Write me: rebecca@positive-parents.org

The following is a guest post by Laura Ling.

The following comment was posted on an earlier post, and since I see many parents with similar issues, I wanted to use it as a jumping off point for when you’re parenting positively but still having challenges.

I feel so lost about this as well. We have been attempting to continue positive parenting for nearly 18 months. Prior to this, we spanked on rare occasions and did some time outs- but mostly tried to redirect and teach (so we were kind of here already). I guess what is confusing me is that I feel I have not been able to build a connection with my children (4.5 and 2.5) because when I ask for something to be done, they nearly always just say NO!!! (2 year old is copying I believe)

And how do you get them to do it? I feel like everything I do is undermining the relationship even more. It comes down to “your room needs to be clean before we can go play” or whatever, and since there is always a carrot dangled, they are never doing it because they WANT to please me. I have read that they will want to please when the relationship is strong. It’s like a vicious cycle that I can’t seem to stop. 

Changing parenting styles isn’t easy and requires that we change, as people, too. That can be uncomfortable or frightening, so woohoo to you for being the kind of mother who does everything she can, to do the best for her children!

The main goal of connection is being connected with your child, though. They will know if you trying to manipulate them into following your agenda. Try, if you can, to let go of results for awhile and focus on learning who your children are and what makes them tick. Spend as much time as you can observing them. What do they like? What are they good at? How do they approach obstacles? What are their learning styles?

There are four basic guidelines for engaging cooperation, even while building up your relationship:

  1. Use requests only when you will accept “No” as an answer. Otherwise, make statements. If it sounds like compliance is optional when it’s not, you risk further eroding connection.
  2. Limit rules to safety issues and top family values. Where possible and when in doubt, move ‘rules’ into ‘guidelines’ and remove power struggles surrounding those areas.
  3. Say “Yes” to underlying needs, if not the actual request, whenever possible. “Yes, we can go play at the park just as soon as the toys are put back in their spots! I’ll help you.”
  4. Ask yourself how you would influence a friend you had no power over to do what  you wanted. Can you make it fun? Can you show him the value to him? 
When you have to enforce a limit, do so with empathy. Dr. Laura Markham of AhaParenting.com has some excellent information here.

Same with hitting, kicking, pushing, etc. I take him to his room and wait with him to calm down, then we often talk about how it is hurtful and come up with alternatives. He never uses the alternatives though. He just wants to hit. He wants to push and shove and hurt his little sister when he is mad. Or he wants me to notice. 

When people get upset, they lose access to the thinking part of the brain. Know how you always come up with great retorts after the person walks away? It’s impossible for people to be rational when they’re emotionally charged. Young children are just beginning to be able to access executive function (self-control, planning, delayed gratification) at the best of times. Expect them to revert back to their ‘primitive’ brain whenever upset. (See here for research on tantrums.)

First priority is to keep everyone safe. For a number of reasons, I like to say “I won’t let you hurt anyone. It’s ok to be mad. It’s not ok to hit.” Give alternatives. “You’re so mad you need to hit something! It hurts to hit people. Let’s hit this pillow. [hitting pillow] I’m so mad! Mad! Mad!” If you don’t want to seem to encourage violence (they’ll follow your lead in anger management, so if you don’t hit when upset, they probably won’t after this developmental stage) then you can walk him through some calming breathing or watching the Calm Down Jar.

When he’s calm, reinforce coping strategies. Expect to do this over and over. And over. They’re still learning to categorize, so surprisingly, each upset that has a different cause may feel like a different situation. Plus, executive function is still developing into the mid-twenties, so he literally can’t control himself all the time.

I was struck by the last sentence. Many people take that look as either defiance or attention seeking. Reframe it to see him looking to you for help.  He doesn’t want to be out of control and he doesn’t want to hurt people. He does want to connect with you and he does want you to show him how to deal with these big feelings. And if he’s resorting to acting out to get your attention, be proactive and offer your undivided attention before he ‘asks’ for it next time.

I also try to stay out of their business most of the time, but it’s like kids only do what you don’t want them to do. The office is off limits, so they are constantly trying to go in there and mess with the computers/printer (this happened an hour ago. So I carried him out, and stood there holding the doorknob. It became a power struggle and then he started to hit me. So I moved him, and he started crying and then it was time for quiet time. WTH?). I don’t want them to dump their water on the table, but when I offer to go out with them to play in water/with water cups, they decline. I ask if he wants to put cups or plates on the table for dinner and he screams “NOTHING!” It’s like he is already a teenager and doing everything in his might to object and point out that I am lame and have no say in the matter.

We have lots of boundary testing here, too. 🙂 It’s (slightly) less frustrating to frame those qualities as positives – determined, curious, persistent, self-aware, and self-directed. It’s a lot more challenging to encourage those traits during childhood, even understanding that it will serve him better as an adult.

Looking to meet the underlying need is absolutely the right thing to do. I sense it might be hidden under the behaviors with your son, though. Otherwise, he’d be happy to go play in the tub or outside.

