As a parent of young children, you’ve probably found yourself battling with toddler power struggles. I’ve worked with thousands of concerned parents who fear something is wrong with their child because of the constant battle of wills. Trust me…I get it.
Here’s the good news: positive discipline doesn’t have to be such a challenge. We can gain the child’s cooperation if we shift our perspective a little bit.
Toddler power struggles often look something like this:
You tell your child it’s time for a bath.
Your child flat out refuses.
You get a little more firm.
They continue to say no until they become dysregulated. They shout, yell, stomp their feet… maybe they even ignore you. Or run away and now you’re chasing a kid around the house.
And then you snap. You lose your sense of control and the power struggle is at its peak.
I want you to take a deep breath, parents. Help is here. The next time you find yourself in a power struggle with your toddler, you can use these tips to help.
3 Reasons for Parent-Child Power Struggles
In my professional experience, I’ve generally found that unrealistic expectations, an overly demanding environment, and poor self-regulation skills lead to more power struggles between children and their parents.
When you expect your child to stop what they are doing and listen immediately the moment you call their name, you’re not creating an environment for collaboration and mutual respect. You’re creating an environment for power struggles. And this is why you end up having a hard time with your child.
Unfortunately, for so many parents, this obedience-driven homelife was drilled deep within them, and so you are unlearning the old and making room for the new. Trust that these small changes now will lead to big changes in the long run.
The truth is: kids push back for many reasons. For example, they don’t always understand our limits. They don’t have the skills to control themselves. They need more support from you.
Whatever the reason, it’s so important for you to get this mindset into your body:
If a child could, they would.
It’s not about will…it’s about skill.
Almost always, we have high expectations that our children “should” know, and yet when they show us that they don’t, we come down even harder on them.
A toddler who knows it’s bath time - who resists you and exercises their need for autonomy and power by stomping their feet and running away - is a child who hasn’t yet learned the skill of cooperation and working together. This holds true for the bedtime battle, the end of the day battle, the grocery store battle, and so on.
You see, we make it about our need for control the moment we engage in the power struggle…when really, the kids are simply showing us what they can do…and what they need support with.
Overly Demanding Environment
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve caught myself rattling off orders to my kids like a drill sergeant, only for me to get frustrated when they start to push back after the 5th command.
Of course they are going to push back. The early years are all about autonomy and personal mastery. When children feel controlled by our constant demands, this causes friction with their natural course of development.
When I assess a child-parent dyad, I’ll spend the first 15 minutes solely observing how they communicate, interact, and play together. Almost always I notice right away: parents repeatedly say "No, don’t, stop, or quit". They give command after command, and kids burn out really quickly.
Here’s what many of us don’t realize:
We’re saying NO… a lot more than we think.
We’re rationalizing when our kids are raging… a lot more than we think.
And we’re correcting and not connecting…a lot more than we think.
This big picture creates an overly demanding physical and psychological environment. And it’s a great recipe for parent-child power struggles.
So often I hear these comments from folks: if kids don’t hear the word NO, they are never going to learn how to be in the real-world.
So let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that we never say NO to our kids. I’m suggesting we use it mindfully, and teach our children the alternatives.
Especially when it comes to toddlers, their brains cannot compute the alternative to “No running!” But, if we tell them, “Walking feet,” the toddler will be much more successful, and you will probably have far fewer power struggles.
Poor Self-Regulation Skills
How many times have you activated a power struggle by overreacting to your kid?
Your kid says they don’t want to eat cereal, and instead of responding effectively to their dissent, you feed the beast:
Well too bad! This is what you get, or you don’t eat at all!
To which your toddler mimics your dysregulation, and fights back by screaming, yelling, or throwing.
The power struggle has been activated, and the child is not mature enough nor has the important skills yet to clean up the proverbial mess.
As the parents, we will always be the responsible ones for repairing following a power struggle. In time, your child will learn to take initiative when they activate the battle…but until then…prepare to be humbled.
