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 the “Anger 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.