Take Care of Yourself: It’s What Your Challenging Child Needs Most

Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, studied a sample of 600 parents and 1000 children (ages 8-18). The children were asked what they wished they could change about their parents’ work. The majority of the parents guessed that their children would wish that they worked less. However, most children wished that their parents were less stressed out!

When we are stressed our kids know it and they suffer. They worry about us and they experience the negative impact of our stress through our impatience, inattention, and irritability. Stress impacts our marriages adversely which, in turn, is bad for our kids. When we are stressed our feelings of well being and happiness decline as does our health.

Taking care of yourself isn’t selfish; it’s what your kids want and it is what your kids need. Great stress busters include getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet and avoiding alcohol. I know these are difficult things to do. Because you have kids, it’s hard to get enough sleep. Also, it’s precisely because you are stressed that you crave carbs, sweets, alcohol and comfort foods.

Exercise is another important part of self-care and stress management. Yoga has been show to be an especially effective form of stress management because it combines exercise with meditative breathing. Meditation, hypnosis, and progressive muscle relaxation are also excellent techniques for reducing stress. Again, I know you are saying, “I don’t have enough time as it is. How could I possibly find time to exercise, take a yoga class, or do relaxation exercises?”

Here are some ideas to get started. In the 2013 May/June issue of the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health and Fitness Journal, researchers Brett Kilka and Chris Jordan describe a 7 minute high intensity workout that requires no special equipment and provides participants with significant health benefits. So you only need 7 minutes to get started. (There are free 7-minute workout apps for android and iPhone users, also there are numerous YouTube videos that will lead you through this workout).

I am asking you to commit to caring for your child by committing to take at least 10 minutes a day to do something to care for and rejuvenate yourself. Here’s a list of possible activities (of course make sure that your children are appropriately supervised).

  • Do the 7-minute workout described above.

  • Do another brief workout – walk up and down stairs, do 10 minutes of yoga, etc.

  • Meditate. (I like: A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, by Bob Stahl and Elisha Goldstein. You can check out some of the exercises for free at the MBSRWorkbook Youtube Channel).

  • Hypnosis for relaxation or Progressive Muscle Relaxation

  • Take time for gratitude. Think about what you are grateful for in your life (this can be especially helpful if you think about what you are grateful in your relationship with your challenging child).

  • Read something humorous, inspiring, or relaxing.

  • Take a 10 minute “power nap.”


Does 1-2-3 Magic Work? A Review of 1-2-3 Magic by Thomas Phelan

1-2-31-2-3 Magic, by Thomas Phelan, describes an approach to child discipline that has the advantage of being very simple to learn and follow. When a child misbehaves he gets two warnings before being sent to his room for a time out. The “1-2-3” refers to how the warnings are given. When the parent notices that his or her child is engaging in a disapproved of activity, the parent gives two warnings followed by a time out. The first warning is indicated by the parent saying “that’s one.” If the behavior continues, after five seconds, the second warning is given, “that’s two.” Finally, if the behavior continues for 5 more seconds, the parent says, “that’s three” and sends the child to his room for a time out. The length of the time out is equal to one minute per year of the child’s age – so 3 year olds get 3 minutes and 9 year olds get 9 minutes, etc…


Once the time out has been completed the child gets a clean slate. There is no further discussion of the misbehavior. Phelan calls this the “no talking” rule. According to Phelan, after the time out there should be “Nothing! No talking, no emotion, no apologies, no lectures, no discussions. Nothing is said.” Phelan stresses that his method is to be administered with “no emotion” – like a referee enforcing the rules in a football game. If a parent doesn’t react emotionally to misbehavior, there is no possibility of a power struggle. Power struggles feed on emotion.


