When kids dig in their heels over seemingly trivial issues, it can feel frustratingly irrational to the adults trying to keep life moving at a reasonable pace. And although some kids are more inflexible than others, all kids are somewhat hardwired for stubbornness. According to Piaget’s stages of cognitive development, most kids don’t start to see situations from another person’s point of view or think abstractly until they are at least 7 years old. And even then, parents still have to navigate adolescent egocentrism into the teenage years.
But although some aspects of a child’s stubbornness are outside of a parent’s control, clinical psychologist Rachelle Theise, Psy.D., points out that some parenting habits can set the table for increased and more intense power struggles between parents and kids. And beyond simply helping parents survive each day, avoiding habits that can make kids more stubborn will also set their children up for success in the future.
“Ultimately, we want kids to learn that there are gray areas in most situations in life, and everything isn’t just black-and-white,” Theise says. “As they get older, the goal is to help them develop the problem-solving tools and social awareness to navigate increasingly complex situations.”
To increase their chances of achieving these goals — and to make own lives easier — Theise suggests parents watch out these three common parenting mistakes.
Mistake #1: Refusing to Share Control
It’s frankly necessary for parents to win some battles. But strategically forfeiting some can benefit everyone in the long run by lowering a child’s frustration level. When parents try to win every battle, kids end up worn down, on edge, and more likely to battle for any inch of control.
“Kids get many directions and commands from the moment they wake up, which can be hard on them. Nobody likes to be ordered around all day long,” says Theise. “It can be helpful to get their input on some decisions because they’ll be more likely to comply when you actually need to assert parental control.”
Sometimes the art of negotiation involves realizing which battles aren’t worth fighting. For example, it might not be the end of the world if a kid wants to wear shoes that don’t match their outfit. It might not even really matter if they want to wear shoes that don’t match each other.
Other times, it behooves parents to offer up choices when the stakes are low, to preemptively bank some power-struggle points. Because who really cares whether a kid has an apple or grapes with their lunch, as long as the meal includes a fruit? Presenting kids with a limited number of acceptable choices can stave off arguments and complaints while increasing their feeling of being in control.
Just be cognizant of not going overboard by giving kids too many options. Otherwise, they could have difficulty making a decision.
“Learning to narrow down options and make final decisions is a key skill, but one kids have to grow into,” Theise says. “Toddlers and preschool-age kids can handle two or three choices at a maximum. Grade school-aged kids can handle a couple more, and five becomes a lot for any kid. So generally giving kids three choices is a good rule of thumb.”
Mistake #2: Not Being Empathetic
Some decisions aren’t negotiable, but there’s a way for parents to make authoritative decisions without coming across as heartless: Acknowledging and validating kids’ feelings at least communicates that they are heard. Additionally, Theise suggests presenting your kids with a future opportunity for them to have agency in a similar situation.
“If you’re crunched for time in the morning, and your child is mad about their breakfast options, I’d say something like, ‘I understand that you're mad about this, but we have no choice. We have to leave, or we're going to be late. So this morning, you're going to go with my decision, but tomorrow morning we can try to plan better so we have more time for you to decide.’ And then I would try to do everything you can to keep things moving at that point.”
Leading with empathy also allows parents to open a door for kids to regulate their emotions. “Remind kids that they have a choice of how to handle situations and that screaming and yelling are not the best options,” Theise says. “Then I would walk away and give the child some space to decide — because if you just stand there, the child is more likely to dig in their heels and prolong the conflict.” This strategy empowers them with a decision-making opportunity, undercutting the power-struggle dynamic that allows stubbornness to rear its ugly head.
Theise also suggests building vocabulary around non-negotiable decisions by referring to decisions parents need to make without input from their kids as “priority decisions” or “red zone decisions.” Those terms act as a shorthand cue that a specific situation requires compliance. Removed from the heat of the moment, it’s helpful to explain to kids reasons why parents might need to exert that authority at times.
Mistake #3: Modeling Inflexibility
Even when it seems like kids aren’t paying attention to how adults around them are behaving, they’re likely picking up social cues that at some point they’ll emulate in the future. In this way, modeling flexibility when, for example, a server returns to the table to deliver news that your preferred dish is sold out teaches kids valuable lessons about handling disappointment.
“We want to teach kids to be independent learners and thinkers, and one way to do that is to model flexible decision-making — altering the course and reacting to the environment around us,” Theise says.
Change can be challenging to accept. But Theise says modeling a go-with-the-flow attitude is healthier than maintaining a do-or-die mindset.
“Kids need to learn that change happens and that unexpected changes can be good because they have the potential to open up unforeseen opportunities. Persistence is a great trait, but it’s also helpful to demonstrate and communicate that you’re not quitting when you have to make a change.”
There will be days when kids won’t give in and times when parents succumb to frustration and make one or all of the above mistakes. Not only are those breakdowns understandable and repairable, they’re also unlikely to derail the greater progress — as long as the breakdowns are blips on the radar rather than regular habits, it’s still possible to move steadily away from the cycles that promote stubbornness.