Self-regulation is a lifelong journey. Learning how to calm our own bodies when we’re in a stressful situation is one of the most important parenting hacks you’ll ever gain…if you can commit to the practice of pausing and taking a deep breath before reacting.
Our kids also have poor self-regulation skills, and not to mention limited conflict resolution and anger management skills. So if they sense that there is something threatening, they are going to use whatever skills they have to try to get through it.
So considering power struggles are largely influenced by our unrealistic expectations, an overly demanding environment, and poor self-regulation skills, what can you do to help minimize the battle of wills and improve your family’s flow of cooperation?
Your first step is to adopt some healthy habits that give your child a sense of power and you a sense of leadership.
7 Child-Therapist Approved Tips to Diffuse Power Struggles
The 1:10 rule:
To help minimize the demands in your home environment, mindfully adapt your style of communication using the 1:10 rule. For every 1 demand, offer 9 “bucket fillers”.
Examples of Demands:
- Go put on your shoes, please.
- Time to clean up your toys, please.
- Turn off the TV, please.
- Hurry quickly to bed, please.
- Please bring me the ball. (Yes, adding please in there is totally intentional.)
Not only is it a more respectful way to give a demand, but it also models for your child more polite ways to make their requests with you. And you're here because you want a healthy relationship with your child, right?
Demands are not bad; they are a normal part of childrearing. However, kids do get tired of feeling bossed around, and given toddlers are largely motivated by power, control, and autonomy… it will serve you well to dish out the demands more intentionally.
Bucket fillers are things we say or experiences we share with our kids that fill their bucket, so to speak. These keep the relationship warm, inviting, and focused on connection.
Children are much more willing to cooperate with us when they feel safe and supported in the relationship. Bucket fillers support that.
Example of Bucket Fillers:
- I love spending time with you!
- That was a really creative way to solve that problem.
- Thanks for being so helpful.
- You’re a kind friend.
- You are so loveable.
- Playing games together, hugs and kisses that are consensual for the child, and honestly just your undivided attention are excellent ways to fill your child’s bucket.
1 Command at a Time:
One of the best ways to avoid a power struggle is by giving your kid one command at a time.
By doing so, you give their brain a chance to understand what you expect, and you can assess if your child is capable of following your direction.
If your toddler does what you ask, follow it up with a bucket filler: Thanks for your listening ears. Your cooperation is very much appreciated.
If your toddler does not do what you ask, your expectations may be too high…or your child may not know how to follow through. And so, adjust what you’re asking and try again.
If you told your toddler to clean up, and they start running away from you, ‘clean up’ may be too abstract of a concept. You may be more successful by bringing them to the bin of dinosaurs and saying, “Please put the dinosaurs back into the bin.”
Model how to do so to keep your kid engaged. And don’t forget to offer a bucket filler once you gain your child’s cooperation. “There you go, those are great listening ears! You’re putting the dinosaurs away!”
Make it your own.
Say YES more than NO:
It can be very difficult for children to understand our commands when we’re focused on telling them what not to do.
You’re going to be MUCH MORE SUCCESSFUL in minimizing power struggles if you can focus on telling your child exactly what you want them TO do.
I strongly recommend that you save your NOs for things that matter:
- Running into the street
- Running near a water source
- Knives, scissors, and sharp objects
- Playing with fire or things that are hot
And start learning how to say YES instead (truly, some of the best advice for parents):
No running → Walking feet.
No screaming → Shh..library voices.
No climbing → You can climb here.
No jumping → Couches are for sitting. You can jump here.
No snatching → Let’s wait our turn please.
No interrupting → Hold your thought, please.
When it comes to dangerous behaviors like hitting, throwing, or shoving, be clear about the boundary, and then give your child the correction:
“I can’t let you hit. You can say, I’m mad!”
And then help your child with getting their desires met in safer ways.
Guide with 'When/Then'
Toddlers struggle with predicting outcomes, so when we are super clear about what the plan is, they are much more likely to work with us (instead of against us!).
