Kissing the Punishment Trap Goodbye

Portrait of adorable smiling little girl

Guest Post by Ariadne Brill, Positive Parenting Connection

Preventing Power Struggles with Play and Connection

It was early morning, just about fifteen minutes before we had to leave the house for school drop offs. Up until then, my three children had been getting ready, eating and playing a bit. All had been going according to plan…until:

“No. I’m not going to get dressed and you can’t make me!” Said my four year old daughter. I could tell from her eyes that she was super serious too.

Would this become a power struggle?  I took two very deep breaths.

Power struggles can often lead up to so much anger, frustration and us parents feeling like we have no choice but to get physical. While I am now a much more patient mama, I do know what it’s like to get really triggered by “sassy-ness” or misbehavior.

Over the years I have learned that children often challenge requests from parents. Especially between the ages of 3 and 5, saying no is very normal behavior for children. While it’s normal, it can also be a big trigger for power struggles and what I call a punishment trap. Us parents feeling like we either punish or become permissive.  The good news is that there is a way to kiss those punishment traps goodbye for good. It takes understanding, confidence and a kind and clear approach to discipline.

Understanding: Why do children Say No?

Especially when it comes to young children, saying NO or refusing to cooperate is most often just a sign that your child is thinking, developing and growing well. A young child that puts their foot down and says NO is really just saying “hey, look at me, I am someone with my own ideas! Cool right? Now give me a chance to learn how to make good choices and decisions about myself!” Saying NO can also just be a request for having a bit more control over their own lives.

Understanding: Why NO leads to Power Struggles

When children say NO to every request on the other hand, it can be tiring, annoying even and it’s only natural that parents may feel like their authority is being challenged.  A lot of NO and requests gone unanswered can lead to power struggles. For many parents, power struggles are a trigger for using physical punishments.  It can be so hard to keep calm and deal with a lot of NO and lack of cooperation when it’s happening over and over again.

Ok So, why do power struggles happen?

Most often, a power struggle is just a sign that what you want, and what your child is able to do in that moment is not matching up. Stress, worry and our own fears also play a big role here.  Fear that our child will never learn, stress of being late and such… Some of the most common parent-child conflict moments are chores, self-care and going to bed.

While it’s a normal part of development for children to dislike, challenge and even ignore parental decisions, it’s also important to help children learn to overcome these moments in a respectful manner.

How to Transform NO and Power Struggles into Cooperation

All that NO and struggle for power can be transformed into cooperation. It really can. Young children are actually wired to be cooperative and they want to follow the guidance from their parents. It may feel hard to believe that a toddler that keeps saying NO to everything actually wants to say yes.  The truth is, that it does take a bit of effort on our part as parents, but really it’s very well worth it in the end. 

The key to transforming power struggles and punishments into cooperation is in how we connect and communicate with our children.

Sometimes, while well meaning, the approach we take to motivate and encourage “YES” and “Listening” (cooperation or compliance) is just not the right approach for our child and temperament and the family dynamic.

You can transform power struggles and avoid punishment traps by skipping bribes, threats and instead trying to connect, validate and work WITH your child.

So what does that sound like?

Remember how my daughter didn’t want to get dressed? This is what happened that morning:

“You are right. I can’t make you.”  I said, showing my daughter I had listened to her.

“Oh!” She offered back. Now looking at me with a smile.

“Well, here is the thing. It’s almost time for school right? And you are having fun with your lego, is that also right?” I offered, trying to connect and enter into my daughter’s world.

“OH yes. I have my cats and dogs getting a checkup.” She answered moving her mini lego dog around.    

“Ok. So my idea is that the cat and dog come with you and watch you get dressed. Do you think brownie (the dog’s name) knows how to put on human pants?”  – Being playful while still keeping the original plan of getting dressed on the agenda.

“uhm…I don’t think he knows that. I better show him. Come brownie. Let’s get dressed. I show you. Can I take brownie in the car too? You can then put him in his dog bed later for me please?”

“Well, yes, that sounds like a good deal. You get dressed with brownie. Then we go to school and I will put brownie to take a nice nap when I get back.” I offered this to repeat our understanding and once again make clear that getting dressed was the goal.

Within a few minutes, my daughter came out of her room.  Dressed. And she had loads of kisses to offer me. She was ready and we were all on time.

Sometimes children are just so engrossed in what they are doing, it’s easier for them to refuse to do something then it is to explain just how awesome their lego adventure is going, what genius idea they are drawing up in their sketchbook or what a fantastic chat they are having with a friend.  I know it takes extra time and extra patience but the end results are so very worthwhile.

We could have argued it’s time to get dressed, how many times. let’s go. move it. omg…I know we could have because I’ve been there! And it doesn’t feel good for anyone. Being willing to connect and slowing down, makes such a big difference.

It really is possible to avoid power struggles and punishments just by slowing down and connecting. Next time you feel ready to enter into a power struggle, I highly recommend slowing down just a bit.  Meet your child in their world, even if for just two minutes before you ask them to do something. This connection will give you a glimpse into their world and what they are thinking, feeling and deciding. With that information in hands, it’s much easier to make a request that is truly motivating. And as a bonus, your relationship will be strengthened and your child will feel capable and ready to cooperate.

Peace & Be Well,


Ariadne Brill is the founder of Positive Parenting Connection. Ariadne specializes in helping parents find more confidence and calm in their parenting journey. Her work focuses on increasing cooperation, improving communication (listening without yelling) and reducing power struggles, all in a positive, non punitive way. Ariadne is a certified positive discipline parenting educator, and has studied Psychology and child development. Ariadne is also the author of Twelve Alternatives to Time Out: Connected Discipline Tools for Raising Cooperative Children. She uses the very same parenting tools and practices at home with her three children aged 4 yrs,7 yrs and 9 yrs.

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