How to avoid power struggles with your kids

A new book helps parents manage triggering parenting situations.

Welcome to Is My Kid the Asshole?, a newsletter from science journalist and author Melinda Wenner Moyer, which you can read more about here. If you like it, please subscribe and/or share this post with someone else who would too.

Hi everyone! Happy Election Day (please vote!), and welcome to my latest #ParentExpertQ&A. I’m excited to publish a fantastic interview today with child development specialist Claire Lerner, whose name you might recognize from some of my previous newsletters.

Lerner, who has been working with families for three decades, is full of amazing insights on how to handle challenging situations with kids. And now she’s published a new book that I highly recommend for parents of young children (though to be honest, her insights are helping me with my older kids, too): Why Is My Child In Charge?: A Roadmap To End Power Struggles, Increase Cooperation, And Find Joy in Parenting. In her book, Lerner discusses eight faulty mindsets that parents often have that prevent them from being able to set limits and avoid power struggles. She also goes into detail about how parents can constructively handle various kinds of situations in which they’re butting heads with their kids.

I talked with Lerner about why she wrote her book, and about some of her key insights.

What inspired you to write Why Is My Child In Charge?

There were really two compelling reasons. Most of the parents who come to see me have already read excellent parenting books, and they are well-versed in social-emotional development. They know a lot about what to do, intellectually. But in the heat of the moment, they are still getting really triggered and reactive and find themselves still yelling, bribing, and threatening. They don't feel good about it, but they are stuck. So 15 years ago, I started to do home visits — I really wanted to be able to observe how these situations unfolded, and to help parents identify what the obstacles were to being able to stay calm and stick to limits lovingly. And that is when I started to identify mindsets. I started to see that at a cellular level, parents were getting triggered, and interpreting and reacting to behaviors through a faulty lens. And once parents really became aware of them, and could take that pause and tune into which mindsets were at play and the mind shift they needed to make — that was when they were able to make significant positive changes for themselves and their kids.

The second thing was that many parents were telling me that the answers they got from parenting books were too pat, too one-size-fits-all, and not all that prescriptive. They were all “take these five steps to get your child to be an independent sleeper” or “take these five steps to stop tantrums” — they were formulaic. But what happens when your child's clawing at you, or throwing themselves down on the floor in the middle of Target, or refusing to go into preschool? I decided in the book that I wasn't going to write about theories. What I was going to do was to deal with the bread and butter issues most families are dealing with — mealtimes, potty training, bedtime, tantrums — dealing with real life cases that are really messy, and elucidating the process. So it's sort of like the anti-one-size-fits-all book.

I really appreciated that about your book — you went into detail about how to manage specific situations. And you discussed how kids might, at first, fight back against limits, and what you should do when that happens.

Yes, that's one of my mantras to parents — this is going to get worse before it gets better. You really have to manage your expectations. Don't expect your child to say, “thank you so much for setting this limit at bedtime, so that we can all have more peace and love in our family.” They are going to use all the tools in their toolkit to derail your process. And in the heat of the moment, when the child's like, “Oh, but Mommy, I didn't have enough time with you,” the heartstrings get pulled, the parent feels mean — you can see how all of these mindsets sort of coalesce to result in the limits falling apart. A lot of what I'm doing is reframing that what feels loving is often not what your child needs. And what feels mean is often what your child does need.

As you already mentioned, we often try to get our kids to change their behavior through bribes, rewards or threats. But this basically puts them in the driver's seat, and lets them be in charge. You present a great workaround in your book, which you call “two great choices.” Can you talk a bit about this?

Parents are so wired to go right to the threat. “That's it! If you don't get in the car right now, there's no Power Rangers later today!” But that only increases the power struggle — because when parents go in with threats, kids pick up on, oh, we're in for a fight now, and their haunches get up. And the outcome of that scenario is completely left in your child's hands. Because all of those tactics — offering rewards, bribing, negotiating, nagging, cheerleading, cajoling — they are all predicated and dependent on your child. And then parents start to get really angry, because they sense that they have lost control, and they're angry at their child for making them feel that way.

So I'm trying to get parents out of that mindset. Instead, parents could say, “It's time to get in the carseat. That's a have-do. That is going to happen. But you're the decider of how it's going to happen. You've got two great choices. You can do it on your own and be totally in charge of your body. That's one great option. And the other great option is, I’ll be the helper and I’ll help you get into the car.” You have to have a way to stay in charge of the outcome — so there's choices, but the choices have to be within limits. And option one is always, I would say, like, the “right” choice. And option two has to be something that you can implement. You have to think, in each scenario, what do you control and not control? What's your expectation? Is this an appropriate, loving expectation? And if so, what are the two great choices? The two great choices both enable parents to respond positively and not promulgate a power struggle.

