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Kid Acting Defiant? How Power Reversal Games Can Save You, Without Using Punishment

Powerreversal games

My daughter, Margo (4 1/2), had been acting so difficult for the past few days. Really, annoying her sister and me to the max. Refusing to leave the playground when I needed her to leave. Refusing the shower. Refusing to go to the toilet, even when I knew she was busting. I wasn’t being over-anal either, she was actually driving everyone insane!

On this particular day, Margo was refusing her nap, even though she usually still has one and really needed it that day. I said, “Ok, go out in the other room and wait until I put your sister to sleep.” So, she happily went to the other room and played by herself while I put her sister to bed.

After her sister fell asleep, I went out to Margo and said, “Let’s have a pillow fight!!!

She said, “YEAH!!!!”

We got the pillows out and had an epic pillow fight. I let her hit me really hard with the pillow and let her knock me down. I pretended that I was really weak and that she was very powerful. I fell over and put my arms up over my head in defeat. We were laughing and laughing! When we got tired of pillow fighting. She asked to play a game. I said, “Sure.”

She asked me to play ‘red light, green light‘. We’ve played this game before. She told me to get two pieces of paper and to draw an ‘X‘ on one that means ‘stop‘ and told me to write ‘go‘ in green on the other piece of paper. Every time I held up the ‘X‘, she could not jump. Every time I held up the ‘go‘, she could jump forward. Then she was the one running the game and making me stop or go. Then, she started breaking the rules and we started acting totally goofy. We crumpled up the paper and she made me copy her motions. Stamp on the paper. Jump in the air and stick out your tongue, etc.

For half an hour, she was free to boss me around, 100% and afterwards her mood became delightful.

Of course, I had to make sure I had enough energy to do this. But, do you know what? Once I started playing with her and laughing, I actually had more energy myself! This half an hour of play was an extremely valuable time of connection, not only for Margo, but for myself as well.

It’s not the child who is defiant, it’s their behavior that is defiant! This part is important to remember.

What is a Power Reversal Game?
Power reversal play can be done in very small doses, yet they are extremely effective. Half an hour a week or even five minutes a day if that’s all you have time for.  You can call it ‘present time‘ or ‘connection time‘ or whatever. A power reversal game is any activity that allows your child to be in charge and to be the boss. The best type of power reversal games are ones that are physical in nature, especially if you child is acting aggressive. But, power reversal games can also be done in an imaginative way, such as your child pretending to be a mean mother or father. To some people, this sort of play can seem dangerous, because it may seem that it would give the child the license later to try and boss the parent around when the child really needs to cooperate. But, it’s completely the opposite! If you give a child a high dose of connective play, they will really surprise you later in how well they cooperate!

When should I use power reversal games?
There are many reasons why kids can act defiant, but one of them is because kids get tired of always being told what to do. No matter how hard we may try to let kids have autonomy in their world, upsets and frustrations over the power balance can happen. What often happens is that a child begins to feel like they have no power and they have no say in what they do. This helplessness can make them act defiant or causes them to act very difficult when trying to do simple things, like getting in and out of the car, brushing their teeth, etc. There is no harm done in trying a power reversal game, so long as it’s done without any anger or frustration on the parent’s part. So, one of the first things you can try, when your child is acting difficult, is a power reversal game, to rule out any feelings of powerlessness.

Contingency Games
Contingency games are a slightly different type of play, but can also be incorporated into that specific play time. These types of games means that your child makes something happen. One of my favorite, quick and easy  games is one I play with my kids on the swing. I tell them in a joking way that if they kick me, they’re going to be in the most trouble they’ve ever been in! Then, I turn around, and let them kick me (gently) on the back. I pretend to be shocked and exasperated that somebody kicked me and I turn around and say, “Oh, that’s it, you’re in trouble!” They laugh so hard and ask me to play again and again. Even the kids on the other swings look over as if to say, “I want to play too!” You can even play these games with a baby. For example, if the baby touches your nose, you snort like a pig (without scaring them).

