3 Communication Tips to Avoid Power Struggles

young african american family holding hands

Just imagine…

You’re 4-years-old, walking to the park with your mom and dad. The sun is shining, there’s a soft breeze in the air, and the twirly slide is calling your name. You can’t wait to get there. 

Just as you step onto the sidewalk, your mom shouts, “Don’t go in the street!” 

You hadn’t planned on walking in the street. At least not until this very moment. You stare at the smooth black pavement glistening in the sunlight. It’s just begging for you to run across it!

Why, oh, why did your mom even mention the street? Had she said, “Please walk with us on the sidewalk,” you probably wouldn’t have even noticed it. 

Now, it’s all your little mind can think about.

As parents, we can give commands to our children positively or negatively. Both, essentially, are asking the same thing, but the delivery–and the impression it leaves– can be exponentially different.

And in a world where the average child hears 432 negative comments or words per day versus 32 positive ones (Source: K. Kvols, Redirecting Children’s Behavior), it’s safe to say which style we typically rely on.

Don’t be late! Stop talking with your mouth full! Don’t touch your sister! No more fighting!

I’m sure a few of these sound familiar. But you see, when most of the language we use with our kids is negative (don’t, stop, no more, etc.) we create problems for both them and us.

Negative language is confusing, demeaning, and comes off as harsh. Kids don’t want to feel talked down to any more than adults do. 

Not to mention, it invites All. The. Power. Struggles.

Fortunately, the fix is as simple as swapping out those negative phrases for more positive ones. Trust me; this will do wonders for your child’s misbehavior!

Why? Because positive language empowers kids! It tells them that they can make good choices, and we value what they have to say. It’s a massive boost to their self-esteem.

Here’s the not-so-fortunate part. It may be simple, but simple doesn’t always mean easy. Making these changes isn’t going to happen overnight, especially if you’ve been using negative commands for years–it’s just second nature at this point! 

But with a bit of time, practice, and intentional effort, I’m confident you’ll get there. 

To get you started, here are 3 tips to avoid power struggles by using positive language.

Tip #1: Practice Using “Do” Commands

Don’t run in the street! Don’t talk with food in your mouth! Don’t forget to brush your teeth!

Do any of these sound familiar?

To put an end to the power struggles, try to rephrase these statements using “Do” commands….

Please walk on the sidewalk. Keep your lips together when chewing food, please. When your teeth are brushed, we’ll be ready for storytime!

Why “Do” Commands Lead to More Cooperation

As parents, we probably say the word “don’t” more times than we can count in one day. And with good reason! We want to keep our children safe, healthy, and happy. Naturally, we have to tell them what they shouldn’t do. 


The problem isn’t so much what we’re asking but rather how we’re asking it. You see, when we use “don’t” commands, our kids automatically have to “double-process” what we’re telling them.

They think, What does Mom NOT want me to do? AND, What does she want me to DO instead?

Not only is this discouraging, but it’s also incredibly confusing–especially for young children. “Don’t” reinforces the negative behavior and brings it to their full attention (remember the street scenario above?).

You say, “Don’t run in the street!” and they think, “Gee, running in the street sounds really fun right about now.”

You say, “Don’t play on your iPad,” and they think, “iPad, iPad, iPad! I REALLY want my iPad!”

Instead, try switching up your phrasing by stating what you do want instead of what you don’t. (Bonus points if you ask politely.)

For example, if you want to say “DO walk on the sidewalk,” try, “Please walk on the sidewalk. It’s so nice knowing we are being safe.”

Or, if you’re going for “DO stay away from the iPad,” try, “Let’s play outside while the weather is nice and save your screen time for when we’re in the car later.”

Doesn’t that sound much better?

Right off the bat, this eliminates the need to “double-process” the command. Your child knows exactly what you’re asking and feels especially significant because you asked in such a polite and respectful way.

It also does away with any looming frustration that tends to go hand-in-hand with negative comments. You’ll take their thinking from, Why can’t I? to Yes, I can! 

And with that boost of empowerment in your daily lives, you’ll be sure to see less misbehavior.

free parenting class

Tip #2: Find Opportunities to Say “Yes!”

One of the best ways to reduce power struggles is to shift our “no’s” into something that — to a child — feels more like a “yes.”

