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Choose Your Battles

Why bad battles happen to good parents

I always wondered why I wrestled so with my oldest child, Rory, while largely escaping such strife with her two younger brothers, and I invented complicated theories to account for it: my relative inexperience as a parent; because she was a girl and I was hesitant to lay down the law with her like I did with her brothers; the other way around  -- I was stricter with her because she was a girl, like me, and I went easier on the boys. But the reasons were likely more straightforward than that  -- and they are for you as well:

Some kids are just more determined to grab control at a younger age and so are more likely to end up in battles with their parents. "Such kids just wear you out," says Faull. "You love them, but they're the future CEOs: They have very clear ideas about how things should be, but they're sitting at home being told what to do by their parents."

"Our oldest child always has an opinion about what she wants to do," says Jill Goodrich, an Amarillo, Texas, mom of a 4-year-old daughter and two sons, ages 2 years and 6 months. "I want her to have an independent spirit, and I know these qualities of taking the initiative and having a mind of her own are things I'll love as she gets older. But now she tries to dictate what we ought to do as a family, and it can make life very difficult."

And some situations may provoke power struggles with kids who are normally mild-mannered and compliant: My usually laid-back older son, Joe, rebelled at going to nursery school when he just wanted to stay home with Mom.

Most kids, even those with less assertive personalities, are likely to engage in power struggles when they hit a stage of development that makes them seek more self-control, commonly around age 2 (and again in adolescence).

Physical depletion
And then there are those power struggles that arise when a child is hungry, stressed, or tired, so her emotions escalate until they're out of hand.

"I was at the mall the other day and I saw a mother begging a little girl to get in the car, and the child was sobbing because there was something in the store she wanted," says Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, a Minneapolis family educator and author of Kids, Parents, and Power Struggles: Winning for a Lifetime. "You could tell by the child's body language and voice that she was exhausted; odds are she'd missed her nap that day. So forgo basic needs like that at your own risk."

It's essential, before you respond, to figure out what's really fueling the battle. There's always the chance it's you.