Power Struggle, Preschool Style

Dear Mamas,

I’ve got a tiger by the tail right here in my own home, and I don’t know how to tame her. My 3 1/2 yo and I are constantly going head to head about the smallest things. It seems like everything I ask her to do is met with resistance.

Getting ready for school is a perfect example. She loves preschool — adores it, in fact — but when it comes time to brush her teeth and get dressed to go in the morning she throws a fit. We get into a prolonged battle where I give choices hoping to get buy-in, she agrees but then dawdles, and eventually we get into a full-on struggle and I have to force her physically into her clothes.

By the time we get to school I’m completely exhausted and she bops off happily to greet her teacher. The kicker is she doesn’t pull this number when I’m at work and Dad gets her ready, it’s just with me.

This routine is getting to be a habit and I want to break it before it goes on any longer. Help!


Dear Pamela,

Your awareness about what’s going on with you and Tiger Cub is ggrrrrreat! She is indeed engaged in a power struggle with Mom, and I’ll bet the morning routine isn’t the only time you’re seeing it.

Moms and spirited daughters often get into this dance. You, Mom, are the person she is most connected to. You are everything in her world, and she depends on you to feel safe, loved, and cared for. Sure, she adores her daddy, but it’s not the same as the tie with you. And because she’s an independent, feisty little firecracker, she’s ambivalent about the depth of her need. Part of her always wants to remind you and herself … “You’re not the boss of me!!!!!” … even though, at the same time, she knows you are the boss and depends on you to be exactly that. Add in the fact that getting ready for school means she’s separating from you for the day and things really get wild.

Confusing, huh? We never said 3 1/2 year-olds were logical. So you’re going to need to get crafty and find creative ways to defuse the battle and outsmart her to bring peace back to your mornings.

First, try turning the battle upside-down by making it a game, instead. A few ideas:

Offer to time her and make a big deal about setting the kitchen timer or a stop watch. Make it a race … as in, “let’s see who can get dressed first! I’ll race you!” How about “I’ll bet you can’t get your glitter sandals on before I get to the end of the alphabet song!” There are loads of variations on this theme, just tailor it to the imagination of your cub. You can even offer rewards if she beats the clock, preferably an activity she loves or something non-material.

If gamesmanship fails, try stepping out of the fight. One of our favorite rules of parenting (very useful when you approach the teen years) is, “you’re not required to attend every battle you’re invited to.” Let her know that you’ll be leaving in X minutes, and she’ll need to be dressed by then or she’ll be going to school in her PJ’s. Remind her every 10 minutes or so, but don’t engage in the battle. For this approach to be successful you’ll need to keep your tone entirely neutral, as if it makes no difference  either way. If she calls your bluff you must follow through with your act intact. Don’t blow your role and get exasperated or she’ll know she has you. Who really cares if she spends the day in her pajamas?

The key to breaking this cycle is consistency. She needs to know that you mean it and will follow through with whatever consequence you set. She will test you … boy, will she ever, and chances are she’s really good at knowing your soft spots by now. You may need to repeat the same technique several times before she gets the new normal. The power struggle is comfortable for her and it’s what she knows. It will be up to you to send a strong message that it’s not happening any more. If that’s too hard to pull off, maybe Dad can handle morning duty for awhile until a new routine takes hold.

Now that you have a few options, go forth and be fearless. You are smarter than a preschooler!

For more Mamas on facing the power struggle, check out this post from awhile ago

~ The Mamas

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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