What I’ve found with my strong willed daughter is that she will resist everything when she has some big feelings, almost as if daring me. When I see that pattern developing, I offer her a hug (usually rejected, which some children do – others prefer physical closeness when upset) then create a safe place for her to offload feelings. She will rage for a bit then transition to sadness. This is normally where I can begin comforting her until she’s gotten out all of those feelings. She knows that I love and accept her, no matter how terrible she feels inside, and quickly goes back to her sunny self.

I spend lots of time (too much?) with them trying to build trust in order to get some cooperation. But cooperation doesn’t come. Then I don’t know what I SHOULD do in order to keep things positive. I sometimes feel like I understand, but I haven’t been able to get things to work. So now I just feel defeated, discouraged, and frankly, stupid. I read testimonials from other parents talking about how 2 months of positive parenting has changed their lives. I’ve been “studying” this for 18 months and don’t feel that I have gotten anywhere…except maybe a little permissive because I don’t know what else to do. 

I hear your frustration and have felt it as well. Both with parenting and other written directions I just can’t seem to figure out. It’s not you; it’s the medium. It takes a lot of words to explain something and sometimes words have different meanings to different people. Sometimes there are assumptions that you already have pieces of information. Sometimes the people who see success quickly have ‘easier’ children or a different environment.

The time you spend on your relationship with your children is never wasted. The connection you build benefits you both. Keep in mind though, that no matter how strong your bond, your child will not always want to do what you want, on your timeframe. The developing brain is wired seek autonomy and determine boundaries. There will be a lot of testing, for a long time.

(other examples, he demands I cut his eggs, stay with him in his room while he changes out of his peed in pj’s, demands I stay at the top of the stairs so that he can be the first one down, etc. I don’t accommodate [but I feel that he internalizes this into a struggle for power]. They don’t really have “chores” as of yet, but we try to get them to help us clean up their toys, clear their plates, set the table. That’s about it.) 

We all like to occasionally take breaks from our responsibilities. Sometimes a child doesn’t want to do something they ‘know’ how to do because they are working on some other concept and don’t want to spend the time right then. Sometimes they’re asking for more connection in the only way they can figure out.

I would say accommodate those requests where it’s feasible and explain why you can’t or won’t accommodate the other times. While you don’t want to create dependence on you for things they are capable of, you do want to model generosity of spirit by helping them out with a loving heart.

Again, I read stuff and think that this is so easy, then when I get bucked, I don’t know how to turn it around. I don’t know how to “make” them help, or what to do if they choose not to. And if it is a bad relationship in regards to being connected, I need to be pointed in the right direction to see how to improve that. Specifically what needs to be done to become better connected with mutual respect. Is that possible when I am always saying no? No you can’t drive the van/hit your sister/rip apart my books/play on my phone/watch 12 hours of TV/eat 50 cookies/buy new toys/eat the neighbors junk food/sit with us in church….

For most people, it’s neither simple nor easy. If our parents didn’t have good tools, we also don’t have good tools and we have a less positive ‘default’ when things aren’t going well. Learning new tools takes time and practice. There will be setbacks and mistakes. When you add in the human factor of your children, it’s even more complex. Is behavior due to normal development? A bad mood? The tool being applied less effectively? The wrong tool being used?

I’m seeing two different goals in this post, and as such, I’d take two different approaches. The first goal is developing more connection. This requires focus on the child and lessening of expectations. Create a safe haven in your relationship. All emotions are welcomed and support is freely given.

The second goal is cooperation. The best teacher here is modeling. Children do what we do, not what we say. They also appreciate knowing why we do things. Explain how their actions affect both them and you as parents. Give them time to respond. Toddlers can take up to several MINUTES to make a decision and act on it. Be respectful of their current activity. Give notice, especially for children who have challenges with transitions. When they do cooperate, give appreciation and resist the urge to ‘fix’ any aspect.

If you’re feeling you say no too often but your boundaries aren’t too restrictive, try saying yes to an acceptable alternative or changing your environment.
Driving – You can sit in the driver’s seat while I clean out the back seat. You can drive your car when we get home.
Damage property – You may rip this paper apart. I’m putting my books in another room because I can’t read them when they’re ripped.
Too much media – We can watch your favorite show before going to the park. I’ve noticed we aren’t as nice to each other when the TV is on more than an hour, so I’m turning it off when it’s not time to watch the show you picked out.
Too much junk food – Our tummies get upset when we eat too much of any food. Lets have some grapes instead. I’m not buying any more Oreos since they don’t help our bodies grow. Would you like cantaloupe or strawberries?
Buying thing – This trip is to get a birthday present for your cousin. I’m not buying anything extra. Maybe your cousin will let you play with him. I’m going to the store by myself today because you’ve shown me that it’s too much for you to handle right now. We’ll try again later when I have more time to spend with you.
Being separated – They have asked for services to be adult only. You get to go to special classes until then. We’re going to look for a church that allows children to sit with their parents if they want.

