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  • Writer's pictureK.C. Dreisbach, LMFT

Managing Power Struggles: How to Get Your Child to Listen

Updated: Apr 7, 2022

How do you get your kids to listen without having to yell??? How do you manage the constant power struggle with your toddler? Life is like a constant battle of willpower with your child. The only question left if, who’s going to win today’s round???

A few months ago, I teamed up with Betty from The Terrific Five. Her readers had questions, and I provided the answers. Today, I’m sharing with you one of the questions her readers asked about the struggles she was facing with her toddler who wouldn’t listen and was hitting her during discipline. Here's what I told her to help restore the harmony in her home!

Question: My toddler is hitting me when I try to discipline him. When I raise my voice at him he mimics what I am doing and raises his voice. How do you deal with power struggles when your kid doesn’t even listen to you?

Answer: This question makes me want to ask a lot of other questions: How old is your toddler? When did the behaviors start? How do you manage these behaviors when they happen? These are the kinds of questions that a Family Therapist would ask to help better develop a plan to help you manage your toddler.

Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, I don’t have the pleasure of getting to know you and your family. But I’m going to do the best I can to help give you some direction on how to manage your tot. Let’s start by having a quick discussion about child development.

Between the ages of approximately 1 ½ to about 2 ½ (sometimes 3) years of age, kids go through what is most lovingly referred to as “The Terrible Two’s.” In my book, “Trials of the Working Parent,” The Terrible Two’s get some “stage time” as I discuss troublesome behaviors, such as tantrums. But The Terrible Two’s can comprise more than just tantrums. We can also see talking-back behaviors, “sassiness,” eye-rolling, and other behaviors you thought you wouldn’t see until the teenage years! This would include mimicking you rudely and matching your voice. Power struggles are a hallmark of this age range.

Something you’ve mentioned that is important is that your child “doesn’t even listen to you.” This is so frustrating as a parent and can really grate on your nerves! Power struggles are tough to deal with on their own, but you combine that with a child that “doesn’t even listen,” and you have one nasty web to untangle.

When I’ve worked with parents in the past who report similar situations to me, it comes down to a lack of respect. Essentially, the child has no respect for the parent. Somewhere along the line, the parent has lost authority and the child sees them as nothing more than a figure without a backbone. Now, I’m not saying that this is your situation. Even if it were, however, it’s not too late to fix it! There are a few things we would need to start addressing: how you give warnings, your follow through on your warnings, your consistency in upholding your own household rules, your reaction to your child’s behaviors, and the type of consequences you give out for behaviors. Let’s look at each one of these a little bit more:

1. Warnings

A “warning” is when you inform your child that if they don’t change their current behavior, a specific consequence will ensue. The problem with “warnings” is that parents fall into the trap of giving multiple warnings, or warnings that are not attached to a specific behavior. I’m going to talk about warnings a little more thoroughly in our next post, so please check it out for more information on this point.

2. Parental Follow Through

“Parental follow through” means that when you give your child a warning and list a specific consequence, you need to be ready to actually do what you just said you would do. I’m also going to go into more details on this one in our next post, so please check that out for more information.

3. Parental Consistency

This is how well you do with being consistent on upholding household rules on a day-to-day basis. Let me give you an example…. Many parents have a rule that amounts to “no jumping on the sofa.” On the weekends or when company is visiting, parents are typically pretty consistent about upholding this rule. But Thursday night after a long day of household chores or an exhausting day at the office, the parent may have little energy to uphold a rule like this. So, the child ends up jumping on the sofa. In this situation, the parental consistency is poor. On one day, the rule is upheld and on another day, it seems forgotten.

4. Parental Reaction

This item addresses how you react to your children when they misbehave or push your buttons. Some parents might as well be Gandhi! Their kids just can’t get a rise out of them! Other parents are more reactive and are easily upset by how their children act and behave. Parental reaction is an important item to consider. Have you ever taken an honest look at yourself and how you act/react to things? It’s hard to do, but sometimes we aren’t as graceful and gracious as we would like to be.

Consider how you handle criticism…. Do you tend to feel a knot in your stomach or throat when people are criticizing you? Do you find yourself becoming reactive to things other people post on social media (even if it’s someone you don’t really know)? These are signs that you may be a person who is more easily provoked. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s just something to know about yourself. These qualities are also behaviors that we model to our children. As such, you might find that your child is also a more reactive individual. In young children, being more reactive also means being more prone to impulsive, aggressive behaviors or mocking behaviors, too.

5. Consequences to Behavior

Finally, “consequences to behavior” is referring to the appropriateness of your consequence for the child’s behavior and developmental stage. A young two-year-old, for example, shouldn’t be getting a 15-minute Time Out. This is developmentally considered inappropriate by most experts. Similarly, a 16-year-old should not be told to stand in a corner for 15-minutes to think about his/her behaviors. Furthermore, you shouldn’t be grounding a teen for a month because he/she was 10 minutes past curfew, or simply shake your finger at your 5-year-old for biting his/her baby brother for the fifth time in one day. These consequences don’t match the severity of the behavior committed. There should be a balance.

Once you go through these items, take some time to really reflect on where you might be getting tripped up with your child. Try really hard to be honest with yourself. If you know someone you trust who could give you some honest feedback, ask them how you are doing in these different categories. My guess is that one or some combination of these items is giving you trouble. Ironing these out will help re-establish the power dynamic in your household with you as the parent.

Remember, authority in a home should always flow from the top (i.e. caregiver/parent) downward (i.e. the children). As I mentioned before, this doesn’t mean you’re a dictator and that you treat your child with disrespect, but you need to maintain yourself in a place of authority. Once the power dynamic shifts back into place, the power struggles will remain for a while, but should slowly start to subside.

Hope this will help you on your parenting journey! For more parenting help, download my FREE mini-ebook, Eliminating Temper Tantrums: 4 Keys to Managing Your Child's Anger Outbursts, or see my full-length series, The Art of Parenting. With 5-stars on Amazon, Bookbub, and Barnes & Nobles, you know you can't go wrong!

***NOTE: This blog post was originally posted as part of the "Trials of the Working Parent" Blog Book Tour at The Terrific Five. It has since been updated and reposted here.

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Krystal Dreisbach is a licensed therapist, mindset coach, adjunct professor of counseling, and published author.  Her specialties include depression treatment, anxiety counseling, stress management support, and mindset coaching.  Learn more about Krystal and see how she can help you live a better life.

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