For example, just imagine…

It’s Saturday afternoon, and you and your 10-year-old son are perusing the aisles of your local pet store. All you need is a bag of dog food, but you’re making it an outing because you both enjoy peeking in on the new puppies and kittens.

You’re deeply enthralled with an adorable little furball when, all of a sudden, you hear your son call to you from across the store. 

“Mom, come check out this baby alligator! Can we buy him?”

Ummm, say what now? 

Sure, there are many amazing parents out there that would love to bring a pet alligator home. But you are NOT one of them. Of course, now you feel backed into a corner. Up until now, you’ve been a positive language rockstar! But that ends today.  

You have to say no.

And you know what? That’s fine! 

Parents can’t (and shouldn’t) give their children every single thing they ask for. If they did, I’m pretty sure the world would be run by entitled kids fueled solely on dino nuggets and candy.

So let’s set the record straight right now. “No” isn’t the problem. How we present the “no” can be.

Let’s say your immediate reaction is:

“No. We are absolutely NOT getting a pet alligator today, tomorrow, or ever!”

Can you see how something so negatively charged may be discouraging to your 10-year-old? He was only asking a question, but your answer leaves him frustrated, disheartened, and ready to push back.

So what can you do when the answer is “no,” but you want to maintain that positive language? 

Try shifting that power struggle paradigm by finding a way to turn that “no” answer into something that more resembles a “yes.” 

You could try:

“We can’t buy an alligator to take home, but let’s pick a day when we can come back and visit it in the store. Would you rather come back Sunday afternoon or Monday evening?”

This way, you aren’t driving home with a reptilian creature in the backseat, but you also don’t have to say no.

It’s a win-win. 

While this may seem tricky at first, I’m willing to bet that you’re actually much better at disguising no’s for yes’s than you think.

Maybe it’s your toddler, asking for the hundredth time if she can wear her purple polka dot snowsuit to the swimming pool because it’s her “favorite color in the whole wide world!”

“You can absolutely wear your snowsuit inside the house with the A/C on high! But let’s stick to wearing your purple swimsuit at the pool. Snowsuits are hard to splash in.”

Or perhaps your fresh-from-the-DMV teen really wants to learn how to drive in your classic (and newly restored) ’65 Mustang.

“Buddy, you’d look so awesome driving that car, but it can be really hard to learn the rules of the road in a manual transmission. Why don’t we start in an automatic until you’re more confident behind the wheel?”

See? Even when the answer is “no” you can always squeeze a refreshingly positive “yes” in there somewhere.

Try a Yes Day!

positive language quote

Another way to find more opportunities to say “yes” throughout the day is quite simple. Just say “yes!”

A popular trend in recent years has been for families to institute a “Yes Day” with their kiddos. Typically, this is one full day when parents say yes to any request (with ground rules and within reason) their kids ask.

Breakfast for dinner? Yes! 

Mini golf followed by a movie? Absolutely! 

Wear pajamas to the candy store? Um, if you say so!

The intention behind the idea of a Yes Day is to give your children something all Positive Parenting Solutions parents know they desire–a strong feeling of belonging and significance!

Saying “yes” to their requests tells them that you’re interested in what they have to say and what they want to do. They’re an essential part of the family, and you recognize all of their contributions.

Yes is powerful! 

Pro Tip: Positive Parenting Solutions Members, review Step 1 Lesson 2 of the 7-Step Parenting Success System® course to understand more about your child’s desire for belonging and significance.

Tip #3: Whenever Possible, Smile When You Speak

You may be thinking, Okay, Amy, what’s with you? This is getting a little weird. 

Trust me. I get it. 

But, believe it or not, lots of research shows that smiling when we speak has a significantly positive impact on both us and those we’re talking to! It may seem a bit out there, but I promise you’ll soon see just how helpful it can be when trying to switch from negative to positive language. 

Because the truth is, it’s really hard to say anything negative when you’ve got a smile on your face.

Let’s give it a try…

With your brightest smile, repeat after me: “Don’t ride your bike without a helmet on. It’s really dangerous, and I don’t want you to get hurt.”

I’m willing to bet that felt pretty awkward (and possibly looked a little terrifying). Why? Because the emotion on your face didn’t match what you were saying. 

Now, let’s try it again. Only this time, let’s also rephrase the sentence using what we learned in the first two tips.

Again, be sure to show off those pearly whites: “Please wear your helmet when you’re on your bike. I love knowing that you’re being safe.”