Positive Parenting doesn’t remove challenges. Your children will still have meltdowns and test boundaries and go through stages. Positive Parenting gives you tools to make your home happier and more peaceful. It positions you to retain your influence once your children are too big to physically control.


  • anne marie Posted 9 April 2013 7:28

    Thank you, I needed this right now. I am having similar issues with my highly spirited 3 year old daughter. I do not want to discourage her determination, but gaining cooperation is difficult sometimes. Thank you for the perspective.

  • Christie Posted 9 April 2013 12:47

    I appreciate the Positive Parenting philosophy on many levels. But this seems like another time when a parent is expressing their frustration because the things that are supposed to work aren't having the desired impact, and results are inconsistent at best. How long should a parent try these methods before resorting to other methods? Is one year too long or not enough time. Maybe the real question is how long is a long time? I can't help but think of that one quote about the definition of insanity "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results".

  • Laura Ling Posted 10 April 2013 4:55

    I asked this poster if I could use her words, partly because it gives focus to the post, but also because many people express this same frustration when the outcome doesn't match the picture they had in mind when they started positive parenting.

    We don't see PP as a method, but more of a perspective. Going through the motions isn't going to get the same results as fully embracing a non-violent lifestyle. (And it's not a requirement, by any means. We're all at different places in our lives and capable of different things. But the truth remains that your commitment and understanding will affect the outcome, to the extent that it can. Children are their own people and we can't dictate who they turn out to be, just nurture the things we value.)

    At work, there's a manager I work regularly with. He's obviously read every management book out there, and knows all the right phrases to use, but it's difficult to take him seriously because he obviously doesn't care about us, individually. We don't expect him to be in our corner when times get tough and therefore, he doesn't get the 'results' out of us that his books say he should.

    This may or may not be a reason some parents don't see the changes they'd hoped for after a year or longer. Their desired results may also not be achievable. Toddlers won't be able to sit still at dinner for 30 min in a row. Pre-schoolers won't able to control their impulses all the time. Grade schoolers won't want to do homework before playing. Preteens won't remember all of their responsibilities every time. Teens will be influenced by their peers.

    So how long should you keep trying? As long as you want. Our situations will always be different and our goals aren't necessarily the same. Only you will know what's right for your family. Our suggestions are non-punitive in nature, but many women find it difficult to be assertive enough for that to avoid permissiveness. I get that and it's ok. You take risks when you're assertive and not everyone is ready to tackle that challenge at the same time. We don't use time outs, but if your house is chaos without them, then they might have a place. Empathy and respect improve every situation except those involving psychopaths (which, fortunately, are very rare).

    Positive Parenting isn't an exclusive club that you have to 'get right' to be in. Everyone is welcome to peruse and use whatever they can and go as far as they want. No child ends up baggage free so do whatever YOU are capable of to lessen the load. Even a little helps.

  • Simply Complex Posted 16 April 2013 8:01

    This was helpful. Thanks for taking the time…I'm sure I will revisit this often

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  • enixon Posted 13 November 2014 14:53

    Thank you for your article! I was very inspired by Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson's "No Drama Discipline." We are trying to parent positively in our home, and the book has helped me feel more calm and confident when dealing with trying situations. I could use some guidance for handling something that happens occasionally with my almost 4-year old son. A perfect example happened last night. My almost 2-year old son was tired and crying. The crying frustrated my older son, and he grabbed him pretty aggressively and pushed him. He had already been bothering him before the "big" push, just general pestering. I took him in to another room to talk to him, and calmly empathized and tried to connect. He was wiggly and resisted me (pushing on me) the entire time. I don't expect him to sit calmly necessarily, but it makes it difficult to move forward and redirect. I could wait him out and shift his attention to something else to settle him down, but I don't want to send the message that you can push your brother and then do whatever you want. The longer we sit there together, the harder it seems like he is resisting. Then, I asked him if pushing his brother made his crying better or worse. He said worse. Then I asked him how he thinks his brother feels when he pushes him. He will then start to smile a little and say something like, "He likes to be pushed." He knows his brother does not like to be pushed. He might also say something like, "I push him because I am bad and I want to be bad!" We don't even use the words, "you're bad" in our home, so I don't know where that is coming from. My question really isn't why he is saying these things, as much as I want to know how to respond. Do I ignore it, realizing that he has heard the message and knows what he should have done? Or do I continue a conversation in which he is almost becoming entertained from saying the opposite of what he knows to be true? I just feel myself becoming frustrated when he responds this way, and I want to handle these moments better. Thank you for any advice you can give!

  • Mariposa del aire Posted 18 November 2014 9:13

    I have just started reading about positive parenting because I was having lots of conflicts with my three year old son. Everything I read about it makes so much sense to me and agrees with my ideals. The problem is that when I try to follow these ideas things get worse and not better with my son. He becomes more rebellious and stops cooperating all together.
    I believe that the answer for me might lie in something you wrote… "our suggestions are non-punitive in nature, but many women find it difficult to be assertive enough for that to avoid permissiveness."
    I would love to hear more on this.
    I think this might be the problem for a lot of us.

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