk about what you’re doing. Yes–it will feel silly! And, yes, it works! Once they calm down and complete the task, they can have the toys/screen back. The same principles apply when your child wants to leave a room, and you typically chase after them. Stand in front of the door, ignore completely, talk about something else to yourself or look through your phone and speak aloud. When your child calms down you can say “It looks like we’re ready to walk together.” Remember to save the lecture. Actions in this case speak louder than words. If this doesn’t work, then you can consider #4.
Two choices method
This is a good way to bypass the struggles inherent when your child tries to negotiate with you. Here is a strategy to still achieve your outcome, but also give your child a choice while building decision-making skills and creating room for positive interactions. You can try asking your child, “Do you want to brush your teeth first or put your pajamas on first? Do you want to hold my hand or my pocket? Do you want to make your bed first or put the dishes away? I wonder what you’ll choose.” You can also use this method with your children as they get older, too. You might ask, what happens when they won’t choose or choose the invisible third option–neither? You tell them that it looks like they’re having a hard time choosing and that you’ll choose for them. Proceed with either #3 or #5.
Stand your ground
This strategy takes training and practice. I like to keep these ideas in mind as I try to stand my ground or as I’m coaching parents on how to stand their ground. Be direct, be calm, stay kind and be clear. This is the time to keep a neutral affect, even tone and follow through on what you are communicating to your child. If they choose to fight, then you should use predictable, communicated consequences. If you find yourself in this position more often than not, either switch it up with one of the above, or consider exploring
When all is said is done, your child is trying to assert themselves and that is a great skill. These five strategies help you offer your child an option for a peaceful path rather than a fight. In using these strategies regularly, you can begin to teach your child ways to problem-solve, communicate and be on the same page with you in the relationship. These steps also keep the health of the relationship at the forefront. You can still be in the trenches of parenting, while laying the groundwork for a positive, healthy relationship that can include conflict and disagreement, but always ends with kindness.