Ahhh, I bet that felt much better! And the funny thing is, you were still getting the same point across…just in a more positive way.

Final Thoughts

As the saying goes, old habits die hard! And, unfortunately, for most parents, using negative language is a very old habit.

Right now, it may seem an impossible feat. You ask, repeat, remind, and yell, only to feel nothing but guilt a few moments later. “No,” “don’t,” and “can’t” are a few of your most-used vocabulary words, yet the power struggles remain.

But that’s the very reason why Positive Parenting Solutions came about in the first place! I wanted to meet parents right where they are–in the hardest of places–and give them hope for a brighter, more positive way to parent. 

Yes, you can empower your children with positive language! You can reduce the amount of misbehavior you see every day. And you absolutely can be the positive parent you’ve always dreamed of becoming.

We’re happy to help you every step of the way!

Encouragement vs. Praise: Why the Differentiation Matters

boy riding his bike with parents cheeringboy riding his bike with parents cheering

boy riding his bike with parents cheering

You just tied your 3-year-old’s pigtails, then watched her bounce off toward the sandbox with big plans for a princess castle. In your eyes, she’s simply the best thing since sliced bread. 

“You’re just SO cute,” you tell her when she finds you for a snack. 

Your 9-year-old is a great athlete. His team just won the Little League trophy; thanks, in part, to his home runs. On a celebratory trip to his favorite restaurant, you beam with pride. 

“You’re so good at sports,” you say. “Your team won, thanks to you!”

There’s also your difficult teenager, who’s more like the best thing since moldy bread these days. Regardless, she comes home one day with her best report card yet. You can’t help but jump for joy. 

“I’m SO proud of you. See how brilliant you are?!”

It seems harmless. It even seems good. But when the kind neighbor tells your pigtailed toddler how cute she is and your daughter responds, “I know”–she’s suddenly not quite as adorable. 

When your 9-year-old decides he doesn’t need to practice baseball because he’s already SO good, his skills actually start declining. 

And when your teenager feels overly confident about her intelligence, she’s actually less likely to put in the hard work when classes get tougher.

As you may have already seen in your home, compliments and praise can negatively affect our kids. 

Wait, you think. Isn’t sweetness and unabashed cheerleading what Positive Parenting is all about? 

Actually, not at all.

Positive Parenting focuses on empowering our kids, and the best tool for the job isn’t praise; it’s Encouragement. Encouragement is so important that it’s one of the first tools–out of 36–that I teach parents in my online course.

I’ve even compiled a short-list of Encouraging Words and phrases that can be emailed to you for free within minutes so you can start shifting your language!

With Encouragement, you focus your words on the positive action, behavior, or improvement you’d like to promote, rather than on the result. 

For example, the praise, “Good job!” could become a more encouraging, “Wow, your hard work really paid off!” 

And instead of praising your child with, “You’re so amazing at basketball!” you can tie the big win to the dedicated practice that developed those skills: “It’s clear you’ve been practicing–your passing has really improved!”

Encouragement is a more empowering way of providing positive feedback to kids. Essentially, it helps them replicate the skills they need to achieve a similar result in the future.

ProTip: For Positive Parenting Solutions Members, please study/review Step 2: From Complaining to Contributing: Empower Your Kids to be Confident, Capable, and Independent

I realize the line between praise and encouragement may still seem vague, or even unimportant. But that’s why it’s all the more crucial to define.

The differentiation makes a world of difference.

What Is Praise, and Why Is It A Problem? 

Praise is a Reward

These days, kids are rewarded for many things: M&Ms in exchange for using the potty, dessert for eating veggies, and even money for making good grades

While praise isn’t a material possession like cash, a new toy, or even ice cream, it offers the same quick hit of satisfaction. Although it feels really good to receive, the effects of praise don’t necessarily last long and are even weakened over time.

The views your self-conscious tween received on his Instagram video, for instance, left him on a high for a solid week. But now his feelings of insecurity have returned. His new goal is even more views, and that cycle will continue.

Some parents praise incessantly, making the reward of the praise less meaningful. Others praise rarely, forcing children to yearn for recognition. 

In either case, offering steady Encouragement for children’s efforts is preferable. It forces kids to see the depth of their actions and to appreciate internal effort more than external outcomes.

