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The toddler (power) struggles are real. We’ve all been there with our toddlers. You want to them to pick up their toys, but they want to get more out. You want them to come to you, but suddenly they think it’s a great time for a game of hide n’ seek. You ask them to please stop screaming as passersby in the store stop and stare, but they scream louder. It’s enough to make you want to pull out your own hair! Here are six ways to stop the power struggles before they even start and maintain a calm and peaceful relationship with your child (most of the time).
Establish firm and consistent limits
The beginning of avoiding power struggles with your toddler is making sure they know what’s expected of them. You must decide what you will and won’t allow and then stick with it! Start with the most basic limits. First, you’ll want to establish limits for the sake of safety. For young children this may include things like holding hands in areas where there is traffic, only going outside if you have your adult with you, or not climbing on things.
You may also want to establish some value limits. This may include things like no hitting (or other violent physical contact), cleaning up after yourself, personal hygiene, healthy diets, limits on screen time, etc. It may also include limits related to your personal religious beliefs.
Make your limits realistic
One of my toddler’s favorite things to do is to let out this high pitched scream. Sometimes he does it for fun and sometimes because he’s mad. It’s frustrating when we are in a public place, like a restaurant, and I can feel the eyes on me, waiting to see how I’ll handle it. Things like this are pointless to set limits on because you just can’t control it.
Something else to consider is which limits your children are physically and developmentally able to follow. Expecting a 1-year-old to pick up all of their toys on their own the first time they are asked is unreasonable because they just aren’t yet at a developmental level to do that. They will still need help. But your 5-year-old should know to pick up after themselves and should not need constant reminders to do so.
Remain calm but assertive
Once you’ve established realistic, consistent, and firm limits, it’s time to stick to your guns. Many parents find it difficult to do this because it’s honestly so much easier to give in and not deal with the meltdown. It takes a lot less time and energy to continue picking up after our children, to give in and buy the toy or candy, to turn on the TV, or to let them stay five more minutes on the playground.
But is this really helping them in the long run? When you constantly give in to your child’s demands, they learn that they can’t trust the limits. As time-consuming and difficult as it may be, children need us to set firm and consistent limits. This is how they learn that they are safe and secure. Children do not test the boundaries because they want to move them. They test the boundaries because they need to make sure they are unmovable.
When our children do not do what we want them to, it’s easy to begin arguing with them trying to prove that our way is right. But there are two problems with this line of thinking.
First, your way may not be right. As long as the situation is not urgent, take a moment to evaluate what’s really going on. Is your child tired or hungry? Is she upset by something? What are your motivations? Are you asking more of your child than they are capable of? Does this request align with the limits you’ve previously established? Once you’ve thought this through, you’ll be more confident in your request. Then you can approach your child with a calm and understanding demeanor.
Second, children are not capable of the same amount of reasoning that we are as adults. Trying to argue your point with a toddler will simply lead to more frustration. Instead, continue to state your limit or desire firmly yet assertively. Remain calm and expect that your child will do the right thing. Be confident in your requests and your child will be too, which will make it more likely that they will follow your guidance.
When setting limits, you need to establish consistent and firm consequences so that your child will know what to expect. There will be no surprises, no flying by the seat of your pants, no second-guessing yourself, no making excuses for your child or letting it go, and no power struggles with your toddler. There was a limit, it was broken, and now there must be a consequence. Once your child knows what to expect, they will feel more secure in their surroundings, their home, and their place in your family.
The term “consequence” is used here to refer to making use of every teachable moment by providing a reasonable and logical outcome for your child’s action. Sometimes this will be as simple as redirecting. Other times, it may mean removing the child from the situation or taking away a toy they aren’t using properly. Consequences in this instance do not include traditional punishments such as spanking or time-out.
When you don’t follow through with the established consequences, it can be very confusing for your little ones. Confusion breeds stress which breeds misbehavior. Consistent limits and consequences that you actually follow through on help your child begin to understand what is expected from them.
Make it positive
Making every interaction with your child as positive as possible is the best way to build a connection and encourage cooperation. Start by offering a warning ahead of time when you know your child is likely to have a hard time with a specific request. Say, “In five minutes we need to clean up the toys,” or, “once we finish dinner it will be time for a bath.” Having a consistent routine is a great way to make this part even easier.
Do your best to speak softly and calmly – try not to raise your voice or yell. Increasing your volume only encourages your child to increase theirs. Instead of pointing fingers or shooting a dirty look at your child, try getting down on their level and opening your arms to them for a hug. If they are already beginning to break down into a tantrum, remove them from the situation and take them to a time-in.
A time-in is when you get alone with your child and allow them the space and time they need to get all of their negative emotions out. Take them to a calm, quiet place away from the eyes of other people. It’s ok for them to yell and scream and move their body as needed. It’s not ok for them to be physically violent or damaging to themselves, you, or objects in the space. If they are acting physically violent it is appropriate to hold them in a bear hug to avoid any injuries or damage. Otherwise, allow them the freedom to get it all out while remaining present for them to turn to for comfort.
[Physically acting out is completely developmentally appropriate for toddlers and young children as they are learning how to manage their emotions. But it’s important that we take the time to help them find more constructive ways to express these big emotions.]
Do not use this time to try to explain what they did wrong or make them quiet down. In fact, it’s best to just sit in silence until they’ve calmed down. Just being there with them is what makes all the difference. Once they have gotten all of their negative emotions out, you can snuggle, hug them, and calmly discuss the situation. Then you can come to a resolution together.
We all want a peaceful family and calm and happy relationship with our children. Start by establishing realistic, firm, and consistent limits, remaining calm and assertive, following through on discipline without arguing, and making your experience as positive as possible. By doing this, you will be able to minimize the power struggles with your toddler and build the loving relationship you want!