In the example you just gave with the car seat, the second “choice” is that the parent picks up the child and puts them in the car seat and straps them in. But what about when you want your child to, say, clean their room? How do you create a “two great choices” scenario when you want them to do something themselves?

Your starting point is OK, what do you control in this situation? And what don't you control? They're a human being — you can't physically make them pick up their toys and put them away. That goes in the category of things you have no control over. So what you need to think about is, what can you do to scaffold the situation to help your child make a better choice? So it might be something like this: “Here's the deal, sweetie. The rule in our family is, in order to play with your toys, your responsibility is to clean them up. That's our family rule. So you've got two great choices. You can clean up all the toys, in which case, you can have them all tomorrow. That's one great option. The other option is you choose not to put some of them away. And that means that those toys need go away for a few days.”

The other thing I find is helpful — because it does mirror real life — is to say to your child that when they cooperate, there’s more time for pleasurable things. So I might say, “The toys have to go away, that's a have-do. It's going to happen. How it happens is completely up to you. If you if you put all the toys away, then we have more time after dinner to read an extra chapter of your book. If I have to do it, then we're not going to have time for that.” And so there's a natural consequence. That is how the real world works — when I start to work, and I decide to play solitaire on my computer for half an hour, I may not be able to take a lunch break, or I may have to work at night after dinner because I didn't follow the plan. Right? It cost me time.

You also talk in your book about how it can be helpful, when your child is not doing what you’ve told them needs to be done, to be a sportscaster and essentially narrate the situation. Can you talk a bit about this?

Yes — just state what's in front of you. “Oh, we've asked you to give back the tablet, and you're having a hard time doing that.” Or “we've asked you to get in the car, and you're having a hard time doing that.” Or “I see you're having a hard time cleaning up your toys. I'm going to take a mommy minute to think about how I can help us solve this problem.” Think about like what you're doing in that moment. You're being calm. You’re modeling self-regulation. You're modeling mindfulness. You're not getting aggressive and harsh and reactive — you're basically saying to your child, “I'm your helper. I'm in charge. And I need to think about how we're going to solve this problem.”

Then, I suggest to parents, turn away from the child — don't leave the room — and talk to yourself. “So let's see. Melinda is having a hard time following my direction. So let me think what her two great choices could be.” You're literally modeling for them your thought process, and there's something very powerful about just putting out there the idea that you cannot control them. It diffuses their efforts to derail you. Then you have to figure out what limits and boundaries you do control. So maybe I say, “Okay, here are two great choices. What is the best decision for Melinda? Is it better for you to clean up your toys and for us to have time to read another chapter of your book? That's one option. Or, is it better for you to choose not to do it and have Mommy do it, but then we won't be able to read the chapter? And it is such an important decision, honey, that I am going to give you a full minute to think about your answer.”

And if you do it with your partner, it looks like this. “You know, Dad, Sammy is having a hard time following our direction to get her shoes on to go in the car. Let's have a mommy daddy meeting so we can think about how to help solve this problem.” And then you say, “Well, she's a human being, so we can't make her get her shoes and socks on. What are her two great choices?” You take yourselves through the process. And it's very powerful, because your child also sees you collaborating together.

Finally, let’s touch on tantrums. When parents set and enforce limits, kids often have tantrums. One of the faulty mindsets you discuss in your book is the idea that it’s harmful for kids to have tantrums and negative feelings, and that we as parents need to protect our kids from them. Can you talk a bit about that?

Kids can feel very loving and connected and attached to you — and also be really angry when you're not giving them something they want. And those feelings are not detrimental to kids. They’re just part of being human.

Also, some kids are wired to be bigger reactors — they just experience things at a deeper level and don't have as much of a filter. Those are the kids we think of as highly sensitive, the kids who we think of as orchids. You have to expect that they are going to have more upheavals, because they don't have that internal filter. It's not their fault. They get overwhelmed more easily, they hit sort of their threshold for coping more quickly. And so they tend to have more meltdowns, and they tend to have a harder time when they can't get what they want.

Those are the kids who are especially triggering, because sometimes their meltdowns are so extreme that they’re scary to parents — they're looking at their child, saying, “This can't be healthy for my child.” And that's when it really becomes hard to be that loving limit setter, because you just want to take everybody out of their misery. Finding a way to be present for that child and to acknowledge their distress, while holding the limit is really hard. But the idea is to show your child, “you can be scared, you can be distressed. But you can also master this.” And they eventually adapt. And it's life changing for everybody.

On Thursday evening, November 4, I’ll be doing a virtual event with the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA. Psychiatrist and parenting expert Robin Berman will be interviewing me about my book. It’s free, and you can register here!

This week, I’m also on the Reach Out and Read podcast. You can listen to the episode here.

Buy my book!