“When you put away your blocks, then we can get ready for the park.”
See what I did there? So many of us default to: “If you don’t put your blocks away, then we can’t go to the park!”
We often focus on what the punishment will be, instead of what the positive outcome will be once they cooperate.
You are far more likely to get a happily engaged toddler when you focus on what exciting things are to come!
And if your kiddo resists…don’t take the bait.
It’s not about your child resisting you.
It’s about your child lacking the skill set to work with you.
Adjust your expectations, give your child some support, and keep going!
Family goal: Let’s find a way to work together.
My dream mom, Mrs. Tiger - of Daniel Tiger’s neighborhood - sings a delightful little ditty where she encourages her kids to find a way to play together.
I had to adapt this to our home life, because it’s just. that. good.
Remind your kids frequently that part of being in a family is about finding ways to work together.
This goes both ways: sometimes your kids will need you to stop what you’re doing to meet their requests.
And sometimes, you will need them to stop what they’re doing to meet your requests.
Talk about this family mission in the morning at breakfast and around the dinner table. Even if your child isn’t really engaging in deeper conversations just yet, that’s okay. They will hear this sentiment, and it will become embedded into your family value system.
This truly is an important way to foster working together as a family unit.
Don’t ask permission.
One of the biggest mistakes parents make is following a demand with: “Okay?” “Sound good?” “What do you think?”
It’s like we’re inviting a power struggle when we end a non-negotiable demand like this.
We know children have little power in the parent-child relationship, but offering them small ways to embody more problem-solving skills does not mean you need to give them too much power either.
So if there isn’t an option for your child to voice their opinion, do not give them the option.
Simply state exactly what you need them to do with a polite, respectful, and neutral tone of voice. Even if your child pushes against you, don’t let them rock your confidence.
Stay rooted in what you’re asking, and help your child practice cooperating with you. The more consistent you are, the more your child will work with you.
Give yourself a do-over
Finally, don’t get hung up on sticking to your guns just to prove a point. You do not need to show your child who is boss just to garner more respect.
Here’s some real talk for you: if you’re in a toddler power struggle, you are just as responsible for the discord as your child is.
In fact, I’d argue that us parents are even more responsible because we are the ones in charge of the proverbial ship.
So don’t feel like you need to cling to your position just because you don’t want to look weak in front of your child.
Instead, give yourself a do-over. When you overreact or add fuel to the power struggle fire, here are some steps you can take to save your sanity and support your child & their big emotions.
“Whoa, I don’t like how I just spoke to you.”
Take accountability for your own behavior:
“I lost my cool, and I think I scared you.”
Normalizing fixing mistakes:
“Let me try again.”
Set the limit directly and clearly:
“I cannot let you push.”
Give the correction simply and politely:
“Please wait your turn. Here’s a book to read while you wait.”
Follow up with a bucket filler once your child is cooperating:
“Thanks so much for your cooperation. You’re waiting patiently AND keeping your hands to yourself?! How awesome are you!!”
Ending Toddler Power Struggles
One final takeaway, it’s really important that you see these insights and strategies as a mindset. They're proven methods and truthfully my favorite strategies. Once you commit to practicing these skills consistently, they really do become second nature.
It’s okay if you feel like you’re fumbling or awkward at first…this is like learning a new language, but it'll be worth it long term.
I have a lot more to teach you about ending power struggles and gaining more cooperation from your kids. In my most requested workshop, Conscious Discipline Do’s and Dont’s, you’ll learn simple, effective ways to navigate tough moments with your kids and find more peace in your home.
And if you're ready to take this parenting wisdom even deeper, join our soulful online community of parents who are dedicated to the path of deeply connecting with their kids and trading power struggles for collaboration. Share your stories, learn from others, and celebrate the victories, both big and small. Together, we're creating a nurturing space where parents can thrive, children can flourish, and the beauty of conscious parenting can truly shine.