One of the most frequently asked questions I get from parents is how to deal with temper tantrums or power struggles. It is so natural to immediately think that somehow you aren’t doing things right, but the first thing to know is that this is absolutely a normal part of parenting! These issues are incredibly common, regardless of culture or background. There’s this idea out there that every parent should have all the answers “right” when they become a parent, but the truth is, every parent is learning every day, and challenging behaviors, such as temper tantrums from our children, can be the most frustrating. “But what do I do when nothing seems to be working?!” parents ask me all the time. Before I can answer that, it’s important to understand the “why” behind these types of challenging behaviors. So, let’s start with the first “why”: temperament.
Every human being is born with characteristics that are responsible for our reactions to everything. This temperament, combined with personality traits that develop over time, contributes to our overall experiences as human beings. I often hear from parents, “My other child was so easy-going at this age. I don’t understand.” Realizing that each person is a unique combination of temperament and experiences (yes, even twins!) is important in helping us understand the “why” of behavioral challenges. Additionally, viewing each child as an individual, and not comparing them to siblings or other children, is the best approach.
The second thing to recognize is that children have a need to exert their personal power. They want to be heard and understood! Personal power is the life force or energy that we all possess to get our needs met. We use this life force with everything we do, like choosing to refrain from pressing snooze on the alarm clock (I have heard some people are able to do this. Not me!), to deciding to eat when we are hungry. This urge is essential for survival. As people, we use our personal power in positive or negative ways. A positive use is when we use this gift to meet our needs in a way that builds our self-worth and the self-worth of others[LJ1] , like practicing healthy self-care. By taking care of yourself, you are not only improving your own quality of life but enriching your children’s lives as well. On the opposite end of the spectrum, using personal power in a negative way is when we do things to meet those needs in ways that are self-destructive or destructive to others, such as abusing alcohol and drugs in order to cope with stressors.
Control is used along with personal power when we choose to influence the behavior of others. Like personal power, control in parenting can be used in both positive and negative ways. With positive use, we are doing things for others that they cannot do themselves. An example of this is caring for any infant who is completely dependent on caregivers to have all their needs met. A negative use of control in parenting is when parents take over and do things for children that they can do themselves. Some common examples are when parents tell children how to dress, what to eat, and how to behave.
Now, I know what many of you are probably are wondering, “How can children do those things for themselves?’”
The answer: Offer them choices.
When your child is engaged in a power struggle, it is often rooted in the overall feeling of not being in control. We have all heard and seen some variation of a two or three-year-old shouting “I do it myself!”, while defiantly tapping a little foot. These behaviors come from the child feeling they are not part of decision making that directly impacts them. As adults, when we feel that we don’t have control of our own lives, we push back, and children do the same. This is our attempt to regain control of the situation. However, if we offer our children pre-approved options, we are allowing them to take some control over the things that impact them.
So, let’s look at an example of how parents can put this into practice.
Imagine that your four-year-old child really wants to have chicken nuggets for the third night in a row, but you are concerned about the lack of nutritional value and balance. As a parent you can agree to let your child have the chicken nuggets, but they must agree to something first. They must choose to have broccoli, corn, or carrots as a side dish. In this situation, you can use your knowledge about your child’s preferences to inform what those options look like. Maybe your son loves carrots and you know that will be his choice. Simply giving children the opportunity to choose for themselves fills them with a sense of personal power and helps ease some of those power struggles that can escalate into tantrums and meltdowns.
I firmly believe that every parent’s goal is to guide their children in ways that will teach them to naturally use their personal power and control to make smart and healthy choices throughout their lifetime. By using this approach, it allows the child to gain a sense of identity while allowing the parent to encourage overall empowerment.
When putting these concepts into practice, I would encourage you to remain flexible, and remember that all children are different. Like everything we learn in life, we get better with practice. If your child seems to fight you on the choices you give, remember that they may need time to adjust. Don’t forget to extend yourself some grace. It is not easy being a parent and you don’t have to know the “right” answers to everything that comes along the way.
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