3 Tips for Avoiding a Power Struggle with Your Toddler

A woman prays the rosary at a rally organized by a coalition of conservative Catholic groups near the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' annual fall meeting, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

“Want to wear Thomas!” my son is yelling, stomping around in his diaper. His favorite Thomas the Tank Engine shirt is in the laundry so he’s refusing to get dressed. (Who knew the kid had such particular sartorial preferences!) I’ve already tried, “It’s dirty, Sweetie, we can’t wear that one today.” And, “How about this dinosaur shirt?” And, “Fine, just wear a diaper!” (which I don’t actually mean. It’s thirty degrees outside). I’m about this close to pulling the dirty shirt out of the laundry and letting him wear it. It’s not that dirty, just the usual toddler grime. So, you see, in this particular power struggle, I’m losing.

Losing to a toddler is the worst. They’re so small. And their reasoning skills are fairly nonexistent. I really ought to have the upper hand at all times. But, sadly, that isn’t the way. However, since I am bigger, and my reasoning skills are at least slightly more functional, I have found there are a few things that can help avoid a power struggle altogether. Wouldn’t that be nice! Here they are:

1. No sudden movements

I often find that my toddler’s meltdowns happen because something didn’t go the way he expected. He thought we were going to have lunch right after music class, for example, but we actually need to stop at the grocery store first. Now he’s refusing to get in the stroller and whining about peanut butter and jelly in a voice that makes me want to tear my ears off. If, instead, I let him know at the beginning of music class that, afterwards, we’ll be going to the grocery store and then home for lunch, and also remind him again as we’re getting ready to leave, he might (might being the operative word here) be more willing to go to the store. Or whatever it is we need to do.

2. Give choices

Obviously, some things aren’t a choice. You have to wear clothes. You have to go places. You have to stop hitting your little sister with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Whatever. But within the things they have to do, there is often room for choice. So, you have to wear clothes, but which clothes? “Would you like to wear this dinosaur shirt or this firetruck shirt?” I don’t care one way or the other which shirt he wears (and if there’s something I don’t want him to wear, I won’t offer it as a choice), and he feels more in control of the situation which always helps. It’s great for food, too. Offer him two equally easy to make lunch options, for example.  “Do you want peanut butter and jelly or a cheese sandwich today?” He’s much less likely to dig in his heels and refuse to eat when he’s chosen the meal himself.

(Side note: offering him choices isn’t “giving in” or “catering to his whims.” If you go around saying things like, “I’m the parent, I’m in charge! What I say goes!” you’re way more likely to end up in a power struggle you can’t win. Because you can’t actually force him to eat! So, who’s in charge then?? Just saying.)

3. Give time

Toddlers take longer to processes things than grown-ups or older kids. Much, much longer. Sometimes it looks like they’re refusing to do something, when really they’re just thinking it over. And, when you step in and do it for them, or reprimand them for not following your instructions, they get mad, dig in their heels, and you’re in a power struggle again. It’s hard to give toddlers enough time to do things on their own, especially when you’re rushing around trying to get things done. (Just take off your freaking coat already!) But, if you can wait a bit, they’re much more likely to do what you ask. If it really seems like they’re not going to do what you’re asking, you can use the time-honored count to three trick. I’m not talking about counting to three because you’re mad, as in “If you don’t come in here by the time I count to three I’m going to take all your toys and throw them out the window!” or whatever. I’m talking about giving them an acceptable timeframe in which to accede to your request. So, “Please take off your coat. I’m going to count to three and, if it’s still not off, I’m going to do it for you.” Remember to use a calm voice, regardless of how you actually feel. (Again, you’re not giving in to his dawdling, you’re helping him manage his time and framing the activity for him in a manageable way.) He’s more likely to accept your help if you’ve given him a chance to do it on his own.


So, have I solved all your problems? No? Oh well, I haven’t solved all mine either. But following these tips does make my life a little easier. Some of the time, anyway. And, hey, every little bit counts!