Power struggles with toddlers take many parents by surprise. In the blink of an eye, your sweet, happy baby has been replaced with an impossible handful. Suddenly the easy-going tot you used to have now replies to every suggestion with an automatic "no!" and seems to enjoy testing the limits of your patience with his stubborn refusal to cooperate.
Way back when, before you had your first child, you probably observed other parents struggling with a willful toddler. You might even have had the occasional judgmental thought about the mom who was attempting to drag a screaming two-year-old away from the toy department, his entire body stiffened to resist her, or the dad frantically pleading with his small child to put on his shoes. "Just make him do it!" you probably thought. "Who's the parent here?"
But suddenly the scene is all too familiar, and power struggles are a regular part of your day. You're so used to your toddler being contrary you've started to wonder if his vocabulary even includes the word "yes" any more. It seems that everyone has an opinion on how you should be handling the situation—but the last thing you feel like doing after an epic battle with junior is keeping your cool while Auntie Betty dishes out her well-intentioned, but oh-so-critical "advice."
It's not just you. Power struggles with toddlers are almost a rite of passage, and there are several typical causes:
- Age. He's 2. Period. Sometimes it's really that simple. Constance Katz, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in New York City and faculty member of the William Alanson White Institute, notes that "at this age, the desire to say 'no' is a normal developmental event—it's like exercising a muscle."
- Attention. Some power struggles are really your child fighting for your attention—even if that attention is negative. Spend several minutes a day giving your undivided attention to your child. You don't have to do anything fancy—your toddler will enjoy building block towers with you, or reading a story together.
- Stress. Have you ever noticed that the biggest battles happen at the most inconvenient times? It's not only you that feels the pressure when you're late for preschool or rushing to make a doctor's appointment. Feeling hurried and anxious makes your toddler stressed, and his efforts to fight for power are his own attempts to feel in control. Build in some extra time to your everyday routines if you notice this is a common theme in your household.
Even if you can't figure out a specific cause for the power struggles, there are things you can do to prevent everyday issues from becoming epic shouting matches.
- Define the deal-breakers. Not everything is worth fighting over—but some rules are set in stone. Make sure your toddler knows your limits: no running into the street and no hitting, for example. Then stick to them, every single time. Don't defend your decision or get sucked into arguments. There's no need to negotiate. Just calmly state your decision, then drop the issue.
- Pick your battles. Let the little things slide. It's annoying that your kid turns his nose up at the last of the veggies, but is it worth a full-scale war? Is it the end of the world if he wants to wear a cape and rain boots to the grocery store? Ask yourself if the issue really matters. If it doesn't affect his health, safety or wellbeing, it probably isn't worth affecting your blood pressure over.
- Offer choices. When you give your toddler a choice, you give him the ability to have some power of his own, while making a decision that's also acceptable to you—a win-win situation for everyone. Instead of telling him he's wearing the blue t-shirt—then battling with him when he says no—ask him if he wants the blue t-shirt or the orange. Dr. Katz observes that a choice can almost always be found—for example, asking, "Do you want half a glass of milk, or a whole glass of milk?" But in situations when choices simply aren't possible, Katz suggests telling your child, "You know I like to give you a choice when I can. But this time you have to do xyz."
Even in the most difficult situations, it's important to keep your power as the parent. Katz points out that it's incredibly difficult for a child to lose parental structure and become the boss at the age of 2 or 3.
- Stay calm. Once you overreact or lose your temper, you also lose your authority.
- Don't give in to tantrums. After twenty minutes of screaming, you're probaby tempted to just give in for the sake of peace. But if your toddler realizes he can wear you down, you're encouraging him to scream louder and longer the next time.
It's unrealistic to expect that you'll avoid all power struggles—after all, this age is called the terrible two's for a reason. But by choosing your battles wisely and refusing to get drawn into the drama, you'll keep the upper hand. Reassure yourself this won't last forever. Dr. Mark Roberts, Director of Clinical Training at Idaho State University says that tantrums and disobeying parental instruction are "routine problems" for American two- and three-year olds, but "should resolve well by age 4" in response to these 'authoritative' parenting techniques, including setting limits while still providing support for his growing independence.