One question that is raised by parents when contemplating a 1-2-3 approach is, “what do I do if he won’t go to his room for a time out when I get to 3?” Phelan suggests using an alternative consequence to a time-out that has, in his words, “a little more clout.” Examples of these “time-out alternatives” might be, depending on the age of the child, no dessert, no TV, no play date, grounding, loss of use of a phone, etc…


Like any approach to discipline, 1-2-3 Magic can only “work” if parents stick with it, and it only “works” if it enables parents to remain calm and respectful when dealing with misbehavior. The strength of the 1-2-3 approach is in its simplicity. Faced with misbehavior, a parent knows just what to do. Knowing what to do makes it much less likely that a parent will act out of anger and frustration with yelling, scolding or criticism. 1-2-3 gives the parent an always ready emergency procedure to implement. Knowing what to do also makes it less likely that the parent will act inconsistently with discipline. Because misbehavior triggers 1-2-3, the parent is also less likely to ignore an infraction in one instance, or overreact in another. Another strength of the 1-2-3 method is it’s no talking rule. Many kids, boys especially, find talking about or processing conflicts to be a highly aversive thing. Often there is more ill will evoked and more misbehavior generated by trying to talk through a bad interaction with a child.


A word of caution. It is important to note that no approach to discipline is effective with every child and that limit setting approaches to discipline, like 1-2-3 Magic, come with risks. Limit setting can start off an escalating coercive power struggle that can get very heated. The child may refuse to comply with the limit, so the parents employ a more severe alternative punishment, which in turn may lead the child to greater misbehavior. If this occurs in your attempt to set limits, suspend your efforts and seek professional help.


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Understanding the Factors that Maintain a Cycle of Power Struggles

Once language processing issues, temperamental issues, and executive skills issues have started a pattern of power struggles between a challenging child and his or her parents (see my previous post on what causes power struggles), other factors can arise which maintain and even intensify the pattern of struggle. Here are several ways that patterns of power struggles can become further entrenched. As a history of power struggles becomes entrenched over time, maintaining factors become even more important to understand and address if the cycle is going to be interrupted.


Unintentionally Rewarding Your Child for Fighting with You


When a challenging child starts pleading, begging, harassing, arguing, and fighting with us when we set a limit, or when we say “no” to something he wants, it is very tempting to give in and let the child have his or her way. Nobody wants to fight with their child, and nobody wants to see their child so upset, but by giving in to the tantrum, we unintentionally teach our child that explosions and power struggles are a way to get what you want. In giving in to the explosion, we reward the behavior, thereby making it more likely to occur.


Another way to unintentionally reward our child for engaging in power struggles is to allow ourselves to be drawn into the struggle. Children need our emotionally engaged attention. In the busyness of our lives and in the midst of constant pulls on our attention from work, household responsibilities, or our phones, it is easy to be less than fully present for our kids. If they feel unable to get our positive engaged attention, our children often misbehave and cause struggles to at least get our engaged negative attention. They don’t do it consciously; it’s an automatic reaction to inattention. To children, bad attention is better than too little attention. If our kids succeed in getting our engaged, passionate attention by being uncooperative, we unintentionally reward them for misbehavior.


Negative Beliefs and Expectations


A repeated pattern of power struggles can leave parents and children not only with bad feelings, but also with negative beliefs and expectations. Power struggles and fights can lead a child to conclude incorrectly that his parents don’t like him, that they don’t want him to have what he wants, and that they don’t want him to be happy. A child with these beliefs feels that he can’t get what he wants from his parents through cooperation. He thinks that the only chance for getting what he wants is through fighting. These negative beliefs and expectations create a self-fulfilling prophesy. They lead a child to pay attention only to interactions with the parents that confirm his negative view. Positive interactions are given very little weight. Also, because these beliefs and expectations lead to more fighting, the child experiences more negative interactions with his parents which, in turn, solidify his negative beliefs.


Parents also can develop negative beliefs and expectations about their child. They can come to see their child as disrespectful, selfish, self-centered, disobedient, manipulative, etc… These negative beliefs can lead parents to overreact to misbehavior, to misinterpret their child’s motives as malicious, and to be slow to recognize change in their child.


Parental negative expectations interact with the child’s negative expectations about the parents to create a vicious cycle in which each looks for and brings out the worst in each other.


Anger and Self Esteem Problems


Children with difficult temperaments, language processing problems, and executive functioning issues often feel frustrated, incompetent, and bad about themselves because of all of the difficulties and struggles they experience with other people. When the feelings are angry feelings, children can cause fights and power struggles to express their anger. When the feelings have to do with negative self-image (I’m bad, I’m not lovable), children can cause fights and power struggles to get the anger or punishments from their parents that they feel they deserve.


