My seven year old is very lively, "strong-willed", or just plain difficult at times. How can I get him to take his bath without overpowering him or dampening his spirit? Sometimes it seems like he's the one in charge around our house!
One of the great things about children being smaller than their parents is that we get a constant reminder of the fact that we need to be the grown up in the room. I fervently believe that parents should respect their children as fellow human beings worthy of great respect and kindness. But nature designed the parent-child relationship to be hierarchical, with parents in charge and children dependent on them.
This arrangement allows youngsters to have what I call a Captain of the ship in their lives -- someone who can scan the horizon for rough seas and do their best to ensure safe passage through life's inevitable ups and downs.
When a child doesn't want to do something that's non-negotiable, he will often test us to see if we are capable of handling his storm. Rather than shouting, bribing, threatening or bullying, when we are parenting as that calm, confident Captain, we can acknowledge our child's preference without moving into negotiations.
"You were really hoping mommy would let you skip your bath tonight...If you had your way, you'd get to play with your Legos right up until bedtime, without having to stop for goofy things like bath time or teeth brushing."
When he discovers that he can be frustrated without mom or dad becoming panicked or desperate, he instinctively softens. This child knows he can lean on his parents to help him through the disappointment of not getting what he wants. Parents who occupy that Captain of the ship role allow room for their child to have big feelings without trying to explain why he shouldn't be feeling them. This generates a natural desire to cooperate, reducing a parent's need to move into Lawyer mode -- arguing and bargaining -- when the child faces a task he would rather not do.
Focus less on getting your child into the bath, and more on re-establishing the proper hierarchy in your household. This starts by managing your reactivity, and carries over into how you handle his resistance.
First, "scan the horizon" to determine the best route to take. What is the best time of day for his bath? How much lead time is best for him to manage the transition? Capitalize on whatever you can do to avoid predictable defiance.
When it's time to stop playing and start bathing, join him where he is rather than shouting from across the house. If he's in the middle of building with Legos, sit with him for a minute and enjoy his company, commenting on what he's built. Then touch his arm, make eye contact, and tell him it's time now for the bath. Use a tone of voice that is brief and decisive.
If he pitches a fit, acknowledge his frustration and offer your comfort. Again, be kind, brief, and decisive. "I know you were wishing you could skip your bath, honey. I heard that."
If he continues to gripe, help him take his disappointment all the way to tears. But don't make things worse by delivering long-winded justifications.
I love highly-spirited children, and believe that in the grand scheme of life, having a strong will can be a terrific asset. There's no need to crush your son's spirit. Shift instead to being the kind and caring Captain who is capable of helping him through his upsets so he becomes ever more resilient -- an essential ingredient to living a happy life, even for the highly spirited among us.
Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected and the brand new Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids (An Eckhart Tolle Edition). She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.