One of my favorite strategies to develop a warm but equitable relationship with toddlers is to share the power. Yes, I said it. Adults have power in the relationship and toddlers know it. In order for you to succeed in using this strategy with your toddler, you have to accept the fact that children long to be the powerful ones in a relationship. but they know the reality: we make most of the decisions.
This is true even if you are a committed push-over. Even if you subscribe to free-parenting and allowing the child to lead, you are still the one deciding when the last book is read at bedtime and when to leave the park in time for grade-school pick -up. In fact, I will guess that children who have the power to turn the kitchen into a diner that cooks to order have the larger tantrum when they hit a situation they cannot control. Say…there are no more goldfish crackers in the house right now. It is raining and the pool at the club is closed. Kids that cannot believe that this time they will not get what they want are often inconsolate. They have no regular experience of it. Remember, they cannot be expected to understand that there are circumstances beyond our control. They think magically. That is normal for toddlers, and if you think that they can comprehend the difference, you are in for some major meltdowns when events take their course.
The other extreme will also get you some award-winning tantrums. Expecting immediate and full compliance with all your instructions will put you at odds with the natural limit-pressing that children must do, all the way into the teen years. If toddlers do not feel that they have any power ever, they are more likely to demand it by taking hostages in the check-out line at the grocery store or in the lobby at daycare. If you have ever been that parent with a wigged-out toddler in the grocery store, looking right at you as he twirls and kicks, you know what I mean.
I work with a child privately whose mom really argued this point with me. She was doing a good job convincing me that her kids had equal power until she told them at the end of my session that they had to get their coats on NOW, and they would be leaving for haircuts shortly. Who decided on haircuts today? At that exact time? Did they have a choice whether to go or where to go to get their hair cut? Of course not! Her kids knew that they were going to get haircuts then, even if they didn’t want to, and not complying would be met with consequences. So much for “equal power”.
Adults are the managers of kid’s lives, and most kids really want and need adults to give them confidence that the “big people” know what to do and can take care of them. Adults being powerful doesn’t automatically crush their spirit or destroy their confidence. Kids just want to be considered and respected. I think ceding some power over minor situations can show them that respect, and give them a chance to feel powerful without using whining or aggression to get there.
You may think of yourself as a very democratic parent, always offering your child freedom and choice. I cannot argue with that, but it might not even matter that you are right. Dr. Karp (of the Happiest Toddler on the Block) taught me that all that matters to toddlers is how they see a situation. I am suggesting that by inserting many, many daily opportunities for tiny power moves, you create the sense in a toddler that they are respected and have enough power. It creates easier transitions when adults have to step in and take charge, and it gives toddlers opportunities to experience what happens when they make the choices.
The low-hanging fruit of this strategy are the decisions children make for themselves that do not affect any significant outcomes. These are the ones that all the parenting articles mention. Give your child two choices on which shirt to wear. Let him choose the blue or green bowl for cereal. Well, that does works a little bit, and works better with the youngest or most compliant toddlers. No 2.5 year old is empowered by a choice that he knows has no teeth. You could use those magazine’s techniques all day long and still not make a dent in your defiant toddler’s demands. Your more impact-ful power sharing technique with a controlling or older toddler? controlling YOU!
Which puzzle do you want US to do now? Do you want me to sit here or there? Can I color on your ninja picture or do you want me to stay on my own picture? Can I go first or do you want to? Now we are talking! Telling you “no”, or at least having the opportunity to do so, and then seeing you comply, this is real power!
I weave no less than 5 little opportunities to tell me “no” into a 45-minute therapy session with a defiant toddler. At first, they are all about shutting me down. They love it. This can go on for a while if a child really has perceived themselves as less powerful than siblings or has had a major life changes such as a new school or sibling. Gradually, and sometimes it happens over many sessions, they get it: I will give them power and respect them. Then the magic happens. Easier transitions, fewer defiant moments. Life has become better.