How to Avoid Power Struggles with Your Child with Autism

Ah, power struggles – the bane of every parent’s existence. Add to that the challenges of dealing with a child with autism, and you end up with a recipe for disaster.

Or do you? With a few smart, well thought-out strategies, you may be able to put a stop to these battles before they even start.

Drop the Rope

Ask anyone who’s been there and they can tell you, power struggles can slip in before you realize what’s happening. The back-and-forth volley to see who’s calling the shots may involve simple verbal banter, or it can be physical as well. It may result from your child seeking to escape or avoid a negative consequence, or it may just result from the child’s thrill of having the adult’s undivided attention.

But it takes two to fight. To keep up a power struggle, both of you have to be pulling on the rope. You always have the option to drop your end of the rope.

And yes, we know, this can be very, very hard to do when you’re in the heat of the moment.

Still, the best strategy for avoiding power struggles with your child is to stop engaging. Even a simple pause to collect your thoughts can interrupt the struggle enough for the child to lose focus and drop his end of the rope as well.

Of course, the struggle may not always be over quickly. But it’s critical that you try to figure out what is engaging the child and reinforcing his engagement. If the reinforcement is you talking, stop talking. If the reinforcement is a desired change in direction, then go into “broken record” mode.

We call this “planned ignoring.” You simply walk away (if you can) and refuse to engage until you can redirect the child’s attention. The power struggle doesn’t end until you obtain compliance.

Obtaining Compliance

Wait – didn’t we say that the best strategy is to drop your end of the rope? If you do that, how can you obtain compliance?

Guess what: Compliance can take place at another time and still be effective! The key here is to wait until the child finds something else he wants more than the power struggle. When you see this happen, you can redirect the child’s attention toward that desired thing by restating your demand until the child complies.

For example, say the child wants to play with a particular toy, but you need the child to get dressed. Try waiting until there’s a lull in the struggle, and then calmly state, “I heard you say you want your Cookie Monster. You need to get dressed first. And then, when you’re calm, you may have Cookie Monster.”

You might even go play with the toy yourself, to change the child’s motivation away from the struggle to playing with the toy. This simple but well-timed redirection can be surprisingly effective.

What About Bribes?

Leveraging your child’s motivation by offering the thing the child desires may feel like a bribe, but with some important differences.

Say you need to go somewhere but your child won’t put on her shoes. You don’t engage and instead quietly pick her up and put her in the car without her shoes. But you do something different: You plan ahead for next time! The next time you need her to put on her shoes to leave, you choose to proactively redirect her by suggesting that if she puts her shoes on when you ask, she can have a reward.

In this case, this is a justly deserved reward, not a bribe. Had you blurted out the promise of a reward during the middle of a struggle, then yes, it would be a bribe – and the bribe seldom work consistently over the long term. But by pre-empting the negative behavior with a well-timed, proactive reward, you’ve redirected the child and reinforced the positive behavior.

A forward-looking approach that incorporates the child’s motivation will always be more productive than old-fashioned power struggles. Fortunately, over time, as you consistently focus on redirecting your child’s motivation, your child will eventually drop the power struggle behavior. Your fights will become fewer, and you’ll all be able to enjoy a more serene, peaceful household.

Interested in learning more about the difference Positive Behavioral Connections can make in your child’s behavior? Contact us today!


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