Challenges Give Kids a Feeling of Power

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Challenge kidsYoung children LOVE being challenged. Give them a problem to solve, little challenges to master, and they will rise to your challenges every time—as long as they are given with a light-hearted approach.

It’s so exhausting and draining to keep threatening and yelling at our kids, to get them to do what we want. Challenges and choices offer children an opportunity to use their creative and imaginative muscles while at the same time getting them to do what you want. We spend far too much time telling our children what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. Make sure you give them the opportunity to direct you once in awhile so they don’t keep ending up on the short end of the power stick.

If your kids are acting out, are angry at you, or taking it out on a sibling, you can be pretty sure that a feeling of powerless is at the root of the behavior. Giving them challenges and choices evens out the balance and you will likely see better behavior.

Here are a few ideas to motivate and set challenges–then try some of your own:

  • I’m not sure you can pick that jacket up and get it to actually stay on the hook. Isn’t that hook too high for you to reach?
  • How long do you think it would take you to run around the outside of the house? How about if I count and see what number I get up to?
  • I bet you can’t get dressed as fast as I can. Shall we set the timer?
  • I wonder if you can get your plate to the sink by the time I count to 10.
  • Let’s see who can be silent the longest? First one who makes a noise has to give the other one a kiss.
  • If you run upstairs to get your sweater, I’ll count. Let’s see how high I get to.
  • Can you do “Itsy Bitsy Spider” all the way through with no words only the hand motions?
  • Do you want to climb into your car seat like a monkey? A Lion? Or fly in like an eagle?
  • You can’t have ice cream now. Imagine if you could turn everything in the kitchen into ice cream. What flavor would the refrigerator be? The sink? The stove? Which one would you lick first?
  • Imagine if your bed had wings that would shoot out when you pressed a button. Where would you make it fly?
  • Which one of you will feed the dog and which one will clear the table? Whoever gets it done gets a big kiss from me.
  • It’s time to go upstairs. What marching song shall we choose tonight? “When the Saints Go Marching In” or “Stars and Stripes Forever”?
  • You don’t like that I told you to turn off the TV. I wonder what it would be like if you didn’t have a parent telling you what to do all the time. Let’s think of all the things you could do.

This reply came from a parent who tried this: “Challenges all last night. Especially while preparing dinner, (mostly in an attempt to keep them out of the kitchen!) “Who can do 20 jumping jacks?”  “Who can clap while singing Mary Had a Little Lamb?”….”I CAN!”…”I CAN!!” Like a charm!! It was excellent! They even started presenting challenges to each other…haha!”

Of course, being in the space to offer your kids a challenge, means that you have to be feeling pretty chill. When your button has just been pushed, the challenge you have is not to yell or threaten. Give the challenges when things are going well, and once you get in the habit, you may be able to give them when you really need to defuse a tense situation.


Questions and Answers

A Hitting and Biting Toddler

Hitting biting toddlerQ.  My 17 month son has been throwing tantrums, what toddler doesn’t, but I can not get him to stop hitting me or biting me. Then he wants to hug me to make up for it. This has been going on for months and we can’t seem to get him to stop. We both work full time but spend time with him after daycare. Nothing I seem to do is changing his behavior, and I am getting extremely frustrated with him, to the point that I don’t even want to spend time with him. Do you have any recommendations? 

A.  Unfortunately, some children at this age are hitters, some are biters and it is not something they can stop when “taught” not to because he has no impulse control. Your job is to understand it as developmental — not as anything wrong or bad. Not easy, I know, when he is hitting you. Are the hits and bites angry? Does he hit or bite in daycare? If they are not in anger, ask him for a hug instead of a hit/bite. Give him a hug if you can. May sound counter-intuitive but hits and bites at this age are usually the child’s way of saying pay attention to me, play with me, etc. Giving positive attention does not reinforce the behavior, it answers the need. You DO NOT want him to learn that he is bad for what he cannot help. And he even shows remorse for it. His reactions are pure impulse. Age 3 is just the beginning of impulse control. Now, this doesn’t mean that he should be allowed to hit and bite you. But your effectiveness in helping him stop has ALL to do with how you respond to him. Understandably you are reactive and angry — that’s because of your perceptions of his behavior. You think he should be able to learn, you should be able to teach him, and since he’s still doing it, so you think you are both failing. As soon as you see it differently and understand he is not doing it on purpose, then you will be more neutral when you tell him you don’t want to be hit or bitten and that it hurts. You can certainly yell, OW! just as you would if a door slammed on you. But taking away the blame and the frustration at not being able to teach him to stop will change everything. Also as soon after the hit or bite as possible, give him something that is ok to hit or bite—pillows, stuffed animals, etc. Instead of trying to stop up his energy and impulses, you can rechannel them to show him what he CAN hit or bite. When he feels understood, he will move through this developmental stage faster (not fast enough, I’m sure!) and with a strong sense of self intact.


