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A mother’s recent query: “My three-year-old son is driving me crazy! Yesterday at the store when I wouldn’t let him take a package of cookies he wanted he screamed so loud I had to take him outside. Everything I ask him to do starts a fight and I’m the one who gives in. I don’t try to make him do things because I’m afraid of the reaction I will get. Is this what’s called a power struggle? What do I do about it?”

My answer: This IS called a power struggle and you’re losing. But in the long run your son is the big loser.

Fear of discipline is one of the most common parenting problems I see today.

I meet parents who are not comfortable in their parenting role or have no confidence in their parenting skills or find it very difficult to discipline their children.

Some parents had been treated harshly, or actually abused, by their parents. Determined not to treat their children the same way, they overreact and never correct their children at all.

Some simply lack parenting skills. These are usually first-time parents who didn’t do much baby-sitting and are not sure which end of a child is up. They manage pretty well until the baby gets to be a toddler. Then children reach a developmental stage when oppositional behavior is not only normal but necessary to their growing-up.

Some of these parents are mothers employed outside the home who feel guilty about their work status. They are reluctant to discipline the children because of their guilt. “How can I come down on the kids when I’ve deprived them of a mother at home all day long?”

Some parents truly believe that all children are vulnerable and will feel deprived of parental love if discipline is applied. Such misguided parents can be found trying to reason with a two-year-old.

The solution to becoming an “in-charge” parent is to look within and find out where you’re at. If you need knowledge, take a parenting class or hit the library. If you lack parenting self-esteem or confidence, get counselling. You have already made an important first step. You know you have a problem and are asking what you can do about it.

Every young child must know the parent is in charge. Why? Because young children have not been on the planet long enough to understand their own impulses and how to control them. Parents are the very necessary external source of control. If the parent won’t or can’t take charge the child feels, “I am so powerful that even my parents are afraid. My impulses are so strong that terrible things will happen!”

This is terrifying to a young child who is aware of angry thoughts but doesn’t yet know that wishes do not become actions and that impulses can be controlled.

When you feel you understand the source of your problem and are doing something about it, master those techniques that help parents deal with an oppositional child.

Give the child choices whenever you can.

When an issue is non-negotiable, say so and mean it.

Prevent problems whenever possible by avoiding uncomfortable states like fatigue and hunger. For example, don’t take a tired child shopping.

Learn how to use the Effective Command (make eye contact, touch child the on shoulder, use the child’s name, keep the command brief, speak softly but sternly — and don’t say please, it’s not a request).

If your child does something unacceptable, use the Time-out method. Prepare your child for time-out before you start using this technique. Pick the place (a boring place like a dining room chair), get the timer, and tell the child exactly what will happen. If the child needs to be timed out, say “Time-out! The rule is no hitting!” Take the child to the time-out place and keep the child there — with a hand on the shoulder, if necessary, but no eye-contact or attention — for a minute per year of age. When the timer goes off, say, “Time-out is over. The rule is no hitting!”

Handle a tantrum by leaving the child on the floor and walk away. In public pick the child up with its face away from you (I call this the “attention-less hold”) and carry the child out.

Catch your child being good whenever possible and reward with praise and hugs.

Don’t criticize the child, only the behavior. And praise specifically, too. “You put all the toys away; that made me very happy,” is better than, “You’re such a good boy.”

After you feel confident enough to be in charge and learn to use these strategies, you and your child will no longer be locked in a power struggle.

Do not, however, expect all oppositional behavior to cease. It will diminish and you will learn to handle it better but it will not disappear because it is necessary that your three-year-old continue to try out her/his own ideas in order to learn that limits are a part of life.

Limits not only will keep your son from “driving you crazy,” but will help him grow up to be a human being, not a monster who always gets his way.