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One of the most difficult things that comes up with parenting elementary aged kids is managing their need and want of control. This may be control related to rules, decisions, playing, or even the tasks of daily living. It comes up frequently with this age group as kids start to learn about and experiment with power, relationships, consequences, responsibility, and independence. Parents’ experiences of these developmental tasks are often that their kids are ignoring, defying, or arguing with them about every little thing. And it’s partially true….our kids are testing the rules and boundaries and trying to figure out how to assert their desire for independence. The other part and this is the part that’s harder to manage, is when our kids’ words and behaviors trigger us instead of reminding us that they are trying to figure things out and need our help to find a sense of balance.
A few weeks ago, I had just told my 5-year-old to brush his teeth for probably the 10th time, and this was after I had also told him at least a dozen other things that I needed him to do to get ready for bed. Things were starting to get ugly. It’s the school year and you know how we’re all just trying to get through the routine, get our kids to bed, get our few minutes of “me” time, and get to sleep ourselves; and I forgot what his experience of all this must be like until I saw the frustration and sadness on his face. I asked him to tell me about how he was feeling, and he said, “I feel like you’re always bossing me around.” At that moment I realized that the daily grind had taken over. I had forgotten that an important part of my parenting is utilizing fun and figuring out how to share power in an appropriate way so that my son doesn’t have this feeling of no control. Even more important, I want him to feel like we are a team and that I can support him in his quest for getting his wants and needs validated and met. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not giving up my authority as the parent, and I obviously still need him to get the things done that are on my list, but I had put my tools of play and cooperation away for the night and it wasn’t working. So what’s to be done about sharing power with kids? I know it seems like a daunting task, and it definitely flies in the face of what generations before us have done, but it’s not as hard as it seems. So here are a couple of tools to get you started.
Embrace the power of YES. You’ve probably heard of positive psychology, and this is straight from the work of Barbara Fredrickson, one of the founders, as well as the work of several other brain researchers. I won’t get too science-y on you, but in summary, the brain and nervous system respond differently to the words yes and no, as well as to the accompanying body language of the speaker of those words. In short, hearing no causes your brain to release stress producing neurochemicals while hearing yes doesn’t. The problem though is that because positive words like yes do not threaten and engage our survival instinct, our brain doesn’t respond to them nearly as intensely as it responds to words like no. So the researchers found that to activate the motivational centers of our brain, we need 5 positives to every negative. Think of it as a bank account, 1 withdrawal is a much bigger deal when your balance is low, but if you’ve already made 5 deposits, you can handle the withdrawal much better. So the next time you need your kids to get going with a task and they’re giving you pushback, try engaging them with positive words and body language:
“I’ll give you a piggyback ride to the bathroom so you can brush your teeth now,” or when they need more control over their timeline and ask if they can finish 1 or 2 or 3 tasks before they brush their teeth, you might say, “Yes, I’ll set a timer, and when it goes off, it will be time to stop and brush teeth. Do you need 1 minute or 2 minutes?” Now you’ve made a deposit in their account and engaged their brain in a positive way, you’ve set an expectation of what will happen next, and you’ve shared control by giving them a choice. I try to be a “yes mom” as often as I can so that when I need to say no, my child can hear it and accept it more easily. When I can’t say yes, if it’s possible, I try to offer a choice or a way to feel empowered in the situation, which leads me to the next strategy.
Involve your kids in decision making when you can. I know that sometimes you just need your kids to do what you need them to do, but quite often, there is some opportunity for collaboration. Depending on the age of your child, this will look and sound different. With younger kids, a choice is often the best way to help them feel a sense of control: “We need to get ready for bed. Do you choose to brush teeth first or pick out your pj’s first?” As kids get older, there are many more opportunities for sharing power and decision making. Sticking with the bedtime example, maybe you discuss with your child what tasks need to be completed before bedtime and ask for their ideas about how to best make that happen. Or maybe you set up a weekly bedtime challenge, and for every challenge they beat, they earn something fun like a trip to get frozen yogurt with you over the weekend. There are so many ways to communicate to your child that they are important, that you value their ideas, and that you are willing to work with them to help everyone get what they want while feeling like they have a say in what’s happening. After all, compromise and finding ways to get your needs met appropriately are lifelong skills. For those times when you’ve told your kid to do something 10 times and things are getting ugly, it’s not too late to push the pause button and verbalize what you’re noticing. Discuss your observations, ask your child about their experience of the situation, and have a redo. In the end, I think you’ll find that empowered kids are cooperative kids, and that’s a win-win for everyone!
If you like this, read other posts such as “How to Boost Self Esteem in Kids“, “Parents Who Parent Differently“, “5 Things to Discuss With Kids From Inside Out“,”Stop Back To School Stress Before It Starts“, and finally, “Five Holiday Stress Busters.”
If you feel that you need additional tips regarding parenting and children, you contact us to make a counseling appointment or read more about child counseling and family and parenting counseling on our dedicated pages.