Some parents can find it difficult to recognize self-esteem problems in their challenging children. Their child might refuse to apologize for hurtful behavior, the child might insist that he doesn’t care that he has acted badly or hurt someone else. The child might appear superior, arrogant or aloof rather than appropriately remorseful. When kids act like this, I often hear their parents express a worry that their child has no empathy or seems cold hearted. These behaviors that appear unempathic – refusing to apologize, saying “I don’t care” in the face of another’s hurt, or acting aloof – in most cases actually reflect the child’s efforts to protect himself from the pain associated with low self-esteem. Most children do not want to be hurtful and bad, but when they already feel badly about themselves, requests for apologies or a show of remorse can feel to the child like he is being shamed.


Power Struggles are Communications


It is important to point out that oppositional behavior in a child is, above all else, a communication. First the struggles are a communication to you about your child’s temperamental difficulties, language processing problems, or executive functioning deficits. Second, your child might be telling you with his actions that he feels angry, depressed, bad about himself, unloved, in need of your attention, etc… Most of us, however, draw incorrect conclusions about what is being communicated in the oppositional behavior. We think it’s personal (“I don’t respect you”), or it’s a statement about your child’s character (“I’m a selfish person”), or it’s a prediction about the future (“You think I’m difficult now, wait until I’m 15!”).

The Best Way to Deal with Power Struggles: Have a Plan!

The best way to deal with power struggles, tantrums, and meltdowns is to have an emergency plan. An emergency plan is a procedure or script that is implemented in the heat of the moment of a struggle. Having a plan helps prevent us from overreacting to the situation and doing things that we’ll later regret. It is the predictability of power struggles, tantrums, and meltdowns that enable us to plan. Power struggles have identifiable triggers, occur under similar circumstances, and follow consistent patterns (see my post on keeping a Parenting Journal for a description of how to identify what triggers your child’s tantrums). At the end of this post I’ll present an example of plan for dealing with explosions that occur around getting boys off computers and video games.


A good emergency plan has several parts. It begins with tools to help us remain calm. Slow, deep abdominal breathing is a terrific way to bring calm to your frazzled nerves during a power struggle. Another great calming idea is to have a “mantra” that you repeat to yourself silently as your child begins ramp up into a tantrum or struggle to help you stay focused on what’s important. If you are inclined to feel negative judgements of your child’s character during struggles (“he’s manipulative,” “he’s disrespectful,” “he’s spoiled,” “he has no regard for others’ feelings”) or if you tend to experience your child’s opposition as a personal attack on you and your parental authority, you might repeat to yourself Ross Greene’s phrase “children do well if they can.”


After deciding on steps to help you remain calm, the next part of your emergency plan concerns what actions you will take to deal with the situation. There are three basic types of actions that you can take when faced with a power struggle. The first category is Limits and Consequences. For example, as the power struggle begins, you would “set a limit” (that is, inform your child clearly and directly that his behavior is unacceptable) and warn your child of the consequence that he will receive if he continues the inappropriate behavior. It is important that your child understands in advance what the consequences will be if he engages in a power struggle. Make a list of rules and corresponding consequences and post it in the house so that it can be referred to later.


With some kids, limits and consequences run the risk of further escalating the struggle rather than ending it. If this occurs, Ross Greene recommends abandoning the limit you are trying to set in the moment to deescalate the situation. Once things have calmed down, take some time to review and modify your plan and do something different next time.


The second type of action is the use of Incentives. Incentives can be very powerful tools for teaching kids positive habits and skills. Here’s an example of how you can give a reward in an emergency situation that teaches a competency. Jane Nelson, author of Positive Discipline, has a method for helping children learn to deal with anger constructively that she calls theAnger Wheel of Choice.” The “Anger Wheel of Choice” is a circular chart in which each spoke represents a constructive expression of anger (e.g., draw a picture about your feelings, use your words, run around outside, etc…). In your emergency plan you may decide that your child will earn a reward (or points towards a reward) if he abandons the power struggle when asked and chooses a more appropriate expression of his feelings from the Anger Wheel. The reward given in this situation encourages the child to get in the habit of expressing his anger in a constructive way.


