Coping in the Time of Coronavirus

Stop choosing your battles with your kids.

Posted Mar 21, 2020

With so many parents now home with kids 24/7 due to COVID-19, I am getting a lot of desperate requests for help, specifically about how to choose their battles with their kids. The blog below addresses this very issue. I wrote it before this pandemic but have adapted to reflect this new reality. I hope it helps during this especially stressful time when many kids are more demanding than ever as they struggle to cope with this major shift in their daily routines.

One 5-year-old said it best. His parents reached out for help yesterday because he had become a total tyrant since school closed. Being a temperamentally sensitive kid, he is very dependent on routines. Knowing exactly what to expect makes the world more manageable. Kids wired in this way—as many of you know!—are especially hard hit by schools being closed. To help him, his amazing parents created a daily schedule to try to recreate school as much as possible. But it can never be exactly like school, as anyone who has ever had kids knows.

So, despite his parents' best efforts, he is still struggling, and he knows it. He is so keenly tuned into his feelings—a beautiful attribute of highly sensitive kids. Yesterday, when his parents were talking to him about how they could help him cope better, he responded: "The problem is, I know school better than I know home." What a gem. This kid has more self-awareness than most adults! 

It's Time to Stop Choosing Your Battles: Let's Not Be at War with Our Kids

The mom of a feisty 4-year-old was recently on a Facebook group for parents of “spirited” children to seek guidance on setting limits. The overwhelming response she received was to “choose your battles.” Of course, this concept is not new to me, but for some reason on this occasion, it gave me pause. It struck me as so unfortunate to frame the problem of how to deal with the sometimes incessant and often irrational toddler demands and defiance in this combative way.

The concept of “choosing battles” puts parents in a defensive mindset—that you are in for a fight. This results in approaching these moments when your kids are doing exactly what their DNA dictates they do—advocate for something they want or refuse to cooperate with a limit—with your haunches up. This parental state of mind only leads to exactly what you are trying to avoid: a power struggle.

Further, “choosing battles” implies that you are opting to give in to your toddler’s demands or defiance because it’s one too many battles for you or your child to handle. In practice, what this means is that you are setting up a dynamic in which your child learns that if she pushes hard enough, she will eventually wear you down and get her way. This handy strategy is proven effective and is thus relied on for future use, which only increases power struggles. It also leaves most parents feeling angry and resentful toward their children for pushing them to the limit and forcing them to cave when they really don’t want to.  

You don’t want to be walking on eggshells, living in fear of setting a limit you think is important, because you are dreading the tantrum that might ensue. And it’s not a good idea for you to give in on limits that you think are important and healthy for your child—indeed, that’s why kids have parents! For example, acquiescing to the 10th request for another TV show because your child is working your last nerve; letting your child stay up for an extra 30 minutes to delay the inevitable bedtime struggle; or allowing your child another cookie for snack when he’s already had a lot of sweets and you really wanted him to have fruit instead.

It’s not about choosing your battles, it’s about choosing what limits you think are best for your children and implementing them calmly and lovingly, despite your child’s displeasure at not always getting his way.

This doesn’t mean that you are totally inflexible. In fact, during the time of this pandemic, it will be a necessity to adapt to your new reality. You may decide to allow more screen time and several more books before bed since the day is much less rushed than usual. What's key is that you are deciding on this plan. You are not doing it as a result of your child’s protestations or tantrums. (You have said TV time is over, your child throws an epic meltdown, you change your mind and allow more TV.) That dynamic leads to more, not fewer, tantrums, as your child is learning that meltdowns are an effective strategy for getting what he wants. 

So, think in advance about what your new rules will be, taking into consideration the current circumstances, and then stick to them. When your child protests, acknowledge her displeasure with your rule and move on. There's no reason to be angry at her for having a hard time with the limit. "Yes, we are allowing more screen time during the week while school is closed and mommy and daddy need to work. But you can’t watch videos all day. Time is up. When you are done being upset with the rule, I can help you find something else to do." What you don’t want to do is cave because your child throws a tantrum and then be angry at her for making your life so stressful.

In situations where your child is making a proactive request—of which there will be many—get into the habit of acknowledging it and then giving yourself time to think about it before making a decision. "I know you love baking cookies together. I love it too. Let me think about whether we have time to do that today." Put on a timer for a minute—to help your child wait and to make sure you think it through before responding. Then give him your answer. This prevents being reactive. If you decide that the activity is possible, then you let your child know that you can do that together today. If you decide that it is not a good day for baking, then let him know that you have thought about his request but that it's not possible. Ideally, you would let him know when you will have time to do this together in the near future.

It's important to let your kids know that you will always take their requests seriously. Sometimes it will be a "yes" but other times it may be a "no." For example, on a night when you decide that there is time for a few extra books before lights-out, be clear that this is the case for that night. Other nights it might not be possible. Don't expect, though, that this preparation will prevent a tantrum the night you say "no" to extra books. Stay calm and carry on: "I know, you are disappointed that we can't have extra books tonight. We got a late start at bedtime so we just have time for two stories." Your child will survive the upset, which ultimately builds the flexibility to adapt when things don't go exactly as she expects or wants. 

It takes two to battle. Your child may try to draw you into a struggle, but you don’t have to participate in a tug-of-war that’s not good for you or your kids. Being confident about the limits you are setting and remaining loving as you implement them will render having to “choose your battles” obsolete.