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How to Win Over Stubborn Children

Stephanie Rausser

The battles with the older of my two girls began when she was a toddler. I've got photos of the tiny thing standing a good distance away from me at the park, arms folded defiantly, eyes glaring as if to say “No way am I doing what you want, lady!” I even have a videotape of her saying indignantly into the camera, “I'm a mommy, too—of my dollies! I'm in charge now!”

Some kids are just built to butt heads with their parents. Call it stubborn or strong-willed or whatever you like. If you're living with one of these guys, you know that straightforward methods of getting them to follow directions or behave often don't work. They want to be in charge. But, of course, so do you!

Instead of resorting to the usual verbal combat (aka yelling or pleading), try my so-called sneaky or judo parenting strategies instead. Being sneaky doesn't have to mean being underhanded or manipulative with your children. Rather, “‘sneaky parenting’ is actually ‘smart parenting,’” explains parenting educator Sharon Silver of Proactive Parenting, in Tucson, AZ, and author of Stop Reacting and Start Responding. “It means approaching your kids sideways instead of straight on, and using calmness, respect and creativity to get what you want accomplished.”

Rachel Rudman, a mom of two and a pediatric occupational therapist in Cedarhurst, NY, supports this approach. “In my private practice, I constantly recommend what could be referred to as ‘sneaky parenting’ strategies, and they work for me at home, too,” she says. Her take: It's simply human nature for everyone—children, too—to want to be included in decisions about their daily habits. “With many kids who need just a little more control, asking their opinion sometimes and giving them choices often are easy answers to getting them to do what ‘we’ want,” she notes. Try the following tricks and your child will probably even think it was all her idea!

Chore Wars

The power struggle

Your toddler spends half the day pulling toys off the shelf and out of the box, then flits off to another activity when it's time to clean up.

Sneaky strategies

Beat the clock

For the younger set, the best bet is almost always to turn picking up toys into a beat-the-timer game, suggests Malibu, CA, psychotherapist Susan Stiffelman, author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. Stubborn kids are often intrigued by games and challenges, so see how many toys your child can put away in, say, five minutes. You can push the idea further by keeping a chart and encouraging your child to “beat his best effort,” perhaps rewarding him with a sticker or privilege when he does.

Play the “helper” card

Ask him, “Would you like to be my special helper today? You are so good at setting the dinner table, gathering laundry, cleaning the mirror…” so your child feels like pitching in is actually a privilege.

Think positive

Use encouraging, supportive words, rather than threats, to help take the “fight” out of obstinate kids, emphasizes Stiffelman. Instead of saying “We can't go to the park until your toys are put away!” try “As soon as your toys are put away, we get to go to the park!” If your child replies “But I really wanna go play with Brandon,” instead of nagging him about what he has to do to earn that privilege, smile brightly and say “Why yes, you certainly can do that…as soon as all your toys are picked up.”

Bath- & Bedtime Battles

The power struggle

Your child knows that getting out of the bathtub means bedtime is close, so no way is she leaving the water willingly! As for bedtime, she fights it every pajama-clad step of the way. It's becoming a nightly sparring period for your family.

Sneaky strategies

Tune in

Steal a method that stores and movie producers employ all the time—using music to influence people's moods. Calming tunes subliminally puts Kellie Pease's three children into bedtime mode without her ever saying a word. Each child has a favorite disc that the Derby, CT, mom pops into a CD player during bath- and storytime to help them wind down. This works especially well with strong-willed kids, who may have a hard time relaxing enough on their own to be ready to go to sleep.

Play the “yes” game

Try this clever strategy from Stiffelman: Ask your child questions that will prompt her to answer “yes” at least three times in a row, such as “Wow, you're having a great time playing with those bath toys, aren't you?” (Yep!) “What about bringing your swimming goggles into the bath with you next time? Would that be fun?” (Hey, yeah, that's a good idea!) “Does that dinosaur float? Can you show me?” (Sure I can! Just watch this!) The “three yeses” help break down your child's resistance, and she also feels like she's been heard and understood.

Offer options

Gently guide her toward the next step with two choices, such as “Do you want to dry yourself off with the towel or should I help you?” Don't announce that bathtime is over; simply start the process. Move seamlessly through the getting-ready-for-bed routine, offering two options at a time along the way, such as “Which book should we read before bed—X or Y?” If your child balks at the choices—“Neither! I'm not going to bed!”—respond calmly, “That wasn't one of the choices. Did you want this book or that one?” Repeat calmly as needed. Stiffelman says stubborn kids hate hearing parents sound like broken records, and they usually give in. If they don't, simply say “Okay, I guess you've chosen not to have a book tonight. Good night, sweetie! We'll try again tomorrow night!” Lights-out. And don't give in, even if your kid puts up a fuss. Sticking to your word practically guarantees you won't have a repeat episode tomorrow night.

Establish a connection

Before actually moving your kids toward the bedroom, use a technique psychotherapist Susan Stiffelman, of Malibu, CA, calls “Connect Before You Direct.” Take a few minutes to sit beside your child and show interest in the game he's playing or TV show he's watching. Ask a few well-placed questions or say something supportive like “I can see why you like this show—it's really funny!” When kids feel connected to you, they're much more likely to do what you ask next, says Stiffelman, the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm, and Connected.

