The bathroom is getting steamy.
The water has been flowing for minutes, and your child is still fully clothed, refusing to budge.
Every night it’s the same battle.
You say that he needs to shower. He refuses to shower. A power struggle begins.
Some nights, you try to wrestle him out of his clothes. Other nights you turn off the water and let him go to bed dirty.
What does discipline look like when you and your child have conflicting opinions about what is important?
Problem Solving Together
The next morning, you pour two bowls of cereal and sit down with your child.
“I’ve noticed that you HATE taking a shower!” you say with a light tone and a smile. “What’s up?”
Glancing up from his cereal, he replies, “I don’t know. I just don’t like it.”
“Hmm. Right, you don’t like it. I wonder if we could figure out what you don’t like about taking a shower?”
He shrugs. Still not totally involved in the conversation.
“I’m going to be like a detective and I’m going to look for clues. You tell me if I’m right or wrong or close, OK?”
Curious, he agrees.
“I’m wondering if you don’t like the smell of the shampoo? It’s kind of fruity, right?”
“It’s watermelon! I picked it out, remember?” he perks up, now more engaged.
“Oh yeah, OK, so it’s not the shampoo. Maybe the water is too hot?”
“I love the hot water. It feels good. I never want to get out!” he replies.
“So you love the feel of the water, but it’s hard when the shower is over?” you clarify.
“Yeah, at first I don’t want to get in, but once I’m in, I don’t want to get out!”
“OK, so what is hard about getting out of the shower?” you explore.
He shrugs again.
Undeterred, you go back to being curious. “You know, when I turn off the shower, I feel cold! Does that bother you?”
“I hate being cold!” he laments.
“Me too. I wonder what would help you stay warm after your shower?”
“I don’t know.”
You wait. Giving him time to think.
“Maybe I could get a bigger towel. One that would cover more of my legs,” he suggests.
“Hmm. Good idea! I think we have a really big beach towel that might be long enough. Want to try it tonight?”
“And, can you wrap me like a burrito until I’m warmed up?” he adds.
“Sure,” at this point, you’d agree to almost anything. “We’ll give this a try and see how it works. If you’re still cold, we’ll think of some new ideas.”
He hops down, drops his bowl in the sink and goes off to play.
Steps to Effective Problem Solving
Not every conversation will flow with such ease. But, there are a few keys to encouraging a positive and productive discussion when you and your child have conflicting ideas or opinions.
- Clarify the problem: The meltdown, the yelling or the refusal to do a task is not the issue. Instead, step back and figure out what comes before these behaviors. Be as specific as possible, breaking it down into multiple challenges, if necessary. Try using the word, “Difficulty (with)” to clarify the problem.
- Difficulty transitioning home after playgroup
- Difficulty sharing the TV remote with younger sister
- Difficulty with math homework, especially addition worksheets
- Pick a calm moment: Rather than discussing your concerns in the heat of the moment, wait until everyone is calm and removed from the situation. This may mean delaying the conversation until the next day, or even a few days later.
Use a non-threatening opener: Rather than jumping in with a lecture or reminding your child of the importance of a particular task, start the conversation with an observation, “I’ve noticed…” or “It seems like…” Then, keep the discussion going by asking your child to chime in by asking them, “What’s up?” or “What do you think?”
- Be curious: Often, we come to the conversation with our own preconceived notions about what the problem is, and the best way to solve it. This doesn’t lead to open communication. Instead, ask questions. Then, ask follow-up questions. If you’re confused, ask for clarification. Some children struggle to put their thoughts, feelings or opinions into words. Listen. Be patient. Give them time to think or help them do some exploration.
- Make sure you understand: Before you move forward, clarify your child’s point of view. Empathize with their struggle. It’s tempting to rush into re-stating your perspective or clarifying the importance of a task. Stick with your child a little longer. Make sure they feel that you really understand their side of the story.
- Set the boundary or limit: You have a right to your opinion, and now you have an opportunity to talk about the expectations. In the example above, the parent may have said, “When you play outside all day, your body is sweaty and stinky. It’s healthy to get clean once in awhile.” In other words, “I hear that you don’t like showering, and taking an occasional shower is a boundary that I’m going to hold for you.”
- Brainstorm together: Keep an open mind while you listen to your child’s suggestions. Then, offer some of your own. If necessary, write a list or make notes. Once you have a few ideas, explore the pros and cons of each idea. Keep in mind that a good solution is something that works for both people involved.
- Reevaluate: Agree to try something new for a short amount of time. Give your child time to uphold their end of the solution while watching to make sure you don’t slip back into old habits. If the first strategy doesn’t work, that’s OK! Go back to the list of ideas or begin the brainstorming process over again.
If the idea of problem-solving together is new to you, this strategy may feel awkward and uncomfortable.
You may find that conversations go nowhere or that you and your child continue to be locked in the same argument, even after giving the steps a try.
Focus less on getting your child to do what you want them to do and more on listening and getting into your child’s experience.
Power struggles create a rift in the relationship.
Working together is about connection. It shows your child that you’re willing to bridge the gap. You’re willing to see things from their point of view and work on the problem together.
As a team.
Problem-solving together is only one respectful way to solve this problem. Check out these other options to look at discipline in a positive, connected way!