From resisting shoes to kicking her way into the car seat, power struggles are a natural development as a toddler gains independence but still lacks full communication and reasoning skills. Fortunately, knowing smart strategies can help.
Your toddler can go from agreeable to resistant in the blink of an eye. What gives? Power struggles are almost inevitable at this stage of development. Your child is beginning to figure out that she’s her own person, separate from you. Opposing you is how she tests this idea and exerts her newfound independence.
Luckily, as the grown-up, you have plenty of tools to sidestep battles of wills.
Show your empathy. Sometimes all it takes is for your toddler to see that you understand. “I know you don’t feel tired enough for nap time.” “It makes you sad to leave the playground, doesn’t it?” This doesn’t mean you’ll give in, but it shows that you appreciate her side of things.
Give a warning before transitions. Some kids do better than others when making transitions from one activity to another. If transitions are difficult, it can help when they know what’s coming. Try using a timer: “When the bell goes off, we’ll get ready for lunch.” Or set a limit: “Two more trips down the slide and then we’ll head for the car.” Be sure to follow through.
Watch your phrasing. Avoid figures of speech that sound like you’re asking permission. “OK” is a common one: “We have to go now, OK?” (So, of course, your toddler thinks, “Nah, not OK with me!”) Better: “It’s time to go.”
Offer limited choices. Having input gives your toddler some control. They don’t have to be big decisions (like whether or not to nap)—it’s enough to be able to have a say-so in small matters: “Which three books should we read?” “Do you want the red cup or the green cup?” “One last playground activity: Do you pick the slide or the swings?”
Bring some imagination into it. Bypass power struggles by turning a potential conflict into something fun. Make a game out of picking up toys; who can go fastest? Race from the swings to the parking lot. Talk in a funny voice that engages your toddler and distracts her from her dissatisfaction.
Minimize saying no. It would be easy to say no all day long to a toddler: “No, you can’t touch that.” “No, don’t put that in your mouth.” “No running into the street.” “No!” “Nope.” “Uh-uh!” Unfortunately hearing no all day long can trigger defiance. Of course, adults have to set limits to keep children healthy and safe. That’s why it works best to set up a yes environment that’s childproofed and safe to explore, so you don’t have to verbalize the no so often. Use distraction and redirection instead, or respond with humor. Save no for when it’s essential, and it will have more power when your child hears it.
Give positive reinforcement. It feels good to get good feedback. When you praise your child for behavior that you like to see (putting away toys, remembering to touch a baby gently), you’re encouraging more of that cooperation in the future.