Connect for Children

Heidi Emberling, MA, Parenting Educator and Early Childhood Specialist

What to Say During Conflict Moments with Young Children? September 2, 2015

Filed under: Challenging Behaviors — Heidi Emberling @ 11:22 pm
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When parents and children enter into a power struggle, two things happen. The thinking brain goes to sleep because apparently it is conflict-avoidant. And the emotional brain has to take over operations. Both people immediately stop listening to the other’s point of view. And the conversation may regress to a more primitive form of communication such as grunting, crying, screaming, or yelling. Usually this ends with someone going to her room. This is almost always the smaller of the two people.

Parents understand these patterns, but often need help to change them. The key is to keep the thinking brain awake and useful. The best way to do this is to take a deep breath. This is hard. Often, we want to launch into great detail about why we are right and the child is obviously wrong. But the thinking brain needs oxygen. So taking a deep breath gives parents a way to figure out how to avoid this fight.

While you are thinking about possible solutions, go ahead and make a validating statement. This is useful, because it helps your child keep her thinking brain active. The moment a child thinks you don’t understand what’s at stake here, her thinking brain hides in a corner and the emotional brain takes charge. Here’s an example of a typical power struggle at home:

Child: “I don’t want to put on my shoes!”

Parent #1 (stressed): “We have to put shoes on to go to the park. If you don’t wear shoes, you’ll step on some glass and get a big cut and we’ll have to go to the doctor and get a shot. Don’t you want to go to the park? Please don’t fight with me now. We’re already late to meeting our friends. Fine! I’m not taking you to the park again. And you don’t get dessert tonight. Now, go to your room!”

Parent #2 (after a cleansing breath): “You aren’t ready to put on your shoes right now. I can see that you need an extra moment to get ready. Maybe we should put on your shoes once we get to the park. Or maybe you just want to feel the grass tickle your toes! That would be fun!”

Here’s another one:

Child: “I’m not going to school! You can’t make me!”

Parent #1 (stressed and late for work): “Honey, please don’t do this to me this morning. We are already late and I have a big meeting with some very important people today. I have to get ready. I can’t believe we have to have this fight every single morning. I am so tired of this. Just grab your stuff and let’s go. Fine! I will get your stuff and you better get yourself into that car or I will really get angry! Now, get in the car!”

Parent #2: (after a cleansing breath): “Hmmm. You don’t feel like going to school right now. I wonder what might help? Here’s Teddy [insert stuffed friend’s name here]. Maybe you’d like him to sit next to you in the car? (Turn to bear) What do you think, Teddy? What? You want to sit next to [child name]? Are you sure you don’t want to sit in the front seat with me? Oh, ok. (Turn to child) Teddy wants to sit with you today? He really needs a friend.”

This all sounds good, but what if choice #2 doesn’t work? Let’s assume you’ve decided to try this positive approach. You validated your child’s point of view and even offered a creative solution. And she is still refusing to comply. You now need to set a clear limit in a supportive way. Here’s an example:

Child: “I’m NOT doing it!”

Parent: “You still don’t want to go to school [put on your shoes]. We still have to go. Darn it, darn it, darn it. I’m probably going to have to help you to the car, even though you may have a big feeling about that. I’m really sorry this is so hard for you. Later, we’ll think about some other ways to solve this problem. I know we can figure it out together.”

Positive guidance doesn’t mean abandoning all limits. There are things that must get done during the day. Unless you’re planning to stay home with your persistent child (or never brush her teeth again), you will need to set some expectations and help your child achieve them. Over time, the child learns that her parents understand her needs, listen to her ideas, and are willing to accommodate or “share power” when possible.

There are no “right” responses for every power struggle. Creative problem-solving takes work. It is difficult to defer our own needs, think creatively, and figure out an equitable solution. When you find yourself arguing with your child, stop what you’re doing, breathe, and reconnect with her. Only then, will you be able to solve the problem together.

Heidi Emberling, MA


Positive Guidance and Clear Limits: an Effective Behavioral Approach February 20, 2015

Filed under: Challenging Behaviors — Heidi Emberling @ 8:49 pm
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There are many different ways to discipline a child. Often, we start out with the strategies we remember from our own childhood. Then, we may turn to advice from fellow parents. And finally, we stumble through trial and error as we learn what works directly from our children.

Discipline styles vary along a spectrum, from the heavy-handed authoritarian (“it’s my way or the highway”) approach, to the hands-off permissive (“oh, sweetie, I wish you wouldn’t do that”) approach. Usually, when one parent tips too far towards one end of the spectrum, the other parent retreats to the opposite end. In my work, I describe it as the “parenting seesaw” of discipline styles. Problems occur when either parent moves too close to the edge of the seesaw. The result of either extreme is an increase in negative behaviors from the child, making both authoritarian and permissive parents feel ineffective.

Positive guidance strategies move us closer to the center of the seesaw, towards a more balanced, cooperative parenting style. A cooperative approach includes clear, consistent limits, appropriate to the age and developmental level of the child, and the ability to share power whenever possible. It takes time and patience to figure out how to share power with children without feeling like you are losing control of any given situation. Funny enough, that’s how children feel too. If they never experience a “win,” they will fight every limit parents set. If they see you will compromise when you can, they are more willing to work with you to find a common solution.

Dr. Ross Greene in his book, “The Explosive Child,” encourages parents to sort a child’s challenging behaviors into three baskets, according to how critical it is to change the behavior. Basket “A” is for non-negotiable, safety concerns when you don’t mind enduring the meltdown. Basket “C” is for negligible arguments that aren’t worth the battle. And Basket “B” is for teaching children critical compromise and negotiation skills. Basket “B” is where we practice the balanced approach of a cooperative parenting style. The goal is not to force a child to give in and get what you want. The goal is to find a compromise you can both accept. An added benefit is that you will be teaching your children how to solve problems and resolve conflict effectively.

How do you recognize when you’ve strayed too far away from the balanced approach? If you have threatened or bribed your child to do what you want and you don’t feel good about it, you are at the authoritarian end. If you are so frustrated that you have thrown up your hands and your house resembles the novel, “Lord of the Flies,” you are at the permissive end. To regain balance, take a deep, cleansing breath and see if you can find a mutually-beneficial solution to the situation at hand. What does your child want? What do you want? Where is the compromise that works for both of you? It’s hard to balance at the center of a seesaw, but the opportunity to teach life-long skills through your caring, positive discipline approach is well worth the effort.

Heidi Emberling, MA
Early Childhood Parent Education Specialist