Get kids to Listen without power struggles

If you’ve ever tried to get your kids to listen without power struggles, you may relate to the following scenario.

You have a 9 a.m. meeting and need to drop your kids off at school on the way to the office. As you rush to make breakfast, your two boys remain glued to the television watching their favorite cartoon. Then, you call out from the kitchen, “Okay, boys. Breakfast is ready! Shut off the TV.” But you get no response. You peek your head around the corner and see your boys still glued to the TV. “Breakfast is ready!” you call again, a bit less pleasant this time. Again, no response… and then you lose it.

As a loving parent, you want harmony in your home, You want your kids to listen without power struggles, but how can this be achieved? Here are a few practical ways.

Read your child well

I say this at all my seminars:  “If you want to lead well, you have to read well.”  Getting children to listen is much easier when you are dialed into their context (the emotional, physical, and cognitive circumstances that surround the situation).  When it seems your kids are ignoring you, don’t take it personally… they’re kids.  I know that’s easier said than done when you are in a hurry.  Even so, your first step is to get clear as to why they are acting that way.  Otherwise, you’ll focus solely on their behavior, assume they are downright defiant and unwilling to work with you… and you’ll get triggered!

Little tip:  Your kiddo might be more unable than unwilling to listen and meet your request.  When children are over-focused on TV, their ability to listen is quite limited.  Simply put, their brain (physical context) struggles to handle all the stimulus.  The remedy?  Take a second and tune into to them with your full attention. This will help you decipher the context:  if his behavior is a lack of ability or just his unwillingness to comply.

Let’s say, your kiddo cries out, “I don’t want breakfast.  I’m not hungry.  I want to watch this show!”  There is a good possibility that his behavior is still about his inability, not his unwillingness.  That outburst may likely be his desperate attempt to say, “Please understand me.  I’m young.  My brain is under-developed.  And breakfast is not attractive to me.  Watching this cartoon is what attracts me.  So please… please… please… don’t make me go to the table!  I want to make you happy, but your request is sending my nervous system into a red-alert mode and I’m falling apart!  I don’t know how to make you happy and me happy at the same time so I’m completely stuck!  All I know how to do is resist and protest!  Help, mommy!”

Instead of engaging in a power struggle, begin by giving his distressed feelings a name.  Say something like, “Oh, I see. You’re feeling angry right now.” Or, “It looks like you’re pretty upset and you want Mommy to know that.” Instead of growing frantic, look into his eyes and validate his feelings, fears or irrational fantasies: “I wish I could make the clock stop right now so you could stay on the couch and watch your show.”

If you determine that your kiddo’s behavior is a choice, your job is to be calm and compassionate.  But, don’t fall victim to his tyranny or manipulation. Don’t reinforce his behavior by allowing it.  Instead, seek to modify it by saying something like, “I sure hope you eat your breakfast before the clock strikes 8 am.”

Connect with your child

Simply put, when kids feel emotionally connected, they listen better. The next time your child acts out or engages in a power struggle, try a relational approach instead. Connecting with them at their level will work wonders, as they’ll know you understand them.

Use few words

It may be tempting to launch into a long talk about the consequences of staying up too late or not taking a bath, but that tends to overwhelm young brains.  Using your words sparingly is more efficient. “Hey, Charlie, is your lunch in your backpack?” or “Jonah, pajama time!” gets the message across just fine.

Share the control

Kids tend to listen better when parents share the control and power.  It gives children a say in their fate.  For example, “Go brush your teeth now!” is a direct command that triggers resistance, usually in the form of stalling. And saying something like, “Can you go brush your teeth now?” doesn’t work a whole lot better. Many kids will simply reflect on the question and give a defiant, “No!”

If you want your kids to listen, don’t phrase your request in the form of a yes or no question unless you’re willing to accept no for an answer. Instead, try something like this: “Do you want to brush your teeth now or after you put your pajamas on?” In this example, your child gets to put his spin on the bedtime routine, and you are happy with either choice.  The key is to offer two choices that you can back up with loving action.

Sidestep the power struggle

The next time your child shouts, “You can’t make me!” try this response instead: “Wow.  You are upset and want daddy to know that.  I love you way too much to fight with you.” Who are you really talking to when you say this? You’re talking yourself into staying calm.  Then, you can follow up with, “Young men who refuse to take a bath, don’t get to have three stories read to them at bedtime.  They only get one.  Sweetie, is that what you want?”  This statement puts the power struggle where it belongs:  on his shoulders, not yours!

Lead with compassion

When a power struggle with your child arises, try going “brain dead.” This may sound strange, but it works. Instead of arguing back and raising your voice, try taking things down a notch. The less you think about what an arguing child is saying, the more energy you’ll have at the end of the day. As for your child, remember, he’s in the grip of an underdeveloped brain.  He needs you to show him the road to adulthood.

The next time your child argues about putting his toys away, try saying something nonchalantly like this: “I understand, but it’s time to put your toys away now.” Or try humoring him with this simple response: “I only argue on Fridays after dinner, son.”

Follow through

Not following through with what you say tells your kids you don’t mean business. Assuming your child’s tantrum is a chosen response, follow through with loving action. Why?  Defiance creates conflict for everyone in the family. It drains your energy and hurts your children by leading them to believe that nasty, disrespectful behavior is okay.

If you let the behavior slide, your kids will struggle with relating to others.  They won’t develop a healthy respect for authority figures either.  So calmly (let me say that again… calmly) stand your ground while following through with your requests. Say something like, “Feel free to keep the toys you pick up.” Or, “I guess you won’t be playing with your Lincoln Logs until tomorrow.” Or, “Young men who treat me that way don’t get to have a friend come over and play.”

When you deliver a consequence with compassion and sincere empathy, defiant children learn how to work with others and be respectful instead of difficult and resentful.

Point to Ponder

The next time your kids don’t listen, remember… parents who read well, lead well.  Your ability to understand and predict behavior will make a huge difference as they venture into adolescence!


  1. Connie Bohnert

    Great articles, Steve! When did you learn so much about parenting? 😉

    • Steve Cuffari

      Hi Connie. It took me 20 years of parenting in the trenches.


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Steve Cuffari

Author: Steve Cuffari For many, Steve Cuffari is the mentor that parents call on to make their parenting style warmer, easier and more affective. He is the founder of inTouch Parenting, a company devoted to helping today's parents calm the chaos, raise emotionally intelligent kids, and nurture families that thrive.         read more about Steve Cuffari here...

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