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Allison LaTona, M.F.T.
Psychotherapist | Parenting Coach + Educator

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Creating a Win Win

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One of the most wonderful aspects of a young child is their ability to be present, to be so in-the-moment, without an agenda of time, or of getting tasks done. This presence drives their curiosity, exploration, creativity, problem solving, and learning.  It allows them to get lost in their imagination, thereby facilitating their learning about the adult world.  This is simply magical to witness, yet is often challenged by the parent needing to transition their child to the various caregiving routines of the day, such as a diaper change, clean up, or bedtime, etc., none of which are in the child’s agenda. 

Depending on where your child is in their development and their temperament, they very well may protest the upcoming transition that is requiring them to move away from their play and exploration.  Children don’t typically care about getting clean or to bed on time!  Given they are driven to ultimately become their own autonomous and separate being, it is in these moments of conflicting agenda, where they often choose to assert their independence with protest of the upcoming task or transition that is taking them out of their present moment.  

Parents often don’t recognize the developmental need underlying the protest. Instead they either respond with an attempt to ‘power over’ the child with their authority, leading to an ineffective power struggle, or acquiesce on their limit to avoid the conflict, thereby giving their child too much power.  Children need a limited, appropriate amount of power to meet their drive for autonomy, yet too much power leaves them feeling unsafe. This is a delicate balance for parents to navigate.  Getting a handle on this balance will facilitate more successful interactions, where both sets of needs are met.  

In order to respond effectively to a transition being protested by a child, we must first understand that behavior is communication, and therefore has meaning.  Underlying all misbehavior, there is a message from your child.  When you recognize and address the underlying meaning of their behavior, your child will feel understood, connected, and will more likely be cooperative.  No doubt this requires mindfulness and presence as a parent.  With so many daily tasks and transitions, it is not always easy to be aware of what your child is communicating in their behavior.  Yet it is worth striving for since when children feel heard, they are more likely to listen, thereby preserving the positivity in your relationship and increasing your general effectiveness as a parent.  

When parents are able to address the communication beneath their child’s protest, they can create a positive outcome in the undesired transition.  Knowing a child’s need for independence is often reflected in their protest, parents realize they have a choice.  They can assert their authority over the child, with a struggle that often ensues, or instead, strategically invite cooperation by creatively eliciting their child’s power, and inspiring a win-win scenario.  

eg. Parent: “It’s time for bath”

Child:

  • ”NO bath!” 

Parent:

  • “Would you like a horsey ride or a piggy back ride?”  or

  • “What toys would you like to put in the bath?”

Your child moves from their ‘NO’ to having had their attention pulled by an idea or object in the direction of the parent’s agenda by instead thinking…’horsey ride’??...’toys’??  The child feels powerful, and autonomous with a choice, and now effortlessly moves toward cooperation.  The parent feels satisfied, effective and relieved to have avoided a power struggle…and the interaction becomes a WIN-WIN!!  This to me…. is the art of parenting!

To create more win-win interactions:

Have appropriate expectations

Children’s developmental mandate is to test their boundaries to learn about their world, and separate from their parents in order to become their own person.  They are in-the-moment with their own ideas and the need to explore them.  When you understand this as a parent it guides you to respect their individuality, while still setting limits.  It inspires you to be mindful and strategic in your approach to foster connection and be most effective.    

Prepare your child with the plan

When you give your child a heads up on the upcoming transition, they feel respected and more in control, which lends itself to increased cooperation. Often when children are prepared with the plan, they ‘rise to the occasion’ with little to no testing or protest.

Recognize their need for connection

When it’s time to transition your child, get down on their level, touch their shoulder, look up at their eyes, and let them know it is time.  Making this connection is a game changer for getting your child on the same team. When children feel connected to you, they are more likely to cooperate. When instead parents call out a directive from across the room, children are not engaged, and will therefore likely ignore, which often leads parents to repeat the directive to no avail, and become very frustrated.  Take the time to connect.

Connect with where they are 

Notice what it is they are doing, engage with their world for a moment before moving them along.  When you recognize your child’s world of play as important, join it for even just a moment, they are more likely to listen and transition more easily. When you come alongside a child and connect with where they are before moving them toward your agenda, your relationship is fostered, while transitions are smoothed.

Recognize their need for power

In every potentially “sticky” transition, make it a practice to ask yourself “how can I help my child feel powerful?”. The smallest things invite children’s interest, engagement and skill development.  Invite their power into the equation and you will gain their cooperation.

  • eg. “It’s time to say goodbye”…”Can you help me close the gate?”

  • eg. “It’s time to get into your car seat”…”Do you want to climb in?” 

  • eg. “It’s time to get into your stroller”…”Can you help me buckle the belt?”

Use less directives and engage their thinking

A large part of our communication with children tends to be directive. While directive communication is necessary some of the time, it is often not so effective with children.  As children are driven toward autonomy, using directive communication eg. “clean up”, “do your homework”, “get in the bath”, “put that away”, or “hurry get in car” often gets met with resistance in order to hold onto their emerging self.  Alternatively, when you mindfully ask questions that in essence are to get them to do something you want, you engage their thinking, resulting in more cooperation.  You have invited their responsibility into the interaction, and they are driven to answer the question with compliance. 

  • eg. “where does that go?”

  • “what goes in your backpack?”

  • “what do you want to put in the bath?”

  • “which part do you want to do?” 

  • “what did I ask you to do?”

Be willing to follow through consistently

If your child does not ‘take the bait’ when you invite their power into the interaction, they have now lost their chance to exercise their power, and you must respectfully follow through with action.  When you consistently follow through… eg. “Looks like I need to help you”…”Looks like I need to move you”…”Looks like you need mommy to choose”… your child soon learns to take the invitation when it is offered, and thus the increased cooperation comes in due time.

Fill up your tank

Creating win-win interactions are not always intuitive, especially when we are exhausted and exasperated from the daily demands of being a parent.  Parenting requires a tremendous amount of resources such as physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and financial resources.  When low on resources, you will be more challenged in being mindful of the developmental needs of your child, as well as the most effective approach and language to use.  When you notice you are losing your patience with a lack of cooperation, and getting into power struggles with your child, recharge with some self-care so you can find what it takes to create more win-win interactions. 

Allison LaTona