"Hon, you know we have to be dressed before breakfast. Please go back upstairs and get your school clothes on."
Jacob ignores his mom and plays with the cat.
"Jacob, up you go. We are going to be late."
Jacob drags the kitchen stool across the floor to the counter -- SCREECH!
"Jacob will you stop that! You're marking the floor!"
Jacob glares at his mom as he continues to drag the stool. Mom snaps and in the next breath both are engaged in a tug-of-war over the stool and yelling at each other. Sound familiar?
Conflicts are a part of life and especially common among family members. While they may be frustrating (OK, sometimes they are outright infuriating) they actually aren't all bad -- honest. Conflict is an important part of our kids' (and often our own) development. The key is to deal with it in a respectful and caring manner before it escalates in a power struggle. Here's how.
1. Learn to share
When we use power over kids to manage and direct them or call the shots, we put ourselves in a position of superiority. Your child is then faced with the uncomfortable choice of submitting to your will or resisting his will. It's a no-win situation.
In the case of Jacob, if he submits, he will feel powerless and defeated. On the other hand, he has learned that defiance makes him feel powerful. If these are the only two choices in his mind, it's no wonder why defiance wins out every time. Yet, when you give into the demands of your child and let him call the shots you are giving him all the power.
What's a parent to do? Share power with your kids so that the relationship is based on cooperation. (The exception, of course, is when the child is in a dangerous situation -- then by all means, take charge!) This is easily accomplished by giving your child a role in decision making -- a voice and a say in areas that affect him.
2. Stop managing and directing
When you manage and direct your kids it shows a lack of confidence in them and can make them feel inadequate. This attitude is hurtful. And when our kids are hurt by us, they hurt back. (We all have this powerful primal reflex.) In Jacob's case, he hurt Mom by resisting her directions and then by getting even with a fight. A better approach for Mom is to focus on who she has control over: herself. Tell Jacob what she will do (not what he will do), such as, "I will serve you breakfast as soon as you are ready," or ask a question, such as "How quickly can you be ready for breakfast, Jacob?" With this approach, you are teaching your child to be responsible and use his own judgment.
Page 1 of 3 -- Learn how to teach the value of responsibility to your kids on page 2
3. Give your kids life skills
Your child wants to do well, feel close to others in the family and have some control over himself. Help him find positive power in his life by teaching him the skills of independence, resourcefulness, decision making and problem solving. For example, when a three-year-old is encouraged to choose his own clothes each morning, prepare a sandwich or help with dishes, he is gaining the confidence and experience to prepare himself for more complex tasks and decisions later in life.
Tap into your child's innate desire to learn. Teach an older child to call and arrange his own play dates, book the cat's check-up at the vet and go to the weather channel or listen to the radio to find out the weather so he knows if he needs to take a coat and umbrella to school. Again, you are building on your child's sense of independence and resourcefulness.
4. Talk to yourself
In times of tension it's important to keep your cool, so replace your negative self-talk about your child with more positive thoughts such as:
• I can't force my child. I can only encourage him to work with me.
• This, too, will pass -- just have
• I'm in charge of how I feel and what I do, not my child.
• I love my son, but I don't love what he is doing at the moment.
5. Give information, ask questions and offer choices
Make statements that give your child information he can use and let him know what he has to do. For example, Jacob's mom could say, "Breakfast is just about ready." Then be quiet; resist the urge to tell him what to do. If nothing happens ask a question or offer a choice, such as "Jacob, what do you need to do before breakfast?" or "How can I help you get ready for breakfast?" This approach will help your child focus on the needs at hand and direct himself. HINT: When you present a power-hungry child with a choice, such as "Do you want to get your clothes on upstairs or bring them down here?" he feels good because he is making the decision -- not you! Just don't give choices you aren't willing to follow through on.
6. Let routines be the boss
Ask your child, "What do we do in our house before breakfast?" Be quiet and let him take the next step. If he keeps resisting the established routine, maybe it's time to hammer out a new one. Why? Routines work best when your child has a say and you are consistent and follow through. That means if you agree to him being dressed before breakfast, and he goofs around, he might miss breakfast. Natural consequences can be wonderful life lessons if we don't give endless warnings or bail out our kids.
7. Show you care
Ask, "Are you having a rough morning?" Then give your child a hug as a way to make amends. Offering closeness when our kids are expecting distance can be powerful. It shows you believe in them and can diffuse the conflict.
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8. Let your feet do the talking
Don't go on and on; save your breath, hold out your hand and lead your child calmly upstairs and show him the clothes he needs to put on. If you talk, chat about the weather, not about what he needs to do. Jacob's mom could have moved the stool without comment -- in a kind but firm way. Remember it is just as important how you do something as it is what you do.
9. Ask for help
Kids love to be resourceful, though it may not seem this way. It makes them feel valued and that their ideas are important. Jacob's mom could have asked him, "What do you think we can do about this stool? It's making a mess, isn't it?"
10. Give your child a job
Your child has more time and energy than you do, so why do everything for him? Because it's faster and better? Perhaps. But that's short-term thinking. Instead try to nurture life skills.
11. Tone it down
Your tone speaks volumes. Comments such as "Dragging the stool is scratching the floor," said in an impatient manner will reap the same results as bossing. (Imagine the look you'd get if you spoke to a girlfriend that way.) Use a respectful approach and stay calm.
12. Encourage effort
Acknowledge any effort. Comments such as "We got out of the house on time. Give me five!" (even though breakfast was missed) go a long way.
13. Walk away
OK, you're thinking, These strategies may work on someone else's kid but not on mine! It may take a while to get the results you are looking for so in the meantime, bail out before the boat sinks! After all, we get the results we want when we are calm and not all revved up for a fight.
When Jacob wasn't cooperating and his mom was getting annoyed, she could have left the kitchen without words, or perhaps with this great line: "Jacob, I love you too much to fight. I am going upstairs until we are both calm."
This isn't giving in; it's modelling a respectful approach to dealing with conflict. BONUS: You'll be teaching your kids about respect for one's self and for others.
14. Start fresh
Jacob and Mom need to find a calm time to discuss ways to make tomorrow a better day. Talk about your child's feelings first and then your feelings (keeping it to 10 words or less -- you don't want to lose him!). Then brainstorm for solutions together. Put one to the test for a few days. View it as a process that will require patience and likely some fine-tuning!
Beverley Cathcart-Ross is a certified parent educator and founder of the Parenting Network.
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