Parents engage in a power struggle with their children all too often. This happens because parents believe they should reason with their child and teach them a principle or value. Unfortunately, the child is not in that mindset. They know their parents have control and they want it. Teaching children, guiding them, and training them has more to do with discipline and redirection than it does with providing a well put together, lengthy speech. Most likely, your child tuned you out after the first “you need to do this because statement”. Children learn best through natural consequences and boundary setting. “When children experience consequences, they gradually become responsible for their own behavior choices”. (Stephens, K. 2007). If they do not get their way, they learn they must do something different. For instance, they really want to go to their friend’s house on Saturday, but they don’t want to clean their room. Guess what. If you want to teach them to keep their room clean, you can implement a rule their room must be clean all week for them to go play Saturday. This tactic works far better and longer lasting then a lecture about why cleanliness is important.
Know this: “Your child would not be inviting you to an argument if they didn’t know you already have the control”. When you engage in the power struggle with your child, you are placing them in an opponent role. That is counterintuitive and just causes you frustration. According to Jim and Charles Fay, (2023) “Use one-liners when an explanation is either not necessary or it will only cause an argument”. Below are some one-liners you can use with your kids when they are inviting you to an argument.
“What did I say?”
Most kids are constantly testing boundaries. They may ask for permission to do something you specifically told them not to do. Respond with a firm, “What did I say?”. Leave it there. This is not up for discussion. You do not owe them an explanation. Are there times for teachable moments? Yes. But not when you are setting clear boundaries and avoiding a power struggle. Remember you have the control.
“This isn’t a discussion.”
Sometimes, kids will just flat out tell you why your rule is wrong. Respond with, “this isn’t a discussion”. Then repeat your statement. For instance, your child is not wanting to do their homework. They tell you that they are very tired and ready for bed. They promise that they will get up early and finish it if you would just let them go to sleep now. You respond, “This isn’t a discussion, the rule is you are to have your homework done by 7:00pm every night”.
“That sounds really hard.”
Responding to your child with empathy will go a long way. Sometimes kids need to be validated in order to learn to self-regulate. Children get upset for a number of reasons. Someone hurt their feelings, they are not getting their way, they are tired or hungry. You can start by saying, “that sounds really hard”. Then, if you want them to learn how to fix their own problems and self-regulate, you can say, “what do you think you should do?”. If they are in a negative place and don’t have a clue what they should do about it. You can ask if they would like some suggestions on what to do. Then you offer suggestions on what they could do. If you offer 3-5 suggestions, it will force them to have to make a choice on their own. They will learn that they can make good choices and they will figure what works and what doesn’t.
“I already said no once.”
This is similar to, “what did I say”. If you tell your child no more than one time, you have already lost the battle. You lack follow through, and your child knows it. They learn they can wear you down to get what they want. Let your no be no. Remain in control, you child is not mature enough to handle that responsibility.
“I love you too much to argue with you.”
If a child really wants something bad, they will do everything in their power to get you to engage in an argument. Don’t fall for it! I know parents love seeing their child smile. They love being the ones to put a smile on that adorable face. But they are not being adorable if they want something they cannot handle, your control. Protect them from this ultimate failure they will experience if they gain access. No matter how cute they are or how sad those eyes look. Do not give in! Remain in control and remind them, “I love you too much to argue with you”.
“Can you speak in a big kid voice? I can’t understand what you are saying?”
Every once in a while, you might have a tired, crank kid. Or maybe they just whine for the fun of it. I see this most with 6-year-olds and younger. However, older kids have been known to do it too. If you answer their whiny, baby voice, they will continue to use this voice until they realize how silly it sounds. Of course, that could take a long time. So, you can help them get a jump start on that and just not give them what they want when they use this voice. You respond, “Use your big kid voice so I can understand you”. Or “Can you speak in a big kid voice? I can’t understand what you are saying?” Telling them to not talk like a baby has the same effect as lecturing. You will have longer lasting effects if you provide natural consequences. Such as, they don’t get a response to what they are saying until they stop whining or “talking like a baby”.
This one is almost comical. I have seen kids tell pretty good stories. If you allow your child to lie, or they perceive that you believe their lies. What do you think you are teaching them? Correct. You are teaching them it is okay to lie and they can get with they want by lying. I have hear some parents say, it’s awful to accuse your kids of lying. I am not saying label them a liar. Not at all. However, if we do not teach our kids that lying is wrong. Then they will have a difficult time maintaining relationships because relationships are built on trust. Kids need to be corrected when they are doing something wrong. When they tell you a “story”, respond with “nice try!” This can be used in other situations as well. Such as, when a child tries to manipulate you.
“Aren’t you glad I don’t believe that?”
Sometimes kids are mean. They say hurtful things to their parents to try and manipulate them. They may say something like “I hate you” or “You’re the worst dad ever”. They do this to try and get you to change your mind and give in to their demands. They don’t mean it. It is hurtful. But don’t let them see you take it personally. You can respond with, “Aren’t you glad I don’t believe that.” You send the message; you are not going to let it affect you and you remain in control. Remember, you are not alone in hearing “I hate you”. Most kids say this to their parents at some point in their life. They don’t hate you; they are angry that they aren’t getting their way.
“When you can calm down, we can talk about it.”
Children will sometimes throw a tantrum to get what they want. This happens for a few different reasons. First, kids are not mature enough to communicate their thoughts and feelings in a productive way. Second, they learned at a young age that mom and dad get embarrassed if I throw a tantrum and in order to stop the embarrassment immediately, they give me what I want. Third, kids learn they can use strong emotions to engage their parents in a control battle. When your child starts to throw a fit. Calmly, tell them, “When you can calm down, we can talk about it”.
“I’ll listen to you when you change your tone.”
Teenagers and adolescents are notorious for having a bad attitude, being sarcastic, and taking a tone when they want control. You can use any variation of this statement to remain in control. Your teen wants something but taking a tone with you. Your response? “I’ll listen to you when you change your tone”. You ask your teen if they did their chores and homework. Their response, “yeeesss mooooommm”, with a condescending tone and eye roll. Your response? “I take kids to basketball practice who can respond with respect”.
“I’m not responsible for [child’s friends name], I’m responsible for you”.
Sometimes kids will try, “but Timmy’s mom lets him! You’re no fun!” You can respond with a simple, “I’m not responsible for Timmy, I’m responsible for you.
Each of these statements promotes natural consequences, boundary setting, and redirection. Parents remain in control and they stay calm.
Fay, C. & Fay, J. (2023). Parenting with Love and Logic. Retrieved from: Parenting with Love & Logic (lewiscenter.org).
Stephen, K. (2007). Clear, Consistent Consequences Motivate Cooperative Behavior. Retrieved from: untitled (easternflorida.edu).