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The Search for Autonomy and Independence
Children may seek autonomy by exploring their environment, expressing their wishes and asserting their opinions. Yet, often, the environments they explore (the computer), the wishes they express (to stay up past bedtime) and the opinions they assert ("No!") are quite challenging!
Children are struggling to balance their growing need for autonomy with their ongoing need for security and adult support. Parents must also find a balance between supporting children's independence, while providing them with the structure and limits that they need. Power struggles may occur when parents and children are having trouble negotiating this balance.
What parents can do to help:
- Provide opportunities for children to explore their environment safely.
- Help distinguish situations that allow for some autonomy (choosing a bedtime story) and situations that do not ( whether to go to bed at bedtime).
- Work to disengage yourself and your child from power struggles. Your child needs your help to get "unstuck." In the long run, this will result in fewer battles and more cooperation.
- Use re-direction and distraction as alternatives to punishment.
- Provide structured choices.
How to Provide Structured Choices
- Identify the thing that needs to happen: Going to bed, getting dressed, picking up toys
- Provide two choices that are both acceptable to you.
- Emphasize that the child gets to choose from the options provided. For example: The child cannot decide whether or not to go to bed, but can decide which bedtime story to read. Ask, "Would you like to read the story about the bear or the story about about the caterpillar? You decide." The child cannot decide whether or not to get dressed, but can decide whether to wear his blue shirt or his red shirt. Ask, "Would you like to wear your blue shirt or your red shirt? You decide."
- Remember to deal with and acknowledge your child's feelings. For example: "I know that you feel sad when its time to stop playing to go to bed."