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How Understanding ‘Power’ Can Help With Toddler Behavior

By Kylee Sallak
4 min read

Back to basics parenting boils down to four major tools you need to understand in order to resolve 90% of behavior issues at home with your little ones. These four tools are under-standing power, control & attention, setting boundaries, consistency, and positive discipline. While all four tools are necessary, it’s important to break them down so you understand each one properly. This will better assist you as you conquer your little one’s behavior issues.

The first principal of back to basics parenting is all about understanding power. Understanding power helps you reduce power struggles and tantrums. Power, control, and attention are three things every human needs. Your child is no exception. Consider what areas of your child’s daily life you can give them the sense that they are in control while still maintaining your appropriate position of authority as the parent.

There are two paths your child can take when it comes to power:

  • Path One: Kids can gain the feeling of Power/Control/Attention (P/C/A) in NEGATIVE WAYS which include throwing tantrums and power struggles.
  • Path Two: Kids can gain the feelings of P/C/A in POSITIVE WAYS like being given age appropriate choices, offering opportunities for freedoms you pre-select for them, and making time to play with them in a focused manner.

Both of these paths will fulfill their need for P/C/A. Every parent would love for their child to always take path two. Let’s face it, attempting to escape tantrums and power struggles is likely the reason you are reading this article in the first place. The second path is what we are here to talk about.

When your child throws a tantrum and you are engaging with them, either by giving them what they want, by letting them see that you are bothered by the tantrum, or by negotiating with them, you are giving your child a surge of P/C/A. Being as that is what they want and need to feel, they will learn that throwing a tan-trum is an easy and effective way to feel that power and they will keep doing it.

While the scenario above might look familiar with your little one, let’s look at it in our adult lives. Pretend for a moment you are at work and your boss asks you to do some sort of task. You respond by slamming your desk drawer and yelling at your boss that you don’t want to do that. In this scenario, your boss responds to your outburst by saying, “Okay calm down. What can I do to make you happy?” Aren’t you going to walk away from that interac-tion having learned the lesson that your loud behavior gave you control over your boss? Let’s hope you don’t behave this way at work, but think about how powerful you would feel if you were a jerk at work and your behavior made your boss treat you more favorably.

Let’s make it even more subtle than your boss trying to overtly make you happy in that moment. Let’s just pretend you slam the desk drawer and yell at him and you see his facial expression and body language flinch, shrink, or otherwise back down. Even if he is not being as obvious as giving you whatever you want, your behavior still quickly positioned you to have leverage and power over your boss and you could see it in the flustered way he react-ed to your outburst.

During a temper tantrum, your child is learning the same thing. It feels empowering as a child to cause the parent to be noticeably flustered or frustrated, or trying to do whatever it takes to make the screaming stop. Your little one is smart enough to think, “This works great! I am powerful enough to make them mad or make them ASK me to stop!”

Just for clarity, giving into a tantrum is a massively slippery slope. You might feel like you are conquering battles by winning little moments of peace and joyful bliss, but it is my duty to make you aware that you are silently and rapidly losing the war. Try to think about having a neutral, non-emotional response to the behavior as often as you can. This means not be-coming visually or verbally flustered. Staying calm and giving them space to feel their feel-ings without unintentionally giving a surge of negative P/C/A.

Power struggles and tantrums are going to keep happening, more often, lasting longer, and getting more intense if you don’t start making a conscious decision to offer opportunities for positive P/C/A. There are many ways we can have positive P/C/A in our households. Here are some examples:

  1. Put your phone down, close your computer, and play, read, or snuggle with your child once a day. Focused, playful attention where they have all of you to themselves. It can be coloring or making a magic potion during bath time, or playing legos or read-ing, or playing outside-the activity doesn’t matter, as long as they have your full at-tention and playful affection during that time. Even if this is just 20 or 30 minutes a day consistently, it makes a huge difference.
  2. If your child is recently potty trained, give them the option of using a potty chair in their room or heading to the bathroom. They get to decide, they get to be independent, they don’t need you to tell them how or where to go potty and that makes them feel empowered and big and in control of their own body.
  3. Let them “make” their own breakfast. This depends on how old they are, little ones can pick out the cereal box, bigger ones can crack the eggs in a bowl, they can drag the chair over and pick out a bowl and spoon, or climb up to the toaster and add the bread and push the button down, pour the milk on the cereal, etc Whatever they are capable of doing, let them feel big and independent. Don’t worry about them doing it perfectly, just show them that you trust them to do this important and helpful task.
  4. Let them pick out clothes (within reason) and get themselves dressed as much as they know how to. For 3-5 year olds, use a timer to make it a fun game and so it doesn’t feel like you are standing over them nagging them to get dressed.
  5. Use the two-choices method, and use it often. Briefly, the two-choices method is about giving them a choice in situations where it might be a little faster or easier to just make a choice FOR them. For example:
    • Would you like to walk to the grocery store or ride your scooter?
    • Would you like pears with lunch or banana?
    • Would you like to get PJs on in your room or in our room?
    • Would you like to leave the playground right now or 5 minutes?
    • Would you like to do books first or sing a song first?
    • Would you like to help Mommy fold towels or quietly read books while Mommy finishes folding towels?

If you are finding yourself having lots of power struggles, feeling like your once well-behaved child is becoming a distant memory, then this is one of the areas that you need to examine honestly. You need to ask yourself the following simple questions:

  1. Are we rushing and making decisions for her because it is easier for us, where we could be giving her an opportunity for positive P/C/A?
  2. Are we giving him negative P/C/A by getting frustrated or negotiating during tan-trums?
  3. Are we missing chances to anticipate a tantrum before it begins (you can usually see when they are coming 30 seconds ahead of time) and use the 2 choices method to avoid the tantrum completely?
  4. Are we distracted by phones, computers, etc when we are playing with him?

If you answer YES to any of these, you will find changing these four things will make a no-ticeable difference in your child’s behavior, simply because you are providing positive oppor-tunities for P/C/A which means they will not feel the need to get those feelings from throw-ing a fit.

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By Kylee Sallak
Keely Sallak Kylee Sallak

Founder of Back To Basics Parenting in New York City, Kylee specializes in newborn through 5-year-old sleep and behavior. The overall premise of Back To Basics Parenting is that happy parents raise happy children. Kylee brings the issue of managing parental happiness to the forefront of the conversation with all of her clients.

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