Power Struggles with a Three-Year-Old

Channeling anger and frustration to get to positive outcomes

Dear Dr. Bluestein:

I’m getting to the point with my daughter that I have to remove myself from her presence so that I can control my anger.

It seems that I can’t get to bathe, dress, feed, or change her diaper. Yes, diaper. (We’re dealing with some constipation issues.) I just feel like giving up.

The situation with her has gotten progressively worse. Right now (at 9:47 p.m.) she is on the bed with my husband in her Halloween costume with a diaper that won’t make it through the night. I tried to bathe her, change her diaper, get her into pajamas, but to no avail. So I threw up my hands and walked out.

At this point, I’m just trying not to get angry. As a result of this, I let her do almost anything because I’m afraid of my anger. Getting angry only makes things worse but letting her do anything she wants also is bad. I don’t know if you can help me but I thought it was worth a try.

Reply:

How frustrating!! Well, the fact that you’ve written before you totally lost it is a very good thing. Wanting to resolve this power struggle now, with your child of three, is also a good move, because this will only get worse if you’re not willing to show up, be the adult, and draw the line now!

Now this doesn’t mean yelling, scolding, punishing, threatening, or losing control. The challenge here is to not be so impressed by her reaction to your attempts to impose any limits on her, to not be afraid of the potential tantrum, and to not get hooked by her unpleasant reactions when it’s time to do any of the things you mention. 

You’ve got a couple of issues here. I know it’s tough to be assertive with a volatile kid. (I can only guess what you mean when you say you “can’t get” to bathe her, etc. or that you’ve tried “to no avail.”) I see a lot of parents who are totally freaked out and intimidated by their kids’ resistance, tantrums, or oppositional behavior, enough so that they end up in your situation, letting the child do whatever he or she wants. (And you’re right: Walking away to get your anger under control may be a smart move, but giving up is definitely not an option.)

Kids need limits and good follow through, and clearly that’s not happening here. I think one problem is the impression that this stuff is actually negotiable. 

Now while I’m a big fan of negotiating with kids, giving them power within limits you can live with, and encouraging their autonomy with positive choices, for example, the fact remains that certain things are simply NOT negotiable. The options are whether the bath is going to be a pleasant experience for her or not—and leaving that up to her.

Now here’s the good news: Even if the bath (or diaper changing or bedtime or whatever) is a totally miserable experience for her, you can still stay calm and even keep a smile on your face! One of the things I’ve seen a lot of successful parents do is to find a way to satisfy their children’s need for control around things they’re actually allowed to control. So a few tips:

• Do NOT suggest that she has any say in WHETHER she’s getting her diaper changed, taking a bath, or going to bed (or school or whatever), BUT…

Give her choices and options around each of these things AND…

• State the options positively.

For example, you can state it like this: “It’s bath time and you know what? YOU get to pick out the washcloth and towel (or select the toy to take in the tub, or choose the story she wants you to read while she’s in the tub or even, if you have more than one tub, decide which bathroom or tub she wants to use).” Use AND instead of BUT in the first sentence. This is important because the brain hears the two words differently.

If she balks…

Validate her feelings: “I know you wish you didn’t have to take a bath.” This doesn’t mean that the bath isn’t going to happen. It just means that it’s OK to get upset about it.

I think this is something we all forget sometimes as so few of us grew up even being allowed to have feelings, much less express them!! (And even adults get upset when they don’t get their way.)

If she stonewalls, set a time limit: “You’ve got until the big hand is on the (whatever—no more than 5 minutes, say) to decide on the washcloth (or toy or whatever). After that it’s my choice.”

Note: Do be aware that she will probably hate your choice. If she has a better idea: “NO, I want the BLUE washcloth,” assuming you have a blue washcloth, she’s giving you an opening for one of the greatest techniques I’ve ever found. AGREE WITH HER: “What a great choice.” (Do not act impatient or exasperated or give in to the impulse to yell at her about why she couldn’t have let you know that in the first place! This, too, gives her tremendous power just by getting you to react.)

If she does not have a better idea, then you can assure her: “That’s OK, we’ll try again tomorrow.” And off to the tub you go. (Smile, relax, enjoy and let her just be wherever she’s at while you’re washing her.)

You can also offer her something she really likes or likes to do as soon as you finish changing her diaper and be sure that these privileges (which can range from playing with a toy, watching TV,* or even being with the family) are only available when this task is done. Nobody should have to be around a stinky diaper when other options are available. You also may want to consider the possibility that she’s getting old enough to clean herself up and needs to do so before she’s welcome at dinner or allowed to go outside, for example.

And yes, be prepared for a reaction you might not like. Look at how well this has been working for her!

Still, I’ll bet she’s smart enough to know when her behavior isn’t working and will hopefully become more cooperative in short order. Be aware that this means consistent follow-through on your part—NOT reacting or giving up (that gives her a lot of power at your expense), and not allowing desirable outcomes until the bath is done, the diaper is changed or she’s in her pajamas, for example. (Consider the article, “Bedtime without a Battle.”)

One thing is for certain: SHE WON’T CHANGE UNTIL YOU CHANGE. I really want to stress that this doesn’t mean using more anger or bigger punishments. She really needs to see that her behavior really isn’t getting her what she wants anymore, and to choose behaviors that will generate more positive experiences and outcomes. And this is up to you.

I’m going to throw the kitchen sink in here, adding a few more tips:

Use time limits to allow her to enjoy what she’s doing until the privilege ends. Instead of “You can’t wear your costume to bed” you can offer, “The costume is for Halloween.” (Although frankly, I don’t know that it’s even a big deal if she wants to sleep in it and wear it however it looks when she goes out to trick-or-treat, assuming that this is what it’s for. However, if this is important to you:) “You can wear your costume for ten more minutes (until the big hand is on…) and then it’s time to get into pajamas.”

Also please check her diet. I’ve had a lot of parents report enormous changes in their children’s behavior when they restricted or eliminated access to refined sugars and processed foods, chemicals (particularly anything with BHA, BHT, or artificial colors or flavors) or other dietary allergens (which can include all sorts of stuff like milk, wheat, corn, soy, peanuts, etc. Visit the Feingold Institute Web site for more information.) This might also help with the constipation problems you mentioned.

Hope this helps. Let me know how this goes. I’ll be holding a good thought.

Jane

*I’m real cautious about offering TV to little kids. If you allow TV in your home, please consider limiting it to 30-60 minutes a day, max. Check out Jane Healy’s research on this topic, and Carla Hannaford’s work as well.

© 2008, 2012, 2022, Dr. Jane Bluestein

Related resources: 

Book: The Parent’s Little Book of Lists: Do’s and Don’ts of Effective Parenting 
Book: The Book of Article ReprintsIndividual articles also available.

9 Ways to be More Proactive
The Challenge of Setting Boundaries
Characteristics of a Good Boundary
Guidelines for Handling Your Children’s Negative Behavior
Guidelines for Offering Choices to Your Children
Guidelines for Reinforcing Cooperation
How to Avoid Meltdowns in Public
Motivating Cooperative Behavior
Motivation vs. Manipulation
Obedient vs. Cooperative Behavior: There is a Difference
Reasons for Parents to Use Boundaries
Reasons to Not Ask “Why”
Rules and Boundaries
Tired of Nagging Your Kids? Here’s what you can do instead
What’s So Hard about Win-Win? 

Podcast: The Choice is Yours with Lynn Collins
Podcast: Is Control the Goal? with Tammy Cox

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