Why can’t I stop blaming?

Q.  I am able to apologise to my 7 yo son, to admit that I don’t like how I behaved or the choice I Blaming mommade, but I still can’t stop myself from blaming. When I get angry, when things don’t go to plan, I make blaming statements like, “You are turning this into a difficult day,” “You made X happen.” My son reacts to blame with very intense distress, and also uses blaming statements himself. When he gets hurt it’s because I “made” him hurt himself. I can see how damaging it all is… so why can’t I stop doing it? I don’t know where to go with it except, “I’m obviously not working hard enough at it, my commitment to Connective Parenting is not strong enough” — the same old self-blaming, “not good enough” deficit statements being rehearsed over again. Where is the way out of the labyrinth?

A.  If I could give you the 5 steps out of the labyrinth, I’d be a millionaire. There is no easy answer but I do know it does NOT mean you are not committed enough or good enough. It more likely is about how you felt about yourself when blamed as a child, believing you weren’t good enough to please or get approval – the result of conditional parenting. It’s so hard to understand that we don’t need blame to teach our children right from wrong. A firm “I don’t like it when you do that” is so much more effective than “Don’t do that!” It also carries with it the natural consequence of doing something wrong – you don’t like it. Practice with little things when you are feeling fine, when your automatics are not the first thing that fly out of your mouth. Start with “I”. If you can write that mantra on your brain, that will help. “I don’t like it when things get so difficult, I hate it when stuff is left all over the floor, I have a really hard time when I don’t think you’re listening.” When you start with “I”, it’s much harder to blame. It will feel awkward but maybe you can share this with your son and let him know that when he feels blamed he can say to you, “remember “I” mom”, and then you can restate it in the moment. See if he will be willing for you to do the same – “remember “I”. When you get the “I” down in simple situations, then taking blame away from tougher ones will get easier. “You made X happen” can change to “I’m so upset that this happened.” When you are aware of coming down on yourself, remind yourself that you are unlearning many years of habit. Blaming yourself is just as damaging as blaming your child.


Test Anxiety

anxious childQ.  Do you have suggestions for my 10-year old daughter who has panic attacks during tests/exams. She is generally a happy, outgoing person but tends to flounder faced with adversity and has self esteem issues. She specifically has panic attacks during assessments at school, which obviously affect her performance. Although she is very able and should in principle do well, during tests she freezes when she cannot immediately answer a question, gets stressed when others are faster than her, and stops functioning altogether. Can you suggest coping techniques she could practice?

A.  Many children do well in school and panic when it comes to testing. Your daughter will only have self-esteem issues if she believes she is wrong or dumb for being the way she is. The best you can do for her is to assure her she’s normal. DO NOT reassure her that “everything will be fine and she will do well”. That sends the message that you don’t get it, and she is alone in her worry – which exacerbates the panic. Point out to her that FEELINGS of anxiety come from her THOUGHTS. Help her identify the thoughts she has at the time panic hits and what she could change those to. For instance, “I’m going to fail this test” could change to “I’m feeling really nervous right now.” “Everybody’s going to beat me” could reframe to “I will do this at my pace.” Keep it truthful and factual – just to take the edge off. She could write some reframed thoughts down and read them at the time. You can make suggestions but don’t tell her what she should do and don’t expect her worry to disappear. You must understand that this is her problem. If you are upset about it, it makes her problem worse, and then she has your upset to deal with. Your job is to understand her dilemma and to give her support. Every time she gets through it, she builds resilience. You might also point out that the reason she gets panicky is because of the high expectations she holds for herself. She cares very much how she does. Point out the obvious positives and then add that the downside is how hard she can be on herself, something she can work on over time. Mindfulness meditation practices help. The two of you could practice together a few minutes a day.



