This post was originally written for a local paper in 2019.
Does this sound familiar? You’re running late, and your child has spent the last 30 minutes “putting on their shoes,” which are still across the room. Your patience has run out, and you yell at your child to get going already. Now, you are both upset, still late, and no one has their shoes on.
Executive functioning is the brain’s ability to organize information, break tasks down, plan ahead, and hold information in the short-term memory. It is a skill that children’s growing brains are still learning. This is why instructions often seem to go in one ear and out the other, and why children might get halfway through a task before forgetting what they were doing. (Of course, sometimes defiance also plays a roll.)
One way to help your child flex their executive functioning muscle (and avoid power struggles) is to present your child with a small, two-part choice. In the case of their shoes, you might ask your child, “Do you want to tie them, or do you want me to tie them?” This gives your child the sense that they have control over what they are doing, but they are getting their shoes on.
Giving your child small, arbitrary choices like this also teaches them how to make micro decisions, a skill that many of us struggle with as adults. How many times have you struggled with deciding what to eat for dinner, which shirt to wear, or what movie to see? When children get the chance to make small choices, the skill follows them into adulthood.
So what happens if your child rejects the options presented? Calmly let them know, “That isn’t one of the choices right now,” or, “If you don’t want to choose right now, I will have to choose.” You can model for your child how to stay calm and manage frustration appropriately.
While all children push boundaries and get defiant from time to time, if you find yourself in a daily struggle, you might benefit from parenting support or counseling for your child or family. There are resources available to break power struggles and cycles of poor communication.