The third type of action that you can take as a part of your emergency plan is to try to soothe your child’s emotional distress. Children engaging in power struggles are anxious, or angry, or experiencing some other form of negative emotion. Most people (adults and children) tend to calm down when you take the time to listen to, understand, and accept their feelings and validate their point of view. Temporarily setting aside your agenda in the power struggle and attempting to understand what your child is upset about can sometimes lead to the deescalation of a power struggle.


Another suggestion from Ross Greene is: be flexible. Kids who regularly get into power struggles frequently do so because they have difficulty being flexible. Greene suggests that the formula for a power struggle is:


inflexibility (in the child) + inflexibility (in the parent) = explosion.

If, in the midst of the power struggle you can remain flexible and suggest alternatives that still meet your needs but which work better for your child, that can often help deescalate the situation.


Sample Emergency Plan: Power Struggles Over Computer Use                                                                       


One of the most common power struggle with challenging boys comes when you ask them to turn off their computer games. Here’s an example of what an initial plan might look like. Of course, the particulars of your plan depend on your child and your situation. Aspects of this example may not work with your child. It is meant as an example.


1. Take a few minutes for deep breathing.


A child playing a computer game is not in any risk of injury so there is no reason to jump in immediately. Your plan has a much better chance for success if you take 2-3 minutes to calm yourself with deep breathing before you engage your child.


2. Repeat your mantra.


Most computer battles start with a child who has difficulty with transitions. To further help keep you calm, you might use a variation of Greene’s mantra (“children do well if they can”) — “he would get off the computer right when I ask, if he could” — which helps quiet the anger that accompanies feeling that he’s choosing to be disrespectful or disobedient.


3. Follow your script.


You decide that your plan is going to utilize the power of incentives, some empathy, and a consequence. This requires some advance work. You let your son know your plan: you will give him three warnings to help him anticipate the end of his screen time: at 10-minutes, at 5-minutes, and at 1-minute. You explain to your son that if he gets off the game before his time is up you will add his remaining time plus 10 minutes to the next day’s session (this is the incentive). If he gets off after his session time is up, the amount of time he goes over will be subtracted from future sessions (this is the consequence). In your emergency plan you know you will then follow this script and give him the 10 and 5-minute warnings and then finally at 1 minute you’ll say calmly, “1-minute go to. Remember the rule. If you stop before time is up, you get ten extra minutes tomorrow. If you continue playing after I have asked you to get off, that time will be subtracted from tomorrow.”


4. Reflect and revise.


When time comes to implement your plan, it will go very well, very badly, or something in between. The most important thing to understand is that ending power struggles is a process. An emergency plan is just one step. After you’ve implemented our plan, you will undoubtedly learn things about how to improve it and you will make those changes. Each time through your plan will get better and better.


Good luck!

The Top 3 Causes of Power Struggles (bad parenting isn’t one of them!).

The three top causes of power struggles are: difficult temperament, delays in language development, and deficits in executive functioning.


Before discussing the causes of power struggles in more depth, I want to talk first about easy kids, kids who don’t get into frequent and intense power struggles. Most of us know easy kids. In fact, many parents of challenging kids also have an easy kid. These kids from birth just have fewer meltdowns, tantrums, explosions and power struggles than challenging kids. They generally get off the computer, accept that they can’t get the toy they see in the store, fight less with their siblings, clean their rooms with much less nagging, and do their homework with much less struggle than challenging kids. It’s not that easy kids never engage in these difficult behaviors, it’s just that they do so with less frequency, less intensity and they are far less easily triggered. With easy kids there’s more room to relax as a parent. You don’t need to be on top of them and on top of your game every minute of the day to get the minimum level of compliance needed to keep life more or less on course.


Challenging kids, in contrast to easy kids, beg for “just ten more minutes” on their computer game and then go ballistic an hour later when, fed up, you shut the computer off. Challenging kids plead, argue, berate, harass and finally explode when you when you say “no” to something they want you to buy them or to something they want to do. They hit their siblings with seemingly no provocation. To get them to clean up their things or do their homework you have to supervise every minute to keep them on task, and still you frequently end up in a fight. With challenging kids it seems like you have to be on alert 24-7 to keep things under control.