Praise is Superficial, Regardless of Its Intent

Your 7-year-old daughter loves it when you compliment her drawings. She spends all afternoon coloring and constantly asking your opinion. 

“What do you think about this one?” 

“Do you like my unicorn, Mommy?” 

But when you become too busy on a conference call to compliment her unparalleled artistry, she loses all interest. She is performing for praise rather than simply drawing because she enjoys it.

Praising our children’s talents may feel natural or even required, but it usually doesn’t focus on their determination or their love of an activity. 

Think about it. We don’t want our children to do things just to impress us or to be noticed. Quite the contrary; we want them to do things because they are passionate about them. 

It’s normal for kids to want recognition and approval, and they need to know they are supported and loved. But a 12-year-old learning karate just to please his parents and hear their praise–and not because it brings him joy–may not pursue martial arts in the long run. It may even become something he dislikes. 

If we want to help our kids focus on what is meaningful to them, praise is an unhelpful distraction.

quote on happiness

Once again, praise rewards results. It doesn’t celebrate the activity itself. This is true even if the intention of praise is to make kids feel good and happy. It’s also true when the compliment is sincere. I mean, it could be a very beautiful unicorn. But that isn’t the point.  

When your daughter shows you her make-believe drawing, try helping her find her own satisfaction in her work. An encouraging phrase might sound like:

“It’s fantastic that you enjoy drawing so much. What do you like to imagine while you color your unicorn?” 

Or, “You put a lot of effort into this picture! What’s your favorite part?”

encouraging words download

Praise Focuses on the Doer–Not the Deed

Your ten-year-old just decided to take out the trash. Is he feeling guilty, or does he want something? you wonder in suspicion. 

When you ask him about it and he replies, “I just thought I’d take out the trash because it was really full,” your jaw hits the floor. 

You are the best ever!!,” you say. And you really mean it. 

Recognizing kids for good deeds is the right thing to do. But the way in which we do so is equally–if not more–important. 

Your son shouldn’t be placed on a pedestal just for taking out the trash. Sure, it’s great–but it’s not amazing. However, he should be encouraged for his actions and the impact that small effort made.

“Thanks for taking a few moments to take out the trash. It helped to have an empty bin while I was cleaning out the fridge!”

Encouraging good behavior through kind, reinforcing words creates the desire to repeat those actions and recreate the feelings coinciding with them. 

Maybe you do believe your son is the kindest kid ever–and he probably is pretty great. But if you tell him so, he might think his kindness comes naturally. And if that’s the case, where is the desire to work harder on his generosity?

Praise Decreases Internal Motivation and Confidence

We want to impart our love to our children and to ingrain confidence. After all, it’s important to raise kids with conviction in their beliefs, their behavior, and their abilities. 

Many of us attempt this by complimenting our children in one way or another. We don’t want it to go to their heads, of course, but we also feel they’ll encounter enough self-doubt and obstacles in life to balance our praise. 

It may feel right to tell your daughter how smart she is. After all, you know she’ll one day compare herself to her very accomplished peers. It may feel natural to tell your son he’s beyond athletic, despite his occasional awkwardness on the field. 

To a certain extent, this is fine. But repeatedly complimenting our children, whether it’s on their special abilities, physical looks, or general traits, doesn’t actually benefit them. 

Research by developmental and social psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck backs this up. Her studies show that praise statements affect children’s motivations by instilling fixed–rather than growth–mindsets. 

Students with fixed mindsets aren’t as willing to work as hard as those with growth mindsets. 

Praise also leans towards the idea of perfection. Whether or not it’s exaggerated (“You’re just the best daughter EVER!” or “You’re the smartest boy I’ve ever met!”), praise is hard to live up to. The fear of failure becomes an imposing factor.

When we want our kids to feel confident in their abilities, we can encourage them by promoting positive behaviors that help them further their skills. “Sticking to a music practice schedule has really made a difference. You seemed so sure of yourself at your concert!”  

We can provide encouragement in all aspects of their personal development: their pursuit of knowledge, their hobbies, and their generosity towards family, friends, and community

If we focus on encouraging even the smallest steps in a positive direction–like volunteering at an animal shelter, baking cookies for a sick friend, or working a little harder on an essay–they’ll feel good about their choices and be more likely to repeat the process. 

