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


Why is my child so BOSSY? May 16, 2013

Filed under: Challenging Behaviors — Heidi Emberling @ 11:05 pm
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Bossy behaviors appear as children begin to explore power in a social context with peers, and within the parent-child relationship.  These behaviors originate from wanting to organize and direct the behavior of others.  Bossiness may be rooted in the following motivations:

  • A child has a “great idea” in mind and they need others to bring it to life. (“Put the castle over HERE.,” “YOU play the baby and I’LL play the mommy.”)
  • A child feels strongly about controlling the outcome of a situation. (“DON’T put the peas next to the mashed potatoes.,” “I’M going first.”)
  • A child is insecure and unsure who makes the final decisions in the household, so they assert their own power. (“GIMME the cookie before dinner.  I want it RIGHT NOW.  In this case, a parent may have given in to this demand in the past, but is now deciding to hold the limit.  That confusion and inconsistency may bring out bossy behaviors.)

Using a positive discipline framework, our goal as parent educators is to guide parents to teach children the important social skill of how to express their needs in appropriate ways.  With friends, you can remind your child: “You have some big ideas about how you want to play.  Your friend may have an idea too.  Let’s ask.”  Within the parent-child dynamic, remind the child to ask politely for what they want.  Teach them that their words have an effect on others: “When you speak to me that way, it makes me feel angry or upset.” Reframe the request by teaching them the exact words you’d like them to use next time: “Please say, ‘I’d like a few more minutes to play before getting ready for bed.’”  Set the timer, and praise the child for using respectful language.

One of our jobs as parents is to teach our children social skills, so they can become productive members of a family unit and a classroom community.  This process continues throughout the early years of childhood; it doesn’t happen overnight.  Teaching children to become more cooperative, helpful, and considerate of others is an ongoing pursuit.  Some strategies include:

  • Model respectful requests.  Are you bossy with your child?  How do you communicate your ideas with your partner, your co-workers, or your friends?  Remember that children learn best from watching those around them.
  • Talk about friendship skills.  If there’s a bossy child at school, your child may be experimenting with those behaviors at home.  Ask your child how they feel when they hear bossy comments among friends.  Over time, children learn that actions have consequences and that being bossy can be detrimental to building friendships.
  • Compromise when possible.  When you allow your child to participate in the decision-making process throughout the day, you model the value of sharing power.  Also, reinforce compromise, sharing, and other cooperative behaviors during playdates.  Point out listening skills and how to incorporate several different ideas during play.

Over time, your children will learn that both friendship and leadership involves following their own creative ideas AND listening and learning from others.

Heidi Emberling, MA
Early Childhood Parent Education