Why are challenging kids and easy kids so different? We call easy kids “good kids” and we have all sorts of negative labels for challenging kids: oppositional, defiant, willful, manipulative, angry, rebellious, and many people just call them “bad kids.” Ross Greene has a wonderful phrase in his book, The Explosive Child: he says, “Children do well if they can.” What he means is that all kids deep down want to be “good.” What distinguishes easy kids from challenging kids is that challenging kids frequently lack the skills they need to be good.


Challenging kids often are born with, what researchers call, a difficult temperament. They are just moodier and more irritable than their easy temperament counterparts. It’s difficult to resolve conflicts with others when your thinking is overwhelmed by negative feelings. We all know that when we’re in a bad mood we get irritated, snap, take our bad feelings out on others, and are generally quite difficult to get a long with. Some kids are battling these bad moods much of the time.


Challenging kids also frequently have developmental delays in language processing These language processing delays can be present even in kids who were not delayed in learning to talk. The processing delays I am referring to are related to the speed with which children can process and comprehend what is said to them. It also refers to difficulties understanding and expressing subtle or abstract ideas. These delays can mean that it is more difficult for the child to express him or herself verbally – such as what he wants, why she want its, or what he feels. We often tell little children to “use your words,” but these kids have a very difficult time doing this. It’s frustrating not to be able to express yourself. Because words are so difficult for these kids, they use yelling, door slamming, or hitting instead to express their unhappiness, anger, and frustration – actions that often set off fights and power struggles. Children with language issues can also have difficulty understanding exactly what is being asked of them and what the rules are in a given situation. Many times their lack of compliance results from a genuine misunderstanding of what may seem like an obvious request.


In addition to temperament issues, and language processing delays, I have found in my practice that almost all kids who engage in frequent power struggles are behind in their executive functioning development, which makes it more difficult for them to deal effectively with the frustrations, disappointments, and interpersonal conflicts that life presents us all with. This is true even of kids who do not have a diagnosable condition, such as ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorders, Anxiety, Mood Disorders, or Learning Disabilities.


Executive functioning refers to the group of cognitive skills that enable a person to decide upon a goal and pursue it, and to respond adaptively to new or complex situations (like interpersonal conflicts). Just as an executive in an organization establishes the vision, or goals, for the organization, and then makes decisions and manages the individuals in the organization in order to achieve those goals, so too the executive part of our brains is in charge of setting goals, making plans, and managing the impulses and emotions that arise in us that may prevent us from achieving our goals.


It’s important to point out that executive skills are independent from intelligence. Very smart children can have poor executive skills. It can be quite confusing when your smart kid acts in seemingly “dumb” ways because of deficits in executive functioning.


To review, a pattern of power struggles doesn’t start because your child is bad – that is, lazy, manipulative, oppositional, etc… They start because the way your child’s development is delayed in ways that make it very difficult for him to comply with requests that other children have a much easier time with. It is also the case that a pattern of power struggles doesn’t start because you are a bad parent who uses inadequate discipline.


Let me repeat. A pattern of power struggles does not begin because you are a bad parent, or because your child is a bad kid. In the heat of a struggle it can feel like the problem originates with your child’s will when it is really his or her lack of skill. We tailor what we ask our children to do based on what is developmentally appropriate to ask of them. We ask a 5-year-old to clear her plate, but we don’t expect her to be able to prepare dinner. If we did, there would be a tantrum. She simply hasn’t developed the skills to prepare dinner. It’s not a matter of being willful. No amount of bribing, threatening, lecturing, yelling, etc… can give a 5-year-old the skills to prepare an edible dinner. Similarly, when we meet with oppositional behavior in our child it is frequently because we have asked him to do something that he simply lacks the skills to do, even though many other kids the same age can successfully accomplish what is being asked. So let’s put away the temptation to place blame – blame doesn’t solve anything – and get started addressing the underlying problems.


These two books are excellent places to get started resolving the underlying causes of the power struggles you are having with your child.


Ross Greene’s The Explosive Child.  (click here to go to my review of The Explosive Child).

Stanley I. Greenspan’s The Challenging Child.