Staying Calm Always Works

My 11 yr. old son was trying his usual bullying tactics on his little sister to get her to do something and she refused. Then he tried threatening her with what would happen if she didn’t do it. This would normally send my Button Meter through the roof and cause a very unhelpful reaction in an attempt to deal with this “terrible behaviour”, but because I had been in a connective “zone” with him all morning, I was able to talk straight with him, rather than jumping into fear and anger. I was able to explain coolly and simply that it wasn’t his sister’s problem. His direction completely changed. He still looked a bit annoyed, but resigned himself to get on with it and leave his sister alone. This is the first time it’s really hit me exactly just how powerful this connective communication is – it was like my words went “whack” straight to his heart. 


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32 comments on “Newsletter
  1. amy russell says:

    So true. I appreciate the simplicity of the message: let go of the fear and be there. Thank you.

  2. Anita says:

    How very true! I feel so guilty of not been able to do just this 1 thing – “Be there for her”.
    But as I read this article, I find some hope that it is never too late to change

  3. Amelia Trabilsie says:

    That’s brilliant Bonnie, I can never get enough of these messages; sometimes the same message “wrapped up” in different ways, and every time it makes it more and more easy to absorb and take on board in an unconscious/subconscious way. Thank you for these gifts Bonne! Warmest Amelia 🙂

  4. Kristi says:

    Amen Bonnie,
    For many years my son was overwhelmed with the stimuli of the world and fell apart multiple times daily. He would become a screaming, writhing, spitting creature who scratched his own face to bleeding trying to deal with the difficulty of ordering food from a menu! So many public breakdowns it was so hard to know what we should be doing! Get tough and demand that he “behave”? Well that really didn’t help. Thanks to you and a local therapist I learned not to get caught up in MY emotions when he was out of control of his, just be there. We learned to limit the stressors for him. Today he is a different kid. Successfully navigating the high school waters of intellectual, social and physical challenges and knows when he has had enough and needs to have some downtime. As a primary care provider who sees a lot of parents struggling-I tell them to relax-be there, keep them safe and don’t take their behavior personally- and of course I recommend your books and website! Keep up the great work, and thank you.

    • admin says:

      Kristi – Thank you so much for this comment. I hope everyone reads it. I may even add it to another article when I share parents experiences. You have been in the trenches and know what it’s like to have a difficult kid, didn’t try to change him, and came out the other end with a great kid. These stories are so important for parents to read.

    • Betsy says:

      “Don’t take their behavior personally” — This has become a mantra for me, thanks to Bonnie’s advice. I wish I had employed it when she was a toddler and preschooler. But better late than never!

  5. Amber says:

    hi bonnie,
    thanks for sharing this. I worry about my daughter a lot too, but I guess I don’t give her enough credit either.

  6. Kirsten says:

    This was a timely piece for me. Had just done back to school night and came home to an 11 year old anxious about leaving all his school work at a friend’s house. He was anxious and I had listened to the message of the night, “let them have these experiences where it is safe, don’t rescue them, 70% of this year is organization”, but I knew what my own child needed in order to sleep wasn’t my fear that he wasn’t ever going to pull it together…I also have a much more emotionally challenging middle son (9) and he is often trying so hard, but so inflexible about the actions of others, and still having tantrums, yet intelligent, sweet, and sensitive, sometimes the scariest part is when we aren’t present and then everything gets catastrophic. I was pleased to see the comment above and curious as to how Kristi got through the trenches without worrying about the impact on the family and her son’s self image ?

  7. Amelia Trabilsie says:

    Kristi your comment was so good to read, thank you too 🙂

  8. Leah Davies says:

    I love your quote, “You are your child’s mountain. While she swirls and blows like a hurricane, sometimes a tornado, around you, she needs to count on your stability and most of all your faith that she has and will continue to have whatever it takes to get through whatever it is” That is wonderful advice. – See more at:

    For 11 additional complimentary parenting handouts, video, and activity that is dedicated to helping parents raise responsible, caring adults, see:

  9. Kristi says:

    In response to Kirsten’s question: it wasn’t elegant, or seamless or a straight path, (and still isn’t) that’s for sure – but I think that is the essence of parenting. No matter what our virtual personas (or that of our friends) depicts to the outside world. It’s messy and scary. Parenting can be like walking alone in a dark forest. We learned to recognize early when WE needed counsel, we also allowed our son a chance to intermittently work with a child therapist, and brought along his sibling. One of my biggest realizations was: I needed to let go of MY agenda for my child. He is who he is, AND he is not this behavior currently. I learned (to try) not to get attached to ANY behavior, whether I liked it or didn’t like it, because it is likely to change. The family dynamic is a huge challenge always. My husband and I try to find common ground and create a united front. We learned it didn’t matter what other people thought we should do with our child, including family… we simplified life. Keep them fed, safe, loved. Keep looking out of the trench occasionally for some inspiration Kirsten and remember “This too shall pass” !

