How to End Power Struggles with Toddlers

Is there a way for parents to end power struggles with two-year-olds for good? Probably not. But parents can certainly aim for fewer power struggles. You may even turn most of the struggles into learning experiences, if you keep the goal in mind and work it with all you’ve got.

What causes power struggles with two-year-olds? It’s about a milestone in the child’s development. The child at two, now understands that she is an individual, and that her behavior is a choice, under her control. Exercising that choice reinforces the idea for the child that she is an independent being: no one can force her to do anything she doesn’t want to do.

“Toddlers must claim their separateness from their parents. The adolescent phase mirrors toddlerhood in that teens must resolve the separation they first declared during toddlerhood. This means, “I am me – you are not me! Don’t tell me what to do!” That is their way of asserting and declaring control and independence.  During this phase they must also learn control over their body functions including toilet-training, self-feeding, delayed gratification, language development, coping with disappointment, and social skills,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author, The Self-Aware Parent, and regular expert child psychologist on The Doctors and CBS TV.

Power Struggles: Testing the Limits of Power

This need of a toddler to be a distinct individual means that when the parent tells the child to do something, the child will do the opposite action, because that’s part of the process of individuation; or becoming a separate person, distinct from others. Going against a parent’s wishes, at this stage of development, is about children making decisions for themselves, and about testing the limits of their power as human beings. It’s about learning the boundaries of their own abilities, their choices, and their behavior.

The trick for us as parents is to guide children to make positive decisions, whenever possible. This allows the child to be independent in a productive and meaningful way. It’s the difference between demanding something, and helping the child see the smart thing to do. It’s about empowering children, as opposed to overpowering them.

Toddler playing with toy mobile phone
No power struggles here. This boy is comfortable exploring what it is like to be an adult with a mobile phone.

Let’s take a look:

Tracy wiggles her finger into a small hole in the fabric of the living room sofa. “Stop that,” says her mom. “You’re going to make the hole bigger. Leave it alone.”

Tracy, however, is two years old. Telling her not to do something is like egging her on to do exactly that. Which is why the little girl now pokes her finger into the hole of the fabric some more, casting a mischievous smile at her mother as if to say, “Ha ha. Who’s going to stop me?”

Now, we all have good and bad parenting days. If Tracy’s mom had been having a good day, she never would have demanded the girl stop what she was doing. Instead, she would have distracted her. “Oh look! The begonia has a new flower bud!” she might have said, pointing to a potted plant on the other side of the room.

Tracy would have forgotten all about the hole in the sofa. And the potential for a power struggle would have been nipped in the bud, right there and then. No raised voices, tears, or tantrums.

Tired and Cranky=Power Struggles

But because Tracy’s mom had been up half the night with Tracy’s new baby brother, she was tired and cranky. She was not in the mood to do the kind of creative thinking necessary to engage in positive parenting. And so, Tracy’s mom, without meaning to do so, set off a power struggle with her two-year-old daughter.

We’ve all been there: arguing with a two-year-old and feeling stupid when the child gets the best of us. Sometimes it is the child who sets the scene for a power struggle, doing something she knows she’s not allowed to do. At other times, the parent sets the power struggle in motion, by making a demand of the child that feels like a challenge. No matter how it begins, however, the power struggle leaves everyone feeling bad: parent and child (and anyone within hearing distance).

We’ve established that Tracy’s mom could have distracted her daughter to prevent a power struggle. But that isn’t the only tool available to end a power struggle before it begins. Tracy’s mom might have asked for the little girl’s help with the sofa, which would have made Tracy feel in control of the situation (not to mention powerful and cooperative). Tracy’s mom might have asked the two-year-old to help her turn the sofa cushion so the hole doesn’t show. She might have explained that a small child could get a finger caught in the hole and get hurt, and that the couch looks so much nicer this way. Using this tack, this mom can make Tracy feel really big about keeping other children safe and helpful in terms of making the family living room look nicer.

Requesting Tracy’s help prevents a power struggle in which Tracy would be made to feel powerless, overpowered by her mother’s demands. Instead, Tracy feels empowered, since her help is needed, even requested, to improve the situation. Compare this outcome to a power struggle, in which the child is made to feel as though she must obey: that there are no choices. By requesting a child’s help, a parent can put the power back into the child’s hands by making her feel part of the solution.

Toddler plotting mischief
This boy is plotting some kind of mischief–the kind that tends to end with power struggles. It would be good to give him something positive to do that will make him feel big.

That doesn’t mean we can or should let children do things that endanger them. Sometimes, we really do have to forbid behavior. Often, however, there’s a way to help children work through the logic demanded of the situation. Failing that, we can offer children a choice of behaviors to choose from, or distract them with something interesting.

Take the two year old child who is exhausted and needs to nap. Told that it’s time to take a nap, the child will scream, “No!”

That’s because you’ve taken away the child’s power by giving the child a command: take a nap. It’s a recipe for a power struggle. The child must protest. But once you’ve “blundered” by commanding your child to do something, you still have a way out of the power struggle. You escape the tantrum by offering your child a choice: “Which stuffed animal would you like to have with you for your nap? The brown teddy bear or your Snoopy dog?”

In offering a choice, you’ve found the way to restore your child’s power over the situation. Having a choice and the power to make a decision restores justice to your two-year-old’s world. He just wants to exert his human right as an independent human being. For this purpose, choosing between a teddy or a stuffed dog is all it takes.