Negotiate a new bedtime

Bigger kids' sleep habits are starting to change as they head toward tweendom. If you prefer your child be in bed with the lights out at 8:30 p.m., but he swears he's not tired until 9 p.m., strike a deal that he must be in his room and quiet—not coming out repeatedly to bug you—at 8:30. Then he can stay up and read or play quietly, and you'll trust him to put himself into bed when 9 p.m. rolls around. Strong-willed kids see this kind of deal as a “win” on their part because it gives them an added measure of independence. But be clear that if your child breaks the deal—by being loud, coming out of his room or ignoring the new curfew—you'll go back to the earlier lights-out time.

Dinnertime Dynamics

The power struggle

Your child refuses all veggies, eats only white foods or insists he isn't hungry at all. You fear he'll starve, and you resent his attitude after you've worked so hard to prepare the meal.

Sneaky strategies

Start small

Give picky eaters very small portions of everything you're serving, then let them choose what they want to eat, if anything, recommends child-development and behavior specialist Betsy Brown Braun, the Pacific Palisades, CA, author of You're Not the Boss of Me: Brat-Proofing Your 4- to 12-Year-Old Child.

The critical key to your sneakiness: Don't say a word about the food. No pushing your child to try just a bite. “Talk about your day, the weather, anything other than food, since that's what picky eaters are waiting for—a chance to fight with you,” says Brown Braun.

Dish up a dessert

If you know your child is just biding his time until he gets his end-of-the-meal treat, don't deny him, but do make sure it's super small, like one chocolate kiss or a vanilla-wafer cookie, Brown Braun says. You can even put it on the plate with dinner so your child knows that's all he's going to get. That way, there's no more bargaining with your child to eat “real food” in return for sweets. He gets dessert no matter what, and you won't feel like you're caving in, because the treat is so small and unexciting. Plus, there's no way that little dessert will fill your child up. If he's still hungry—and he will be—he'll have to go back to his entrée and the accompanying veggies!

Keep your cool

Have one unchanging food alternative your child can make himself if he doesn't want what you're serving. It should be easy, nutritious, something you always have on hand and not require cooking. Think beans, yogurt, hummus, or even the good old PB&J sandwich, suggests child and family therapist (and mom of three kids) Wendy Young of Newberry, MI. “Even three-year-olds can smear peanut butter on bread, and it's important for stubborn kids to be in charge of the alternate food,” she says. After a few meals of this, most kids will weary of preparing (and eating) their alternate food and give in to what you're serving. If your child decides to eat nothing at all, Young suggests supporting his decision and calmly acknowledging, “No problem. You can have a big breakfast tomorrow.”

Really headstrong kids can carry on this act for a long time, however, so be prepared. The most important thing here is to keep calm and not have an emotional reaction. Encouraging, but never forcing, your child to eat a variety of foods should be the main objective. Keep in mind, too, that tastes change over time, so what a child refuses to eat today may actually be well-liked in several months.

Wardrobe Willfulness

The power struggle

Your little fashionista pushes to wear clothes that you think look silly or are inappropriate for the weather, not to mention continually changing outfits in the time-pressed morning.

Sneaky strategies

Clean out the closet

First off, having too many clothes adds fuel to the fire here. If your child's closet is bulging, parenting educator Sharon Silver suggests rotating an assortment of clothes every few weeks (move the extras into bins out of sight) or simply putting away out-of-season items. If there's anything in your child's closet that you consider inappropriate (too-tight pants, ripped or stained shirts, fuzzy boots in summer), you're the parent: Remove them. Argument over.

Pick your battles

Every evening before bed, narrow down your child's clothing options to two or three ensembles from which she can choose for the next day. But remember: Allowing your kid to make the final decision is still important. “Like adults, kids feel more comfortable all day long if they are wearing clothes that feel and fit them right for that particular day,” says Silver. Another sneaky secret: laying out the complete outfit the night before, to head off manic morning battles.

Ignore the weather

As for the coat conundrum, “Just let it go,” says Silver. If your child doesn't want to wear a jacket, “Stay quiet, then listen for the chattering teeth in the backseat or while you're walking,” she says. You could also let your kid either carry it or put it in her backpack just in case (again, two choices you're fine with). Sneaky parents let strong-willed kids learn the value of outerwear on their own, because that's usually how they learn best.

Homework Hassles

The power struggle

Your child constantly whines for your help when you know she's capable of doing homework herself, or is still finishing up assignments when it's bedtime.

Sneaky Strategies

Break it down

First, consider that your child's stubbornness or whining may actually be a sign that she's overwhelmed by her schoolwork or has trouble focusing. If that's the case, try breaking down her tasks into smaller increments (two math problems, three spelling words written out, etc.) and letting her jump up and down or run laps around the room as a break before she goes back for more work. Use the timer approach for tough cases: Your child works for ten minutes, takes a one- to two-minute break, then works for another ten minutes. Most kids can do almost anything for just ten minutes at a stretch!

Make it fun

Could your son do his required reading in a tent you make with a table and a sheet? By flashlight in a dark room? Could your child practice her spelling while bouncing a ball or jumping rope (as the main character did in the movie Akeelah and the Bee)? Give it a shot.

Do a disappearing act

If you're confident your child really can handle things on her own, purposely move to a different part of the house while she does her homework, suggests Brown Braun. Make it a rule that she must come to you if she has any questions, not vice versa. Of course, you'll want to check in with her about halfway through and at the end to be sure she's on track. But if your student has to climb a flight of stairs to ask for help or lug a heavy textbook to you, she may learn to take a minute to think on her own before she seeks you out.

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