    • admin says:

      Kristi – This is so beautifully put. I so appreciate your response. I totally agree – families are a messy business not matter that they look like. Parenting is the hardest job on the planet. I love the steps of your realizations and how you maneuvered your way.
      Thanks for this.

  10. MK says:

    What you write Bonnie rings so true for me. What can I do when I realise that the way I was parented undermined my confidence and felt like it cut me off at the knees. I feel I have very little resilience myself and don’t want to make the same mistakes. How can I build my own confidence along with my daughters?

    • admin says:

      MK – What you are describing is exactly why I wrote my book, When Your Kids Push Your Buttons. It is all about how our own childhood experiences effect how we parent our children – and most importantly, what we can do about it. I would highly recommend checking it out. You can get my book on amazon, you can get the audio download version of it on my website, you can also order the workbook filled with exercises to go along with it. And I have a When Your Kids Push Your Buttons teleseminar available for download that is 12 hours of the Buttons workshop and has the workbook included for more intense work. You can read about it here.

  11. i love the simplicity of this message! This is a challenge for me at home with two teenagers and the ups and downs that teenage life brings. I recognize how my frustration may have actually been perpetuated by my own actions of protecting and solving problems that they should be given the chance to handle themselves. With a college student 1200 miles away this challenge becomes more complicated at times. My goal is to practice by stepping back this week.
    Bonnie… I would love to add a link for this article on my preschool blog, which is private to families enrolled at The Amherst Preschool. Is that possible?
    Thank you
    Ellen Grudzien

  12. The question about teen disrespect brought up a few things for me.
    I’m passionate about this because I grew up with a father like this. He rarely listened to me. He only wanted a relationship on his terms. He was disrespectful to me and never apologized. As a result even as an adult I was never able to be close to him (Despite many attempts). Because he couldn’t be human with me I never respected him. Instead I felt sad for both of us. He was too proud to meet me as a human being. We both lost something valuable.

    In many families, ideas about “obedience” and “respect” get intertwined. Obedience is an action, respect is a feeling. Obedience comes from power over and respect comes from power with. Obedience is enforced using power and it disconnects the two people involved (and creates escalating power struggles). Respect relies on relationship and connections and comes from influence, not force. Like toddlers who are learning who they are in the world, teens too go through a developmental stage of learning about power. When a 4 year old is stubborn and says no or demands that she has to do it her way it can still be “cute”. Not so with a 14 year old.
    14 year olds want to be engaged and respected. This comes from listening, being humble and over and over again repairing mistakes. Adults get to lead on this. (We have the more developed prefrontal cortex).
    Working with a partner who is demanding obedience is challenging but using the same tools that are effective with teens work for partners too. Connect before correct.
    When (teen) is yelling and being inappropriate, it seems like you are worried that he will not grow up to be a healthy adult. You dream of having a son who has manners and treats others respectfully. I appreciate it that you are willing to stand up for me (This is the connect).
    Then the correct or request: My request is that when you sense he is being disrespectful to me that you ask before you intervene. I promise I won’t ignore the problem. My approach will be to wait until things calm down and then ask him to make a repair. I want him to be able to make mistakes – even if they are disrespectful and then have time to think about them and repair them.

    The other thing this mom can do is coach her son on making repairs and asking for repair. If the relationship isn’t already too strained it could be a gift to his dad. Eg. Dad, you were right. It was not cool for me to yell at mom. I’ve apologized to mom. I also didn’t like it when you called the police. When you are ready I’d like an apology and would like to make a plan about how to solve problems when you are angry.

  13. Karen Daley says:

    My husband and I have been having this food argument since our son started solid foods. He’s 10 now. My husband still eats as if he’s a teenager, pizza, chips, pop,etc. & I gave up junk food when I became an adult, minus my once a month sugar fix a week before my cycle starts. We work different shifts so when I’m home it’s all the good stuff & when my husband is home he’s either a short order cook, making two different meals or they are munching on take out (grease & more grease)when there is a full fridge of healthy options. My son knows all about healthy eating & all the good stuff is served in school. How do we all get on the same “healthy eating” page?

    • admin says:

      Karen, it is of course important to convince your husband that modeling good food eating and having only good food in your house is important. You might talk to him about what he thinks in terms of his own health and if he approves of your son following in his tracks. Make sure he understands how serious you are about this issue and what your worry is.

