HAPPILY EVA ANSWERS: The Power Struggle Bus

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Eva Amurri answers questions in her Happily Eva Answers column

Hi Eva!


I’m writing because I love your parenting style, it’s very similar to mine. You have been a parent a few years more than I have and maybe this is too much to ask, but I was wondering if you might give me a brief piece of advice for dealing with my five-year-old son who has become very defiant. Mostly “if you don’t let me use the iPad then I am going to not listen all day.” Sounds silly but he sticks to it. I am firm with him but the consequences of losing screen time, time out, or going to bed early doesn’t phase him. I feel like I need to regain control and fast. Could you please give me a better way to handle this usually very sweet boy? He is saying ‘no’ to anything that isn’t on his terms and I am feeling defeated. I also have a newborn so Mama has less patience on account of the no sleeping.


Lot’s of Love,


Mama Riding The Power Struggle Bus

Eva Amurri answers a reader question about kids' power struggles

My Dear Mama Struggle Bus Rider,

OH HOW I FEEL YOU! I have been in exactly the same position you are in, with multiple children. Of course, this type of defiant power struggle looks different with different kids, but I do feel like I’ve learned a lot over the years of dealing with these issues. Of course, as usual, please remember that I am NOT a parenting expert and my way is not the only way! Take what is helpful and discard whatever isn’t. I won’t be offended!

First of all, I read all the way down your letter, and found the a-ha moment in your last line. Your sweet boy recently welcomed a new baby to the family! This all makes total sense. A newborn can really stir things up for other siblings in the family and bring up so many conflicting emotions. As much as your son loves his new sibling (and I’m sure he does!), the new addition also brings up fears, insecurities, and anger. (As it does for most of us during moments of big change.) He’s feeling super out of control, and so this defiant attitude is his way of creating a stronghold for himself and getting some power back. It’s a coping mechanism, even if it’s a frustrating one. It’s also a way for him to get attention from you, even if it’s negative attention. It’s understandable, and probably helps to hear that underneath the defiance is actually a lot of vulnerability.

Whenever my older two kids have had periods of defiance, it ALWAYS came at times when there was a lot going on for our family. With Marlowe, it was when we moved homes and were renovating our new house. We had no real roots at that time, and her behavior for a few months was atrocious. With Major, it came as he was adjusting to Kyle moving out and our new normal as a family. All understandable adjustments! In the moment, though, I felt so lost as a Mom and as though I had done something really wrong and my kids were just going to be “bad” forever. It helps to reframe it for yourself and look at it as a time for you and your son to grow closer together. Here is my prescription for defiant young kiddos, outlined in the paragraphs below.

Let me know if you have questions!

Eva Amurri answers a reader question about kids' power struggles

Bring the Issue Out into the Open

Sometimes, you need to call a thing a thing, and blatantly explain to your child that the jig is up. I recommend taking your son out just the two of you to do something simple and pleasant. Like a walk, or getting ice cream. I’d tell him really calmly and with a lot of compassion that you know he’s been having a hard time recently, and you have too. You know that having a newborn in the family is hard for everyone in different ways. For him, it’s hard to share his parents and get used to a new person and less attention. For YOU, it’s hard because you’re tired a lot, and you’re sad because you have less time to spend with him and don’t like having the time you DO get to spend with him filled with fighting over silly things like the iPad. Make sure he understands that you still love him so much and that you want to have fun together, not to be frustrated with each other. See if he has any ideas for how you guys could work through those moments better. I always like to remind my kids when we have conversations like this that they feel safe because I’m in charge and I know what’s best for them. I’m a grownup, so I make the rules, and the rules exist to keep them safe, healthy, and growing up right. While his opinion is important, YOU are in charge. See if you can talk a bit about ways to work compromise into the daily routine. Or even the weekly routine!


Applaud Good Behavior

Keep your eye out like a hawk for good behavior, even if it’s small things, and thank him for it! If he puts down the iPad without a fight, or listens to directions the first time you ask, thank him and let him know you really appreciate that kind of behavior. Whenever my kids are on a tear of one kind or another, and I feel like I’ve become a “No” broken record, I try turning it on its head and rewarding positive behavior instead. It works like a charm!


Don’t Give In

Boundaries are SUPER important when kids are defiant. In reality, being able to change the rules or make their own can make kids feel really unsafe, even if they don’t express that directly (or state the opposite). Whenever my kids are in an acting-out phase, I create more structure for them, not less. Setting timers for the iPad always works for me (and I let them push the start button). When it goes off, that’s it. Similarly, I like to have a schedule for the day that I put up on the fridge so they can see what’s coming next. Make sure that he is clear about the consequences at the beginning of the day. For example: “The plan for the day is on the fridge. You can see that you get twenty minutes with the iPad after lunch, and twenty minutes before bed. If you don’t turn it off when the alarm goes off, then you will get zero minutes with the iPad tomorrow. I need to be able to trust you just like you trust me.” And that’s it! If he doesn’t respect the rule you MUST follow through with the consequences.


Big Sibling Special Time

I’ve now had two older kids adjust to a new baby in the house, so my last word of advice is to make sure you’re taking some 1:1 time with big brother once a week. It doesn’t have to be something crazy. Even just watching a show together, taking a walk, or making cookies. Kids get so defiant when their hearts are hurting, because the reality is that they DO care what you think about them. A LOT. If he knows he can count on special time with you, it will really go a long way to correct his feelings of powerlessness!

Eva Amurri answers a reader question about kids' power struggles

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Photographs by Julia Dags | Copyright © 2021 Happily Eva After, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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  1. Lauren says:

    Great advice! I too have experienced situations such as these and I concur with the suggestions! Reading this also reminded me of these tools and reassured me that I am equipped to handle my daughter who’s in her “terrible 3s” – and that her new 7 week old baby brother may be fueling her behavior. Hang in there… you’re not alone!

    06.30.21 Reply
  2. Clé says:

    As an elementary school teacher, I think this advice is spot-on. There’s always a bigger reason for a kid having behavior struggles. They’re still learning how society expects them to function and their brains are still developing. I’d use all these steps (truly!!) with one of my third graders if they were showing defiant behaviors at school.

    07.06.21 Reply