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Prevent a toddler power struggle with these key phrases

Avoid tripping their “You’re not the boss of me” alarm.

Prevent a toddler power struggle with these key phrases

Toddlers are pretty well known for being unreasonable. A tantrum over the wrong color cup? A flat-out refusal to put on shoes to go to the park, of all places? They are strong willed little people, there is no denying that.


To navigate this sometimes tricky (but often hilarious) stage while keeping everyone happy and healthy, keep the end goal in mind:d fostering your child’s independence while guiding them into the more reasonable person they will become.

These five key phrases will help you do just that:

“May I show you a trick?”

You may see your toddler struggling with something, but know that if you offer help they will freak out. Some toddlers are very sensitive about their newly forming independence and want to do everything themselves—this is great! When you think about it, independence is a wonderful quality in a child. But it can make things difficult when they clearly need help.

Try offering help a little more indirectly, saying, “May I show you a trick?” Then show him how and let him have a turn to try. Tricks sound fun and this also gives them a way to accept help without admitting that they need it—key in many toddler minds.

“When you…we can…”

To you, it may be obvious why your little one needs to put on her shoes. To her, not so much. If she’s refusing, don’t get caught up in a battle of wills. Try to stay calm and use this little phrase, “When you…we can…”.

For example, “When you put on your shoes, we can go to the park.” Then leave her alone with the task and go do something else until she’s ready.

This has two benefits. First, it avoids directly telling her what to do, and likely tripping their “You’re not the boss of me” alarm. Second, it explains why she needs to do the task.

“Would you prefer this or that?”

Toddlers very much want to have a say. They’ve just found their little voices and they want to use them. Help celebrate this desire by offering them choice, whenever possible. Too many choices overwhelm, though, so stick to two or three.

Think about when in the day the power struggles and “no’s” are the most difficult. Then consider that situation and think about how you could offer some choice.

Is it diaper changes? Get two patterns of diapers and let him choose which to wear.

Is it going to get in the car? Ask if he’d prefer to skip or hop to the car today…and do it with him.

Is it cleaning up toys? Ask if he’d rather put away the blue or the red blocks first.

The truth is, toddlers often don’t have much choice. They’re too young to be the deciders and sometimes things just need to get done. Offering them these small choices though shows them that you respect their opinions, and keeps them from feeling like they’re being bossed around all of the time.

“I wonder if you know how to…”

If time is not of the essence, try musing aloud and see if it incites action in your little one without you even having to ask. “I wonder if you know how to put on your own pants.” They will often race to do it themselves.

Similarly, try “I wonder if you know where your shoes are” instead of “go get your shoes”. They will be eager to show you all of the things they know.

“The clock says…”

We all know the phrase, “Don’t shoot the messenger.” Except for toddlers.They always blame the messenger and the messenger is often us parents. Create a “third point,” something else to place the blame on.

For example if you tell your child it’s time to leave the house for school, she sees the directive coming from you. She may think it seems arbitrary or may just not feel like being told what to do. But what if the order was not coming from you?

Try saying, “The clock says it’s time to leave,” while pointing to a clock. Make the clock the enemy, instead of you. You can also set an alarm for this purpose and say “The alarm says it’s time to go.”

If it’s time to return a beloved library book try, “The library’s rules say this book has to go back today.”

If it’s your child’s job to set the table, post a list of family jobs, point to it and say, “The job list says you’re responsible for setting the table”.

The key is to point to some tangible thing the child can see like a list or book or object, and attribute the necessity for action to that thing.

At the end of the day, toddlers are small. You could simply pick them up and put them in the car or force shoes on their little feet. But one of our roles as parents is to help children develop their will, to help them become willing participants.

These language tweaks will help you obtain your child’s cooperation, without making them feel powerless. When they feel that their autonomy is respected, toddlers are much less likely to respond with “no” and many battles can be avoided.

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