  14. Mary Ellen says:

    In response to “Transitions from Day Care”, sometimes children fall apart because they are exhausted from their day. Not because of stress or because they don’t want to stop playing, but because they have run out of inner resources. None of us deals well with change at the end of a long day, but people will look funny if we act howwe are really feeling! :o)

    • admin says:

      Thank you Mary Ellen. You are so right. I include exhaustion and lacking inner resources with stress. Stress comes in many degrees and varieties. When children are stressed in any way, they need our understanding and patience more than ever.

  15. Julietta says:

    I resonated with the one about “stupid”. Sometimes my son calls me stupid or dumb, too. In addition to the strategies Bonnie suggests in her reply to the reader’s question, all of which I totally agree with, my strategies for dealing with this have been 1) to say “Please leave off the label” (obviously we’ve had discussions about what i mean by “label”) – with a tone of request, not reprimand/disapproval, ie telling him what I want him to do rather than telling him off. After all, kids learn to use labels at school – it is common behaviour at school. It is natural that he’ll emulate that behaviour. But together the two of us can carve out better ways of being. It’s about teaching, not telling off. 2) The other thing I do, which seems most effective, is to state, calmly & as a fact, not a reprimand: “No, I’m not stupid. Sometimes I make mistakes but I certainly am not stupid.” ie, call him to account on throwing around labels without thinking, by challenging him to think about what it means & whether it’s true – while at the same time requesting the respect I think I deserve (& modelling it by respecting myself). Saying it in a calm tone, also involves refusing to respond with an upset tone, because as you point out, if they get a rise from it that’s why they keep doing it. (Fun to make Mum, or brother, react!) – of course, my son is older, but these suggestions might help someone. All these strategies are founded in ideas from Connective Parenting. Also – just want to say that telling my child what i “DO” want him to do – not what i don’t (as in the main article) – has been one of the most effective ‘tricks’ i’ve learnt.

    • admin says:

      Thanks for this Julietta. All great suggestions when your child calls you stupid. And of course in order to practice any of this, you have to be able to respond rather than react. And that means not taking it personally, understanding why your child wants to use a strong word, and responding to him in a way that is logical not blaming.

  16. Kate McGuire says:

    What a great newsletter to read as my child breaks up from his first year at nursery. I was wondering what I should do with him but now am feeling less pressure and that just “being” with him – truly present, is enough. These are precious years, you are right, and by taking the pressure off myself and him, we get to have a much more fun, playful time. Which is what life is all about, I believe. Thank you as always Bonnie.

  17. Resa Aschbacher says:

    Parenting is such a learned skill! I have four children all grown into their 20’s now. What I thought was personality driven behavior I now realize was “Parenting Skills” driven. My oldest got the parent, me, who punished the anger. My youngest got the parent, again me, who opened her arms for a hug. I am so sorry I didn’t have more skills when I had my first child. He forgives me!

    • admin says:

      The wonderful thing Resa, is that it is never too late. The fact that your son forgives you says that you owned your mistakes and asked for his forgiveness. That in itself is so huge and what sooooooo many of us parents wish our parents would do. Good for you for having that courage—because that is what it takes.

  18. Yvonne says:

    I am especially encouraged to hear information on how to help children who are misbehaving to act more responsibly. I have grandchildren and I am a fifth-grade teacher who has seen behavior affect relationships and learning

  19. Cheryl says:

    …Dear Bonnie,
    Thank you for sharing your insights especially about the “disinterested” teen, your advice is so on target and so needed!! My son was extremely much ahead of grade level in 1-6th grade and as a sophomore in high school is still struggling to acquire study skills and inner motivation to do well academically. He gets easily discouraged with low grades and doesn’t want to spend time fixing them which is taking an enormous toll on his academic record. Like the teen in your message he also likes to spend a lot of time in his room alone online gaming or on his cell phone. But his circle of friends is actually into gaming and he visits with them every day via the internet and cell phone. I often times hear him conversing with them and laughing and singing joking talking … so I think the mentality of todays’ social world is very different than when we grew up in terms of “connectivity” (pun intended) It has taken me a while to be able to accept this as a valid form of socialization- but I think he values these connections as friends. It’s just that the face time isn’t there and sometimes I wonder if those with shy tendencies actually become a bit more shy when face time is added to the equation when its time to actually visit with people. I’m trusting that enjoying being around others is linked with developing nuances of communication styles and that will come with maturity and life experience.
    Thanks again for the excellent and caring work you do that contributes a great deal to understanding how to be a better parent!