What if your child does not want to stop playing, plays rough, or continues to play after the play is over?
This is when you need to set a loving limit. Tell them that it’s not time to play anymore…(with fair warning of course, they may be really enjoying this time together). What usually will happen is that they will start to cry. If they try to hit you or start getting aggressive, you can gently, yet firmly stop them or hold them back.  The crying that results in this scenario is actually a good thing and is a cry that needed to come out. There is no need to stop the crying. Just let them know that you understand their frustrations and that you are there for them. Let them finish their crying without interruption, it’s all part of the healing process.

I love this list of power reversal games. If you start with the few that I mentioned, plus the ones in this list, you will find that your child will start to make their own games up. You simply have to follow their lead. The only trick is remembering to use these powerful secrets when you find your child acting defiant and you don’t know what to do!

About katesurfs

Kate is an American living in Australia with her husband and two young children. She holds a Masters of Educational Practice and is a high school science teacher by profession, but mostly she stays at home with her children. She is a yoga and meditation teacher, trained through the Art of Living Foundation, a surfer, a vegetarian, and healthy conscious. She is an Aware Parenting
Instructor, as well as a Know Your Child Teacher.

22 Responses »

  1. Thank you. I needed to read this. x

    Reply
  2. I think it’s a great idea and am curious about the goal and long-term effect. I see a constructive suggestion but no indication of the outcome other than to avoid doling out punishment.

    Is it really more about breaking the pattern and changing the parent’s behavior so we WANT to be around our child or is it about changing the child’s behavior? If the latter, how was her behavior the rest of the day after the power change? Did this change of control center her and make her more agreeable?

    I can see doing this once in a while. But at what point do we need to use more direct parenting to let a child know that the defiant behavior is unacceptable? If we did this too many times would the child find positive reinforcement in his/her behavior. (Act like a brat = Mom will surrender control and fun with me.)

    I’m not trying to be harsh… I’m just trying to understand. Thanks!

    Reply
    • I understand what you’re saying. You definitely need to place limits on the amount of playing and the playing cannot go on forever. But, what maybe you missed about this post is that the thing that is happening is the connection between the parent and the child when the play happens. Often, when a child starts acting defiant, it’s not because they want to act out, it’s because they have an unmet need (either physically or emotionally). If you try it and see, you’ll find that the defiant behavior goes away, with the right amount of connection time. If they don’t want to stop playing, or they go to far with the playing and start hurting you or breaking stuff, a loving limit will usually make them cry, and that will release their pent up frustrations that are making them act out in the first place.

      Reply
  3. I have done the game on the swings with my children and they loved it too! I like the strategy of having a role reversal tool in my toolbox of parenting strategies. Each child is different than I have 1 that is far more aggressive than the other 4 and usually when he acts out it’s because he’s needing some one on one. :). Pinned to my intentional parenting board!

    Reply
    • Yes, for sure, some kids are just naturally more aggressive/physical. For these kids, pillow fights are an aweseome 2 in 1. Connection time and getting that frustration out!

      Reply
  4. I’ve found that when it is time to stop playing a game like this to give my 4-year-old a bit of warning. Saying “We can play for two more minutes, or you can kick me two more times then we need to go” makes a big difference. He might still protest, but he doesn’t melt down.

    Reply
  5. I need to do this with my Dd. She had been driving us up the wall lately refusing everything. ..

    Reply
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  8. Thank you Katesurfs!! Loved the list of power reversal games, too.. very handy to have.

    Reply
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  11. so with the pillow fights- the parent is gentle or if the kid likes being knocked over is this the way to go? Sorry I never really know ‘how’ to play and it gets out of hand!

    Reply
    • I think as long as no one is getting hurt and the play is respectful of everyone’s body. Also, as long as everyone is laughing. Maybe get them to play along being rough. Like pretend to hit him hard enough to get knocked over, and they can pretend to fall. If that makes sense?

      Reply
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  14. Seems to me that what the child really needed was just one on one time with her parent.

    Reply
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  16. I enjoyed this sharing very much. Really good tips that I struggle alot. Hope this year is going to be a Love and Peaceful Year. Wish you and your family a Fabulous Year of 2016. Thank you for sharing your passion.

    Reply
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