Either in parenting or working with children, one of the most common pieces of advice that you will receive is to pick your battles, but what does this mean? By nature, children have very little control over their environment and world. This means that they will try to grasp control in any way possible and result in frequent battles between child and caregiver. Frequently it is viewed that these battles, sometimes even tantrums, are a child’s misbehavior; however, they usually serve a purpose. By learning to pick which battle is worth winning for us as the adult, we can reduce the frequency and the need for them. Allowing a child some control where we wouldn’t typically will reduce their need to fight for said control. It will also lead to better opportunities to help them cope with the emotions the lack of control causes in a more appropriate way, reducing the severity of the battle.
Here are some simple ways or questions to ask to determine how to pick your battles:
- Set your priorities: There are only so many hours in a day and only so much time you will have with your child at each individual age. In the grand scheme of things, it matters very little if your child is out in public in their pajamas or clothes that do not match. This is their way of beginning to express their self and has little consequence to you. On the other hand, if they insist on wearing shorts on a sub zero temperature day, the battle takes on a whole new importance. Determining when it matters what control you have over what they wear will help you prioritize what days you will fight them and what days you will allow them this control.
- Why is it important? Basically this means, why is this important to you? Are you battling over a decision because it has negative consequences for the child, because it could negatively impact your day, or because it might have negative consequences for the child? It is important to teach your child that what they want or need is important, but also to balance that with the fact that they cannot always have it. We do this by allowing them control when we can and showing them that we too do not always get what we want and how to cope with it appropriately.
- How much time will it take? Will the time the battle takes to have and “win” be worth the end result. This does not mean give into your child’s every whim because you do not want to waste the time fighting, but to find a balance between when the end result is worth investing the time into the battle. Going back to the clothing argument, is it worth spending a half hour fighting about what they will wear and being late to wherever you are going, just to spare yourself a little embarrassment that they are wearing mismatched clothing?
- What is it teaching? Determining what the battle and end result will teach the child is a major factor in determining if the battle is worth fighting. Sometimes we even send messages we do not mean to send by engaging in these battles. When we make a child change an outfit because it does not meet our standards, we are not only telling them that they do not have any control but that we do not approve of their choices, their look, or their sense of self. On the other hand, forcing a child to put on weather appropriate clothes or eat their vegetables or to use respect, teaches appropriate social skills and how to maintain their health and well being, making the battle worth having.
- What harm does it cause? As said before, considering what harm it has is vital. As adults, we are not always right and it does not always have to be our way. Which has the worst consequences, the battle or the original choice?
Once you have determined which battles you are willing to engage in, the next step is to begin teaching the child how to cope with the negative emotions that come with the battles that you cannot avoid.
- Validate their feelings: helping them to see that you understand how they feel and know why they want what they are fighting for will help them to calm down, as well as require less control in the first place. Statements of “I see that you are angry and I understand that you want to …” will serve to move the battle along rather than simply telling them how it is going to be and dismissing their feelings. Part of the battle is the child’s need for control, and validating their feelings, while not allowing them control, helps them to see that they do matter and you do care, creating that sense of safety and security.
- Help them use coping skills: We teach through example, so rather than telling them to calm down, showing them how they can calm down and assisting them in using the skills will reduce the emotional reaction to the battle. Complete a deep breathing exercise with them, it will take seconds or minutes at most and significantly reduce the time of the battle and reaction.
- Teach them how to better express what they want next time: Once the battle is over and they are emotionally able (calm) review the situation. Show them how they could have gotten their message across more effectively. Give them key phrases they can use. Do a role play and help them to express the message rather than engage in a power struggle.
- Show them other ways they can gain control or express what they want: There are many ways a child can have that sense of control that they desire. Showing them how will help reduce the frequency of the battles when they want control at times they cannot have it. Using the clothing example, showing them that they can dress up at home during free time may reduce the desire for control at moments when they cannot have it. Also, showing them how to plan an outfit ahead can help them understand what is appropriate and teaches a useful organizational skill for many areas of their life.