Toddler girl paints the wall of her bedroom
This little girl thought she’d be like her mom and do some creative “decorating.” What would you do to prevent power struggles in a case like this?

Here, it should be noted that power struggles are more than just tantrums, or finding creative ways to prevent them. A power struggle is a negative experience with an unhappy ending. A command to take a nap sets up a negative experience that will always be associated with naptime. The mom who offers a choice between stuffed animals at naptime, on the other hand, gives her child a chance to feel happy and powerful. Nap, in this case, becomes an opportunity for a child to exercise his own free will, rather than a nasty, tear-filled struggle between parent and child. This mother sends a message to her son: “I trust you to make good decisions,” instead of, “You aren’t big enough to make decisions. I will tell you what to do.”

Let’s say you are putting your child’s coat on because it’s cold outside. The child is struggling and screaming, “No, no, no!”

It’s a full-blown power struggle. Can a parent end a power struggle in progress?

Often, the answer is yes. You might, for instance, ask if your child’s small rubber duck should sit in the right front pocket of the coat, or the left? Or you could sing a silly song to distract your child. The trick is not to let the crying and screaming go on without doing something to refocus your child. You want to turn the struggle into something else: a child’s choice instead of a parent’s command; cooperation between wise child and loving parent; or even an opportunity for the child to choose laughter over tears.

End Power Struggles with Humor or Distraction

Ending power struggles is about seeking ways to give your child more power in tricky situations. The child who doesn’t want to go to sleep may be able to choose the best way to sleep: his sleeping circumstances. The child who hates to wear a hat can earn a prize for wearing one, or choose the type of hat he must wear. It’s not always easy to find the way to a happy, independent child. It helps if parents remember that the goal is a raising a child to be a confident, capable adult.

Sometimes, all you need to do to defuse a power struggle is to change the tone. Picture this: you ask your child to pick up his toys and put them away. He says, “No!”

Instead of arguing or repeating your demand, you say the same thing in a funny, sing-song voice while rolling your eyes. He laughs and says, “Again!”

You say, in the same funny, sing-song voice, “Not until you pick up those toys and put them away. Now put away the truck!”

He laughs and puts away the truck.

“Now put away the policeman.”

He laughs and puts away the policeman.

Power Struggles Replaced by Laughter

In this way, the two of you continue until all the toys are put away. The child has learned that his good behavior—putting away a toy—is rewarded (with more funny-sounding, humorous commands). The child chooses to do as requested, instead of engaging in a battle of wills with the parent. He puts his toys away and the struggle is gone, replaced by laughter and a fun time for both parent and child.

In this case, instead of forcing the child to do as you say, you have inspired him to do the right thing of his own free will. This time you used humor. But next time it might be about offering choices, or making the child feel part of the solution, as with Tracy and the hole in the sofa.

High Level Parenting

But how does a parent get to this high level of parenting in which power struggles are a thing of the past? How does a parent get to this place of always finding the right thing to say to the child? In addition to keeping the goal in mind: restoring the child’s power, there are two other things we can do as parents to end power struggles:

Detach: It’s easy to get sucked into the emotion, into the wanting to be right. After all, you’re the parent, and the child is the child. The parent is supposed to rule, to be in charge, to make decisions for children. A parent has to learn that it’s better to be smart, than right. If you feel yourself getting steamed up, it’s sign you’ve already entered a power struggle. Stop what you’re doing and saying and take some deep breaths. Think: cut the emotion, just detach. Think: how can I restore my child’s power?

Self-Care: You know how on airplanes they tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before you help your child with his oxygen mask? That’s because if you become oxygen-deprived you’ll be no good to your child. By taking care of your own needs, you make it possible to care for your child’s needs. So do what you can to take good care of yourself. Get enough sleep, even if it means skipping housework for a nap. Do whatever it is that makes you feel fulfilled, whether it’s working out, or getting your nails done.

If you do feel cranky or sluggish, make a note of it. Make sure you don’t allow your mood to get you and your toddler into power struggle hell. Do something to baby yourself that makes you feel better. Go slow. Think.

And if you slip up and a power struggle occurs, don’t beat yourself up over it. Parenting a two-year-old is challenging. “Toddlerhood is the most challenging phase of human development for parents and the most critical one for children in the lifespan. Any adult that I have treated in psychotherapy in my private practice was found to be stuck somewhere in a toddler milestone,” notes Dr. Walfish.

“Toddlerhood is the time I prescribe parents, especially moms, to be all there with their kids.  If moms work, choose an ever-present warm, nurturing, and firm caregiver.

“Toddlerhood is the foundation (bricks and mortar) laid upon which adolescence must resolve. Parenting is most challenging and rewarding when toddlerhood is done well.”

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About Varda Epstein

Varda Meyers Epstein serves as editor in chief of Kars4Kids Parenting. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Varda is the mother of 12 children and is also a grandmother of 12. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Learning Site, The eLearning Site, and Internet4Classrooms.

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Julie says

    I understand what is being said here but when does the child learn to respect authority? Just do or don’t do something they are asked of from an adult without saying anything. That’s what I struggle with. I’m so afraid this will never end of we make everything roses and sunshine.

    • Varda Epstein says

      When the child is not going through a stage in which the answer to everything is no. Not every age is like this.

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