Kids that lack praise won’t think they’re perfect, nor will they lack confidence. With proper encouragement, they’ll understand that actions and efforts are the true sources of success and fulfillment.  

The Best Ways to Use Encouragement 

Encouraging children in place of praise might take some practice. After all, we all use a little praise now and again. Still, the following guidelines can help keep encouraging statements on track:

Remember to Commend Positive Actions

A big part of preventing bad behavior is to reinforce good behavior when we see it. 

Whether kids are still early in their childhood development or older teenagers leaving the nest, encouraging their positive actions makes a deep, lasting impact.

When a toddler uses his words to explain his frustration with his older sister (rather than smack her, like last time), you can hug him and say, “What a great job expressing your feelings! It makes sense why you’re frustrated.”

Even if it seems sophisticated for a toddler, he’ll understand that what he did (and chose not to do) was correct. 

If your teenager decides to study the night before a big exam–instead of going to a high school party–you can encourage her wise choice. “I know you wish you could be at the party tonight, but you should be proud that you took this extra time to learn the material.”

Keep Your Encouragement Effective by Avoiding This Mistake

While Encouragement can be a super powerful strategy for strengthening your kids’ internal drive toward positive behaviors, there’s one common mistake parents make that renders the tool nearly useless. It’s called piggybacking, and it’s a common and easy trap to fall into. 

To your kids, a piggybacking statement feels more or less like an “I told you so.” 

Let’s say your daughter has some new friends you don’t approve of. They don’t seem very caring–they even seem prone to causing trouble. You decide to warn her, gently, that they may not be the best choice in friends. Naturally, she doesn’t listen. 

One day, months later, she comes home crying–she and her new friends had a falling out. Her new crew thought it would be funny to shoplift, and your daughter bravely spoke out against it. 

You’re very proud and tell her she made the right decision by speaking out against their actions. You know that must have been hard to do. 

You’ve just successfully encouraged her. However, you can’t help but add one more thing… 

“You know, I did tell you to be wary of those girls. I wish you had listened to me.”  

What would have left your daughter feeling positive and empowered has now left her undermined.

As tempting as it was to remind her that you DO know what you’re talking about every once in a while, it weakened the Encouragement you just offered like a small jab to the gut. 

Although she had to learn the hard way, your daughter did come to the right conclusion. Encouragement should focus on–and stop at–that fact alone.

Keep the Word “I” Out of Encouragement

One final watch-out as you begin to use Encouragement. While we do have the power to wield Encouragement, the tool isn’t about us. 

Just as Encouragement focuses on the deed and not the doer, Encouragement should only relate to our children. It should not be about us or our feelings.

Seemingly harmless phrases like, “I love how you play the piano with such emotion” or, “It makes me feel proud when you put in so much effort” take the intended focus away from Encouragement. 

It’s not about what makes us proud or what we enjoy. It’s about helping our children feel growth and satisfaction. 

Some example phrases could be:

“You must feel so proud of your progress!”

“You play the piano in such an expressive way!”

“Wasn’t it fun using your imagination–instead of instructions–to build that LEGO set?”

Otherwise, like that sweet 7-year-old, they’ll never stop asking if we like their unicorns. 

Final Thoughts

When it comes to giving our kids a pat on the back, a quick “good job” or “you’re a rockstar” just doesn’t cut it.

Unlike superfluous praise, Encouragement goes much deeper. It motivates a child internally to demonstrate positive behavior and to value things like hard work, improvement, teamwork, and perseverance.

Let’s help our children discover their limitless potential for their own benefit–not ours.

Positive Parenting can’t be defined by just one word or one action. It’s a series of parenting choices we make every day in our parenting lives.

Being familiar with Encouraging Words and Phrases–and employing them regularly–is one of the best ways to keep Positive Parenting on the right track! 

5 Tips to Help Kids Develop The Kindness Advantage

A Guest Post from Amanda Salzhauer & Dr. Dale Atkins

Do you ever remember hearing a friend or relative complain that their kids are too kind? 

No, neither do we.

Kindness is one of those qualities that we can never have enough of.

There are so many reasons that kindness is important. At its essence, kindness allows us to develop awareness of and sensitivity to others. Having concern for others and being able to show that concern through our thoughts and actions helps us feel connected to the people and world around us.

When we use the word kindness, we are referring to several, specific behaviors. Let’s think of them as the “kindness-ecities”: 
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