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  • Writer's pictureDr. Rachel Kramer

November 14: Emotional Tug-of-War

Updated: Apr 22, 2023

Over the past couple of weeks I have talked with several parents about how to respond when a child is really stuck – digging in their heels and being insistent that a situation has to proceed a certain way. I think of these moments as tug-of-war moments: your child has picked up the rope, given a big tug, and is now holding on for dear life, protecting their ground and not prepared to give up an inch. One of the things that can be baffling about these moments is that parents can land in the middle of the tug-of-war, pulling as hard as they can, almost without realizing how they got there.

Several years ago, a colleague described someone as a tug-of-war kid: a child who will pick up the rope and tug every time they have the opportunity. I jokingly talk with parents in my practice about how tug-of-war kids are often watching parents like a hawk, waiting for the moment that the parent merely glances at the rope. As soon as the parent has looked in the general direction of the rope, these children will pick it up and pull as hard as they can…every time!

Whether you are parenting a child who occasionally likes to engage in a game of tug-of-war or one who is happy to say ‘game on’ at a moment’s notice, here are some tips to support parents who find themselves in a power struggle with a child:

  • A great first step is to identify that this is where you have landed. Naming the situation (“Yikes, I’m in a tug-of-war”) can help you take a small step back and get some perspective.

  • Many people find it difficult to think clearly in a moment of struggle. Try to give yourself a bit of physical space by taking one or two steps back or see if you can find some psychological space by taking a couple of deep breaths, squeezing and releasing your hands, or shifting your gaze to something else in the environment for a moment or two.

  • Once you’ve taken a bit of space, consider whether the issue at hand is something that you need to struggle about with your child right at this moment.

  • If you realize that the issue is not important to you, and that you are in this situation because you responded automatically, you can tell your child, “I had a moment to think about this and I’ve changed my mind.” Essentially, you are letting go of the rope because you have decided that this is a situation in which you don’t want or need to be pulling back and forth:

o “I’ve thought more about it and it’s ok with me if you wear your pajamas to school.”

o “I’ve changed my mind. You go to your friend’s house for one hour and then you can come home to start your homework.”

  • On the other hand, you may realize that this is a situation where you need to set a boundary even if your child is very unhappy about it. Having that moment of clarity (“I need to set this boundary so that everyone stays safe,” or “I need to set this boundary so that we are on time for an appointment”) is so useful. If your child is tugging on the rope and you need to pull back by setting a boundary, use words to talk about the emotions your child may be experiencing:

o “Looks like you’re really disappointed that we have to go inside. I can see that you really wish you could keep playing outside.”

o “I can tell that you feel really strongly about wearing shorts to school. It’s really frustrating for you that our family rule is that kids can wear shorts only when it’s 50 degrees or warmer outside.”

o “I get that you are really angry about missing time with your friends, but tonight we’re having a family night since your cousins are in town.”

  • Once you have clearly established the boundary, when your child is calm you can work together to problem solve: perhaps your child can get what they wanted at a different time or on a different day.

When your child repeatedly engages in a tricky behavior pattern, I find it useful to re-frame the situation as one in which your child needs help developing a new skill. If a child is engaging in frequent power struggles, consider whether you need to support your child in developing the skill of flexibility. A simple way to encourage this skill is to model flexibility whenever you can. Talk out loud about times when you wish things were one way but you are willing to be flexible, for example:

  • “I was thinking we would go on a bike ride but it looks like everyone else wants to go to the playground so I’ll be flexible.”

  • “I’d like Indian food for dinner, but since all of you want pizza I will be flexible.”

Another way to help your child develop the skill of flexibility is to notice and gently comment on moments when a child is flexible (no matter how small):

  • “Your brother really wanted the blue cup. Thank you for being flexible and letting him use it today.”

  • “I know you really wanted to take the first turn. I appreciate that you’re being flexible and letting your friend go first.”

  • “You were hoping to go right home after school. Thanks for being flexible about doing an errand on our way home.”

These types of conversations support the idea that flexibility is valued in your family and allow your child to start to see themselves as someone who has the ability to display this skill. It is likely that you will still find yourself caught in power struggles, but if you employ these strategies consistently I hope you’ll find that tug-of-war moments begin to feel more manageable and a little less intense.

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